ALTHOUGH I am the slovenliest of housewives, there was nevertheless a whispering demand to spring clean. The bookcase squatted reproachfully in the corner, its shelves a zigzag of hardbacks, softbacks, brochures and manuals. The case itself is a straightforward oak-effect pine with bevelled edges, a gift from my parents who thought our living room would benefit from more storage. As if a full wall of bookshelves wasn’t enough. Within moments I had transferred a pile of books from a makeshift coffee table: one shelf complete. For a few weeks the three remaining shelves were pleasingly empty. And then like those 1970s Angel Delights that suddenly swelled into being, the bookcase was suddenly full and desperately in need of tidying.
A quick count reveals 67 books which include Claire Harman’s superb biography of Charlotte Bronte, David Walliams’s Mr Stink and a 1970s original of Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed. Adding ballast are the hardbacks, their covers still glossy: Russia in the Age of Peter the Great and Attenborough’s Life of Mammals. A scrappy sudoku puzzle book nestles beside a Lonely Planet guide to Iceland (unvisited).
And now the bookcase sits in the corner, a muddle of genres with no organisational coherence at all. When one of the children asks if we’ve got a copy of Stig of the Dump I leap in delight and say Yes! But where to find it? I search in the bedroom shelves, in the living room bookcases, in the study but can’t locate it. I’ve seen it somewhere, on the bottom right of a shelf, but which one? I excavate it eventually from the pile next to my bed. The spring clean whisper turns to a bellow: organise, arrange and for goodness sake take some books to the converted telephone box at the end of the lane.
But how? I couldn’t possibly contemplate any sort of colour co-ordinated scheme, nor turn all the books around and store them spine inward as a recent interior fad dictated. But surely it must be possible to organise along subject lines: history, the natural world, travel and so on. Or at the very least to separate fiction from non-fiction.
And yet . . . to achieve this would require the removal of all books from all shelves in the house and the assemblage of volumes into subject areas. This little bookcase would be too small to contain ‘war’ or ‘fiction’, but too big for ‘philosophy’ or ‘wellbeing’. And just think of the dust.
I sit and contemplate our muddled bookshelf and such a joy rises in my heart that I can do nothing more than pull out a book and read. I used to edit magazines during the period when the internet was coming on stream. I remember Nicholas Coleridge, former head honcho at Condé Nast, saying the internet would allow us to pursue our own interests, responding only to those inputs we make. A magazine on the other hand, takes us by surprise and presents articles we didn’t know we wanted to read.
The same applies to a muddled bookshelf. Not even I knew I wanted to read The Hot Zone, a terrifying description of an Ebola outbreak, or Gore Vidal’s Julian. But I do! The inherent promise that a messy bookshelf offers is the cause of this upswelling of joy. In this modest bookcase rests extraordinary wisdom. Russia in the Age of Peter the Great! It’s just lying there patiently waiting to impart its knowledge to any who remove it from the shelf. And here is Samuel Pepys’s diary – all of it! And next door The Concise 48 Rules of Power – what wisdom, just waiting. As Cicero understood so beautifully: ‘For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.’
Like Mole, I say: ‘Hang spring cleaning’. I pull out a paperback, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo, curl up and read.