“Books do furnish a room.” I’ve used this expression while making a small sigh of pleasure, having corralled my collection into various shelves and bookcases, instead of leaving them piled up by my bed. I’ve seen it on Instagram, a space where reading has become performative, and certain groups of users post book pictures as dogmatically as wellness gurus share yoga selfies. But I’d not, until recently, really thought about where it came from.
The phrase seems to have originated with Anthony Powell – or rather, with his fictional creation, the hack Lindsay Bagshaw, who uses it to mock pretentious collectors. In the London Review Of Books, Michael Wood writes: “Bagshaw knows that books are not furniture, but his jokes and his career suggest an easy understanding of all the people who can’t imagine what else books would be.”
Bagshaw and his creator might find an unlikely ally in the decluttering superstar, Marie Kondo. In her Netflix programme, she suggested that readers get rid of finished books, or books they are unlikely to finish. “There is no meaning in them just being on your shelves,” she stated.
Predictably, the citizens of the internet were horrified. They were not placated by Kondo’s suggestion that they rip out the pages that “spark joy”. Won’t someone think of the charity shops? Poor Oxfam will be left selling copies of The Complete Works Of Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene missing, or baffling editions of Lord of the Rings where Gollum seems unexpectedly mellow.
I have a personal stake in everyone ignoring Kondo’s advice, because I host a podcast called You’re Booked, where I go to authors’ houses and examine their bookshelves for cues and clues about the life they’ve lived. If book decluttering really takes off, I’m not sure how we will continue, frankly. It helps that many of my guests are authors, which means they are constitutionally incapable of throwing out a book without feeling a twisting, twinging sensation in their soul.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you didn’t get on with a novel, you will have the deepest respect for the work of the person whose name is on the cover if you too have stared at a screen while weeping and refreshing a word count on a rainy Thursday afternoon.
While I reluctantly give away some of my books – it’s that, or only being able to leave my flat with the aid of a crane – I simply can’t agree with Kondo. The books we display are full of meanings that go far beyond printed words. My guest Andy Miller, the author of The Year Of Reading Dangerously, challenged himself to read 50 books in a year, after realising that even though he worked with books, he never made time to read them.
Many of these books are canonical classics, but by displaying them together he shows that the collection is even greater than the sum of its parts. His collection represents that life-changing challenge, and that year of his life.
Nina Stibbe showed me a tattered, loved copy of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ and remembered that when she was a teenager in the Eighties, everyone was infected with Mole fever. At the time, she couldn’t stop a bit of Mole-ishness creeping into her letters. It was its author Sue Townsend who made her believe that you were allowed to be funny and irreverent and childish, and that those things did not preclude you from becoming an adult, or a writer.
Cathy Rentzenbrink has a copy of Pride And Prejudice which has survived every single house move she has been through since she was 15. The cover is now ripped to about an inch square. The novel is about family and love – but that physical book is now about her own a lifetime of despair and joy; it’s travelled thousands of miles, and witnessed her saddest and happiest days.
Surely there is meaning in knowing that it doesn’t matter how rough life becomes, Mr Collins is still sitting on our shelves, being a bore about Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and isn’t it wonderful that he isn’t real or hoping to marry any of our loved ones?
Even though the stories themselves are usually where the magic is generated, and the inspiration is sourced, books become totemic. When I’m looking at a shelf, it’s thrilling to notice the books that seem especially battered, touched and loved. Books are messy because they contain multitudes. Every time we pick one up, we’re adding to the story.
Initially, I wanted to make You’re Booked because I think the way we read is changing, and I was getting increasingly grumpy about people pretentiously Instagramming their “difficult” novels, turning the verbal visual, and showing off. But the podcast has shown me that we can generate joy, solace and peace by constructing ourselves with our shelves. Our books don’t simply add depth, texture and interest to our walls – they’re furnishing our souls too.
But I’ve also discovered that our books betray us in the best way possible. We might think our guests clock the Dickens or the Tolstoy, and are thus forced to acknowledge our intellectual prowess. But everyone really notices the worn, slightly yellowed Douglas Adams or Jilly Cooper. The chances are, their reaction won’t be snobbish, but delighted, as they are instantly transported back to the point in their life when they first picked up their own copy, and are reminded of their own youth, hopefulness and curiosity.
Daisy Buchanan is the host of You’re Booked. Series one is available from all podcast providers now. Series two begins on 21 January
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