John Walsh: Don't dare come between me and my books


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Alexander McCall Smith has caused a Twitter storm by ruminating on the impossibility of throwing out books when shelf space becomes limited. Tell me about it, Al. There's no logic to the bibliophile's anal-retentive passion for books he's had for ages.

Look at this tattered Bantam paperback copy of Gil Blas, a picaresque novel by Alain-Rene LeSage published in 1717. Why did I buy it? Can't remember; possibly under the impression it might be a French Tom Jones. Will I ever read it? No. Is it a thing of beauty? No – spine knackered, cover torn, print terrible. Has it Intrinsic Value? No, it's still worth 10p, or less. So why not throw it in bin? I. Just. Cannot.

I know the day will come when I'll need some detail about the early 18th-century French picaresque novel, and will kick myself if I don't have Gil bloody Blas to hand.

No book on your shelves is so arcane, so out of date, so unreadable, so battered that you can't make an argument for keeping it. Scores of mine have survived changes of address: I and several sweating henchmen have carried them in tea chests from study to removals van, then from van to new study, to install them, pointlessly, on new shelves, from which they will never be plucked to be read.

They are owned but unloved, like awkward, live-in relatives. So why are they still here? Why do I keep Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist? (I can't stand it.) Why three copies of Ulysses? (But you can't throw out Ulysses. And giving it to Oxfam would feel disrespectful.)

McCall Smith also asked followers to suggest how best to arrange books on shelves. Well, to do it alphabetically by author is boringly relentless. To arrange them by Fiction and Non-Fiction is too doctrinaire. To arrange them alphabetically by title is ridiculous (you'll have a mile of "The" books.) I like the idea (from Daunt's shops) of sorting books into countries: it means that all German novelists, poets and philosophers, all biographies of Nietzsche or Dietrich, all Second World War books and all works of furtive porn or naked flesh published by Taschen (however did they get here?) end up crowded higgledy-piggledy in the same section.

Really the best arrangement is this: to have one shelf of Books To Read Before You Die, another shelf of Books to Read This Year (Assuming You're Not Dying Just Yet) and a third for Last Chance Saloon Books – which, if you haven't even picked them up, let alone read them, by the end of the year, they'll be out on their ear, French picaresque included. A brutal but effective solution.

Nurse, the screensavers!

When they replaced telephone-bookings staff with voice-recognition, I felt aggrieved ("Did you say you wanted more information about car parking facilities in Acton?"). When airlines made you do your own check-in, my blood boiled. When the checkout ladies in M&S were edged out by check-out machines, my blood boiled. But the virtual nurse is the last straw.

"Elizabeth" is being tried out at Northeastern University, Boston. A black-haired, crudely drawn woman in a lilac top and teal slacks, she has a nervous tic of patting her trouser pocket as if about to produce a gun. I'm sure she'll be a boon to the NHS when introduced here, but I'm not sure how useful she'll be when I fall off my emergency trolley and start bleeding.