The Hardest Cull

Two and a half years ago, when I moved out of the house my ex and I had shared and moved into my tiny flat (bijou, a friend’s dad kindly called it the other day), I left behind my cellar full of history and miscellaneous books with the intention of dealing with them as soon as possible. As it turns out, that wasn’t really that soon at all. Deciding what to do with them has felt impossible. There’s thousands of the blighters, far more than can fit here (I have four bookcases in my flat, always full, always filling up and being culled). Try and sell them? Pay to store them? Pretend they’re not there and hope for the best? Well, the books have finally got their marching orders and I have to actually deal with them right now. It’s only fair, I suppose.

Luckily for my getting better but still tentative mental health (depression has been the major feature of the first half of my 2018), my amazing sister, Lucy, has stepped in to pack up and move the books to my parents, half a dozen boxes at a time. Going back to the house I lived in for 12 years just isn’t an option for me, not now, not ever. With each stack of boxes delivered to mum and dad’s, I can go and sort them and find a way to deal with the scale of the problem. I attacked the first lot last weekend, in the sunny back garden. Lucy suggested I whittle down those I really wanted to keep to one boxful per batch. I’d done something similar with my fiction when I moved, and it was relatively painless. Surprisingly, parting with my history books is proving much harder.

Partly this is because it was easy for me to identify my favourite fic, books I’ve read and re-read and look on fondly as old friends and companions. Riders is always going to be on my bookshelves, along with a stack of Du Mauriers, The Sunne in Splendour, and The Darling Buds of May. It also feels low risk to give away a fiction paperback, they’re easily replaced (especially when you work in the book industry). It’s different with my non-fic – how easy will it be to get hold of another copy of Blood Magic: The Cultural Anthropology of Menstruation if I suddenly need to refer to it again? And I collected so many brilliant, absorbing, downright fascinating texts while I was studying at Birkbeck for my history degree and Masters. And I loved those 5 years unreservedly; I was intellectually challenged and stimulated, constantly learning, and, dare I say, even wrote some pretty good stuff.

And what about the books I collected for my as yet unfinished PhD, how can I abandon them when one day I probably will want to finish writing about women not eating in the long 18th century? And, a topic like that demands I collect a myriad of different books. I need medical history and food history, religious and social, cultural memory and women’s history. I need contemporary literature, art history, anthropology, histories of gluttony and consumption, diaries and household manuals… I need all the books that catch my magpie eye and offer a glimmer of treasure that I can mine and polish, contemplate and weave into the story I plan to tell of ‘my’ women.

So, it’s no easy task. But last week I managed. I kept, amongst others, all the art books and exhibition catalogues that emerged from the boxes, a much thumbed treasures of archaeology book and some books about medieval saints. We found a few texts that were worth selling (Lucy has some app thing, I don’t know, I’m too lazy to deal with eBay or the like), and a lot of falling apart books will go to the charity shop for recycling (some charity shops make a little money selling bags of paper for recycling, my dad volunteers at such a one). I hugged a few of the books – two and a half years is a long time to be separated – and ruefully sacrificed others. It was tough, but I did it. Six more boxes to tackle this weekend. As loathe as I am to get rid of anymore, I am looking forward to seeing what’s in this next lot. Might not be able to sort them in the garden this time though, a storm is raging as I sit and write this and I’m thinking the grass could be a touch damp…

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