I don’t have an office so my writing desk is tucked away in the corner of the living room with plastic tubs filled with papers, old uni files and floor to ceiling shelves of books. A guilty shopping addiction, the books are now double banked and the smothered tomes seem to be creeping into other rooms of the house. Books in the bathroom, books in the kitchen cupboards, books under the bed, books in suitcases, books in the babies’ cots (sorry got carried away there).
So I decide to have a serious overhaul and clear out the lot. Books would only be kept if they matched one of three criteria: sentimental (Little Women), seminal (Catcher in the Rye) and serial (Harry Potter). Everything else is to be boxed up and taken to the Good Sammys. It is hard to do this, as I always had this idea that books were the sum total of yourself, all those philosophies and belief systems packed onto the shelf. The guarantee that if you ever lost your marbles, you could prove that you once knew lots of stuff. Why, books have taught me some very prudent lessons in life. That much thumbed classroom edition of Macbeth with childish comments scrawled in the margins—don’t consult a clairvoyant; The Mill on the Floss—always settle out of court; Lady Chatterley’s Lover—do your own gardening.
Even harder is throwing out books that don’t belong to you: a copy of Shy Georgiana which belonged to my long dead mother, a fragility in the pages and the binding that echoes something of my mother’s troubled childhood—how can I throw that away? Books from my husband’s grandfather, with festering mouldy covers that are kept quarantined from the others on the bottom shelf, but could still contain insights into inherited traits and wisdom, a passing of the baton from a lost generation to the next (or a passing on of incurable diseases?).
There are also books that I keep knowing full well I will never read them, though there is always that eternal hope. But I must be brutal! Will I ever read George’s Perec, Life a User’s Manual? As I toss it into the open box, the endorsement on the cover catches my eye. ‘One of the Great Literary novels of the century’. So back it goes onto the shelf.
As a reader there is a time and a place in your life for certain books. They match emotional journeys and document changes as hairstyles reflect changing tastes in fashion. But like the happy pants from the 80s, some things just have to go. Those that are too easily digestible like refined carbs—gone (The Da Vinci code, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Gone, too, are those books that simply leave a bad aftertaste (Marquis de Sade’s Justine). I almost discard Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking because I tried to read it and failed—I just didn’t connect to it at all. But two of my writing friends who read it during intense times of crisis and personal loss attest to its aching simplicity. Maybe I need to keep this for my own future crises?
Once I start the great cull, the process becomes cathartic and very liberating, even seems to get easier. Into the box goes The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot. Kaput goes It’s Me or the Dog (the dog won). Sayonara to Seven Types of Ambiguity (as if one isn’t enough?). The books left on the shelf are able to breathe freely again, their colourful spines able to stretch out to parade themselves rudely like baboons’ bare bums. And a sense of order slowly returns to my life.
But as I survey the remaining books categorised into nonfiction, plays, short story collections and novels, I have this terrible realisation that there is something missing. For I could see that I only have a smattering of poetry books. I realise that I have been party to the failed poetry economic model, where more people write poetry than buy it. Like every primary-school child and besotted lover, I too, had churned out poems, but never bought enough poetry collections to balance out this equation. So I resolve to go out and buy more poetry!
Eventually the car is loaded and, as I drive off to High Road where there are five charity shops lined up like ducks in a row, I imagine the elderly lady behind the counter and her reaction when she sees my copy of The Horse Whisperer at the top of the box. Oh, thank you, she would whisper hoarsely.
But when I arrive and see the charity bins at the front stuffed and overflowing with donations, I knew the women of Willetton had been Marie Kondo’d, and with a great sigh of resignation I put everything back into the car again where I am sure they will remain for months to come.
Bindy Pritchard is a Perth-based writer, whose short fiction appears in various anthologies and literary journals such as Westerly, Kill Your Darlings and Review of Australian Fiction. Bindy has a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing from Curtin University. Fabulous Lives is her debut short story collection.