In the secret library of my mind, I still own every book I’ve ever bought. Though the hands giveth away, the heart remembers. Even when there are no physical gaps on my shelves to indicate what’s gone, the absence still provokes a certain lurch, like a missing step. I mourn the loss of books which, at the time, I felt certain I’d never actually read, or would never read again; I lament the folly which caused me to get rid of “inessential” works – that is, anything I wasn’t actively planning to reread at the time. I even regret the loss of particular children’s reference books, not for any sentimental reason, but because they’re actually very good starting places for worldbuilding research – or would be, if I hadn’t given them all away.
It’s not as if I make a habit of shedding books. I cling to paperbacks like a baby possum clutching its mother’s stomach. It’s just that, when I do get rid of things, I tend to do it en masse, while under the undue influence of my-room-is-clean-let’s-do-this-thing euphoria. As a kid, I’d take boxes of my old books to the local second hand store, then walk away clutching a whole twenty dollars – which, to a twelve year old, is basically millions. As a teenager, I turfed out a few books before heading to university, then more when my parents moved house. (And then again, to my infinite regret, when my college boyfriend convinced me that the much-loved and complete sets of Garfield, Snoopy and Footrot Flats I’d spent nearly twenty years acquiring were too childish for an adult to keep lugging round.) Every time, I thought I was doing the right thing, and every time, I experienced the same crushing disappointment when, having forgotten my former ruthlessness, I instinctively reached for a book that wasn’t there. Never again, I vowed.
And then we moved to England.
It was the turfout to end all turfouts. To give you some idea of exactly how many books I used to have, before we left, I gave away five boxes of children’s fiction and reference, five of adult works, put another nine boxes aside for safekeeping in Australia, and still had enough books left to fill the twelve boxes that came with us to the UK. I even gave away almost my entire collection of Anne McCaffrey – a decision so foolishly heartbreaking that, for three years afterwards, I managed to convince myself that it had never happened. I only realised the truth this month, when we came back to visit relatives (and to finally reclaim our things) and realised how much I’d thought I’d kept aside was, in fact, missing.
And now, today, it’s my birthday. All month long, I’ve been buying books with birthday and holiday money, stocking up on titles that are rare outside Australia, rummaging through secondhand stores and plotting to once again reconfigure my office when we get home, the better to squeeze in just one more shelf. I’ve even rebought some secondhand McCaffreys, to replace the ones I abandoned. But the real gift I’ve given myself is this: the permission to never, ever get rid of any books again. As a kid, I was able to build a library because I spent my entire childhood in the same, big house with the same, bookish parents. I had stability, space and encouragement, and I used those things to fill my room with dinosaur magazines, books on sharks and castles and the human body and, of course, fantasy novels. I took my library for granted, and so, when the need or opportunity arose, I never thought twice about frittering bits of it away.
But since I’ve become an adult – living in smaller places, packing and repacking my possessions with each new move, living for weeks or months or years with furniture chosen by landlords and not nearly enough storage space – I’ve come to appreciate the immense psychological value of a library. I feel comforted and whole in the presence of books, and always have done, and always will do. Having grown up in a house that boasted reading material in every room, I now find bookless rooms to be cold, unfinished, uncomfortable. Browsing in bookshops calms me down the way tea or coffee calms other people, regardless of whether I end up buying anything. Even when their weight becomes impractical – and even though I now have a Kindle – I always travel with multiple books to hand, partly because I can’t bear the thought of running out of things to read, but mostly because there’s no surer way to make myself feel at home in a hotel room than to put a stack of novels on the nighstand.
And now, finally, I have the same library-spawning privileges I did as a child: a place that’s mine, a supply of shelves, and the sure and certain knowledge that I won’t be moving again for a good, long while. The whole time we’ve been in Australia, I’ve been rounding up the books I left in storage like papery sheep, ready to ship them home with me.. I’m building my new library, and this time, it’s for keeps. In the nineteen days we’ve been here – and without counting Kindle purchases – I’ve bought twenty-two books: an average of more than one day.
Hello. My name is Foz, and I’m a bookaholic.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.