Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

There is nothing more aggravating than looking for a book which you absolutely know is on a shelf somewhere in the house but which has mysteriously disappeared from view the instant you want to lay hands on it.

This happened to me the other day when, having missed half of the BBC's Bleak House, I thought I might fast-forward myself through by re-reading it.

What is even more annoying is discovering in the course of this frantic search that you now have several copies of other books you thought were missing during previous panics. We run the risk of being positively blinded by the Northern Lights, for example, since we have no fewer than three copies of Mr Philip Pullman's masterwork. There are also three copies of Emma, two copies of Pride and Prejudice and two copies of Northanger Abbey. What you might call an Austen Seven.

Meanwhile, two copies of The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford are chasing each other in and out of the collected works of E F Benson and there's a storm-force Wind in the Willows (three copies) blowing through the bookcase on the landing. Add to this two complete sets of the Narnia stories, duplicate copies of some of the Harry Potters (put that one down to sibling rivalry) and three Aeneids (one in English, one in Latin and one in Latin with a simultaneous English translation running on the opposite page. Never mind gifts, I fear the Greeks when they come bearing books).

Another hour of prowling around our bookshelves reveals doubles of Adam Bede, the poetry of Robert Burns and Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis. (Have you ever read his science fiction? It's quite extraordinary. But I digress.) No Bleak House, though. Just Groaning Bookcase House.

This is what will happen now. I will buy a new copy of Bleak House which will no doubt carry a cover illustration from the current serialisation. No sooner will I get it home than I shall immediately stumble over the missing copy, probably bought when Bleak House was last serialised by the BBC 20 years ago (starring Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock and Denholm Elliott as John Jarndyce, if you're interested). And I probably bought that copy - which will probably be illustrated with a glossy still of Dame Diana at her most haughtily Dickensian - because I probably got fed up with missing the odd episode and probably failed to find the book anywhere at home ...

Little wonder there's nowhere to put any more books in our house. We have purges from time to time, of course, which are heartrending affairs, punctuated by shrieks of anguish. "What on earth are you doing throwing out those Stella Gibbons novels? Yes, I know they look tatty, but they're out of PRINT, for heaven's sake!" The children are the worst. "Don't you think you're a bit big for A Bear at Bedtime now, darling? After all, you are at secondary school ..." "Oh, but Mum, he's soooo cuuuuute ..."

We used to give the excess to a local hospital. I would take endless time and trouble sorting out the piles of discarded paperbacks, fondly imagining that some old P D James or R F Delderfield saga would cheer up someone on a long-stay ward and eliminating things like Horse and Pony Breeds or Caring for Your Cat in case they were asthmatic and allergic to animals or had been forced by illness to give a much-loved pet away. Then someone at the hospital scuppered this romantic notion by telling me that they didn't give the books to thepatients - good grief, no, the very idea - but sold them to be pulped. These days, our old books get recycled at school jumble sales.

We could sell them, of course, except that unless you've got first editions or (unsigned) hardbacks, no self-respecting dealer will give you the time of day. Someone told me about a website called Green Metropolis which buys and sells your old books and makes a donation to the Woodland Trust, but like Winnie the Pooh (three copies), I'm a bear of little brain and I couldn't quite make out how it worked or summon up the mental energy to embark on such a process. I mean, what do you expect from someone who possesses two versions of The Idiot?

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