We had not been planning to live together. One minute we were salivating outside estate agents' windows, the next we were sitting in a café calculating service charges. We'd found a jaw-dropping roof-house in an Extreme Makeover area, King's Cross in London, the only snag being its unforgiving design ethic of stark white minimalism and glass walls - not conducive to the care and protection of beloved old books. Only one room could be shielded from the relentless glare of daylight, so that would be where the library lived.
Condensing two cluttered properties into one, when both of you own enough books to provide Hay-on-Wye with a satellite town, was never going to be easy. Books, we realised with horror, would have to be abandoned, and not just one or two at a time - whole strands and themes, entire oeuvres needed to die. We had far too many anyway, we told each other, collecting was a sickness, we never opened half of them. The culling process should be easy.
Shelves were ordered, but only enough to keep the lines of the room. In my old house I sat surrounded by wobbly stacks, shifting them from tables to eat, piling them beside my bed until I was in danger of being buried alive. Now they were to become just another part of a home, like the music or the DVDs.
"We'll take them all with us, then decide," I said. "First, we'll remove the duplicates." Pete, my partner, sat on the floor and began opening boxes. The dog-eared student texts, from Chaucer to Günter Grass, were all doubled, so they went. We stopped worrying about the subtleties of different editions because we were readers, not collectors. Out went spares of Shakespeare, Balzac, Hesse, 20th-century poets. Practical choices were made - we dumped the gardening books because we no longer had gardens. For a while the process remained polite, and even developed a peculiar kind of quid pro quo. "No," I insisted, "you keep your African authors, they mean something to you, but I'll hang on to my British theatre histories because I might need the research." Being an author, I could unashamedly pull rank.
Arguments developed over specific classics. "Are you honestly telling me you'll ever finish Tristram Shandy?" he asked. "Or re-read Vanity Fair?" "All right," I agreed, "but Moby Dick goes because it's turgid." With that remark, matters of personal taste were introduced and the gloves came off. "Of all the Wyndham Lewis books you could keep, you want to hang on to The Apes of God? It's unreadable!" "What about Henry James, then? Long-winded and full of commas!" "Nobody needs a full set of P G Wodehouse, too much white middle-class humour." "Fine, then your horribly twee Armistead Maupin books go." At least there was never an argument about Dickens, Woolf or Waugh, although the latter's sneery diaries were binned. Biographies were deemed largely dispensable. Couldn't authors be remembered through their own words?
There were still not enough shelves, even though they ran to the ceiling. We needed to carry out some tougher editing. I kept Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday but released The Napoleon of Notting Hill, saved a place for Hamilton's Hangover Square but bid adieu to Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky. J G Ballard and Flann O'Brien survived, Larry Niven and James Joyce went. "You can buy Iain M Banks anywhere," I pointed out. "We should only keep the harder-to-find books." "By that criteria we'll be keeping plenty of your own novels," came the terse reply.
We dug in our heels about touchstone texts. "I'm keeping The Origin of Species because Americans are advocating Intelligent Design and we need it to counterbalance the Bible," said Pete. Friends became involved, poking through crates of discarded books in dismay. "You're abandoning your identity," one warned. "These books are what make you you. Nobody else I know has all 10 volumes of the Arthur Mee Children's Encyclopedia." She leafed through one. "Look, how to make macramé pot-holders for Empire Day."
I noticed I was hanging on to some very strange choices. The worthy books that we felt required to keep had been discarded in favour of guilty pleasures. The Pan Books of Horror, Spider-Man and The Films of Norman Wisdom had inexplicably been deemed more valuable than Proust. Ultimately, the new truncated library that emerged was every bit as idiosyncratic - perhaps more so - than the old one, and a damned sight more enjoyable.Reuse content