I sorted out my books over Christmas. It had been a job looming for years, as I moved from one house to another watching them get steadily more disorganised, spending more and more time looking for titles I knew I had somewhere, and never knowing quite where in the muddle to shelve new acquisitions. But the point came when my study was a room big enough for most of my work books, and there wasn’t much else left that needed sorting.
I knew it would be bad. But I hadn’t anticipated quite how long it would take. Each shelf was a major operation. Which books should go together, how should I arrange the groups around the room, what should I dispose of and what keep? And for those that didn’t fit in the room but I wanted to keep, where in the house should they go – and which would those be? Those seemed obvious questions, if answering them was harder than I’d imagined.
But there was so much more. These days we research online, but it wasn’t so long ago that being a journalist (even a part-time one) meant it was helpful to keep press cuttings – that’s bits of paper, for younger readers. I found bits of paper everywhere, slotted into books and magazines, in folders, in old press packages or just stuffed in amongst the shelved books. And not just press cuttings, but letters, notes and scraps of essays. As part of my mission was to reduce the library to a size where it could all be shelved (I was fed up with tripping over piles of books in the dark), getting rid of these cuttings was an imperative. But I couldn’t just bin them. Maybe there was something important there. I had at least to glance at them. And anything I read brought back memories I’d forgotten to remember – or equally left me wondering why on earth I’d kept the cutting, or why I wrote something?
Other worlds came pouring off the shelves. So much stuff I’d acquired as a student, even as a child. There were papers and notebooks I’d filled at a rainforest conference in Washington. Fat files of notes and photocopies accumulated when I’d written books. Diaries from the south Pacific. Leaflets from exhibitions I’d gone to in London 40 years ago. It soon became clear that I wasn’t just sorting books: I was working out my personal intellectual journey. In several cases, I found more than one copy of the same title bought years apart and in different places. Remembering, checking, discarding, cleaning (all that dust), shelving, re-ordering… it wasn’t just a physical task, but an emotional one too.
So how wonderful to complete it! Immediately it seemed to clear my head, and facilitate new writing (though I’m still learning the details of my new arrangement). I’ve come to value something I would have thought very odd before, that you can see in the top photo: space on the shelves (though I confess the spaces are really smaller than that one, which I created for the effect).
I found so many things I love, I’m going to post a selection here over the next few weeks. Here’s a start, a little arrangement that came together on its own, that’s not in the study. Note the small book by archaeologist Louis Leakey on the right: a thought-provoking study of the Mau Mau problem in Kenya written when he was there, which I found in a shop in Cheltenham.