When the literati come to party, it's time to clean up your bookshelves

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

I've discovered an exciting new form of employment. It's not exactly lucrative – in fact, it doesn't pay anything at all – but it's weirdly satisfying for the insights it gives you into the lives of others. It started when my friend Bella said she was planning a party. After years of working for an international agency, where she looked after mostly TV writers, she's gone solo and wanted to invite several author acquaintances and publishers to her fashionable Bermondsey flat in the hope of making new clients, contacts and customers. The power of her former agency's name guaranteed that they'd come.

But a slight potential embarrassment nagged at her heart – she couldn't be sure how her library would look to the outside world. She knew, as we all know, how your collection of books can say terrible things about you. She'd dealt with the publishing world for years, but through the medium of an office. She'd never had the books on her shelves inspected by the cruelly all-seeing, judgemental eyes of the literary crowd.

"I can't bear to think of Ed Victor finding something incredibly naff in there," she said, eyes widening with alarm. "Or of Jonathan Coe pulling out a novel, leafing through it and shaking his head with incredulity." Can you, she asked, have a look at it for me?

So I was signed up to edit her library. I had to re-jig it, alphabeticise it, eliminate the once-trendy, excise the cheesy and ill-advised, and bring together all the books that had been lying for years in bedroom, lavabo and kitchen and behind the sofa. My function was like that of Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables, until no trace of Paulo Coelho remained.

I had no qualifications of any kind for being a Home Library Adviser, so I made up the rules on the spot. "Bella," I said, "these pots will have to go. And the alabaster ashtray." She is one of those people whose bookshelves are broken up, spatially speaking, by objets d'art from holidays in Marrakesh, cacti from New Mexico, miniature paintings from Kyoto and charming glass fish from Murano. "Bookshelves," I told her sternly, "are for books only."

The dog-eared paperbacks had to go as well ("This is a mature, middle-class library," I told her crossly, "not a student-squat bookshelf made from planks and breezeblocks.") No children's books, either. No reference books, which should live handily by your desk. And poetry should have a section to itself. Likewise travel... Hey! Inventing the Rules of the Modern Library from scratch like this was a piece of cake!

I got to work, removed every hardback book from her shelves, arrayed them across the carpet and began the winnowing process. Abominations that seemed a good idea in the 1970s (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Happy Hooker) were consigned to the attic, along with works overtaken by history, whether cultural (Dancing Into History: the Triumph of Seona Dancing), political (The Soviet Empire in the 21st Century), or technological (So You Want To Be a Dirigible Pilot?). I thought it tactful to remove the books with titles like Sex and Ageing, Living With Cystitis and Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. I quietly removed a study of Hitler's compassionate side by David Irving, and silently slid Bella's husband's copy of The Big Book of Breasts under the sofa until after the party. Then I nipped off to a handy bookshop to find some up-to-the-minute volumes.

It took hours, but a thing of beauty emerged. The knick-knacks had gone, the medical and psychological advisory stuff was hidden, the Dan Brown novel ("I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about," Bella wailed) was in the wheelie-bin with Naomi Campbell's Swan and Katie Price's Crystal.

Now, a perfectly acceptable culture-vulture's library, from Peter Ackroyd to Banana Yamamoto, gleamed from the shelves. A new biography of Garcia Marquez dominated the middle part, cover turned towards the casual browser, while Stepping Stones, the new Faber collection of conversations with Seamus Heaney, lay on Bella's coffee-table with a bookmark at page 397... It was fine. The literary world could scrutinise until they were blue in the face, without finding anything to take the piss out of. "Thank you," said Bella, "you've saved me from mortification. You are a cultural superhero." It was nothing, I said; all in a day's work for Adjust-Your-Library Man.

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