I was having a conversation about books (no surprise there) on Twitter over the weekend, and it veered into the amount of money it’s possible to spend on them when you really get going – and how that compares to, say, a designer handbag. I said, rather glibly, that I’d much rather go book shopping than handbag shopping… and then I started to wonder why.
Let’s start with the obvious. I’m not that fussed about expensive bags or shoes as trophies. They just don’t do much for me. I have one decent handbag, which was a gift (and which I do love. So much so that when it got damaged in the Apple Juice Incident of 2012 – details of which I’m not at liberty to divulge – I might have got a little bit sniffly and uttered the immortal cry of: “This is why I can’t have nice things…”. But moving swiftly on.) and which I use a lot. But I only really need the one good one, don’t I? After all, any others would just sit in a cupboard when they’re not being used. Alone. And, knowing my luck, slowly sinking into a puddle of juice. Christ.
But books don’t do that. I looked around my house, and I saw books. Not as many as I used to have, admittedly: I gave away boxes and boxes of them before we moved. But still, books. And because I straight-out alphabetise them (alas, I haven’t the patience for Dewey), there are books rubbing spines that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as natural companions. John Connolly and Jilly Cooper, for instance… whereas Joe and Will Hill seem like easy shelf-mates. (Me? Oh, I’m next to Erin Morgenstern… and within striking distance of the Michael Marshall/Smiths…)
The thing is, I can see them. And more than that, I remember them. Every time I look at those shelves, I’m not just seeing books. I’m seeing memories.
There, right at the start, is my mother’s collection of Judy Astley books, and her copy of Sam Shepard’s short stories which I know she only bought because she had a thing for him (and rightly so) but which are astonishingly good.
There’s the battered old copy of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, which I’ve read and re-read every Easter since it was published. On the shelf in the bedroom, there’s the copy of How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe which I was reading when my mother died and which made me cry when I reached the last page. There’s the Lud In The Mist I nicked from my parents’ bookshelves when I was little because I liked the cover. The 3 volumes of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship‘s by far the most battered, and actually falls open at the first appearance of Strider (what?).
There’s my beloved copy of Only Forward, signed at the very first convention I ever went to, in Brighton. There’s Chris Fowler’s Disturbia: a book I’ve had since I don’t even remember when, and which I used as a sort of unofficial guide book to London when I moved there for university.
Books by my friends, books by people I’ve never met and most likely never will. Well. Be difficult with Dickens, wouldn’t it?
Books that have made me laugh, books that have made me cry and books that break my heart.
And when I look at those books, I realise why I’d rather have them than a bunch of handbags.
They are memories; pieces not just of their authors’ souls, snapshots of them as they wrote, but pieces of mine.
I remember the first time I read some of them. I remember the times I’ve re-read some of them – and left between their pages like a pressed flower or a leaf or grains of sand from a holiday, there are slivers of my own soul. Versions of me, be they from one, ten or twenty years ago. Who I was when I picked up that book for the first time; who I’ve been since.
There’s a famous Jean Cocteau quote, beloved of cat owners – myself included – that cats are the visible soul of a house.
Perhaps books, whether tidily stacked or jostling for space and piled one on top of each other, are the visible soul of their owner.