Well, I accept that we may have (almost) too many books to fit into this apartment. You don’t work in the business without having some sort of bookish interests, and when there are two of you at work on the habit, the result is a lot of sagging shelves. But get rid of them?! (We need Keith Houston’s interrobang at this point. See Shady Characters here and here.)

I have occasionally speculated on the idea of a sort of external hard drive or back-up for your brain accessed via some brain waves or other. That back-up of course already exists in prototype; we call it the “Internet”. As time goes by the interface between brain and external hard drive will no doubt become smoother and smoother, obviating the need to wake up your iPhone. But of course, those of us with those sagging shelves have long had such capability. I was told at university that the purpose of a university education was not to teach you lots of things, but to teach you how to find out the things you need to know later on. Being stayed by masses of books gives you the means to fulfill that aim. Those who suspect that tertiary education becomes less and less important as access to facts becomes easier and easier should reflect on the fact that learning to navigate information sources, the true purpose of such an education, must only become more and more vital as the amount of information to discriminate amongst explodes.

The books you own display a record of the things you’ve thought important at different stages of your life. When I came to America among my luggage was a good number of books. One I know I’ve never read is One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. The fact that over 40 years later I’ve never read a single word Marcuse wrote doesn’t mean that I never will, and certainly isn’t a reason to discard the book, a reminder of the more activist innocent that I was back then. The Abacus paperback edition set me back 45p! Abacus was an imprint of Sphere Books, which was part of Thomson. It was sold to Pearson in 1985 and was shut down by Penguin in 1990. Fascinatingly this copy, from the eighth printing under Sphere’s aegis (it was originally published by Routledge and Kegan Paul) includes an Erratum slip tipped in to the front of the book indicating that two lines on page 20 should in fact have appeared on page 18. (It would probably cost more than 45p to get this done now!) It always mystifies me how long it takes for glaring errors like this to become known.* I suppose most readers just keep quiet. Nowadays we don’t go out of our way to discover such errors in our books. We just cared more in those days. If a mistake is forced on our attention we’d probably wait for a reprint and hope nobody else noticed. See — if I’d thrown the book out long ago where would all this analysis and reminiscence come from?

In the New York Times Book Review‘s 7 May profile of Penelope Lively, she is quoted as saying “Your books tell you where you’ve been — they’re the story of your own mind. Getting rid of them would be like getting rid of that.” Unsurprisingly she can’t bear to throw away any books even though, at 84, she can’t see the small print in some of them. Now there’s a sensible attitude. If you run out of room for your books, move to a bigger apartment.


* I once had to do a rip and tip on a political science text which contained duplicates of two pages (page 101, say, appeared in its correct location but when you got to page 108 you discovered it was followed by 101 again). To  cure this condition you print up copies of the two pages 109 and 110, cut out the bad ones, leaving a stub in the gutter to which you glue the new leaf. Nothing too surprising in all that — except that I had had charge of the first printing of the book when I was still in the UK, and this meant that it had taken six years for anyone to notice, or anyone who noticed to squeal loud enough for the publisher to pay attention. Lazy student that I was, I always imagined the students happily thinking, “Well, one less page to read”.