Two years ago we had a major refurbishment and extension carried out in the house, involving work to every room. We emptied the whole place and moved out for the duration of the build. All our books were packed into boxes and moved to the attic. The room which had previously housed them was being turned into a bathroom, so we drew up great plans for built-in shelving to accommodate them in the ‘new’ house.
However, budgetary constraints meant that the shelving plans had to be, er, shelved. After four and a half months, we moved back in, thrilled with the new-look house. But the books stayed where they were.
During the intervening two years, I’ve been quietly fretting about them. Were they being destroyed by damp or mould, nibbled to shreds by rodents? Fear of said rodents prevented me from visiting them in their attic prison to check on their welfare.
Last weekend, we finally set them free. A carpenter had built three MDF shelf units for us and we had spent the previous two weekends painting them in readiness (two coats of primer and two of eggshell – who knew it was so much work?). Father and son were despatched to the attic to drag down the dust-covered boxes.
What a joy it was to open those boxes and reacquaint myself with so many old favourites. Most of the fiction is mine, and I loved nerdishly arranging it alphabetically on the new shelves, from Adams to Zusak. Each box brought back a memory. There was The Passion, the first Jeanette Winterson I read, given to me by a book-loving, bookselling old flame. He also introduced me to the unforgettable character of Ignatius J. Reilly, star of A Confederacy of Dunces, one of my all-time favourite books. A very short-lived interest in science fiction was represented by a few John Wyndham titles, the first of which I picked up at the second-hand book stalls I used to visit on London’s South Bank. I was slightly horrified to discover that I own not one, but four – four! – novels by Tony Parsons. However, my inner literary snob was consoled at the sight of all the Paul Auster and Ian McEwan books – two of my favourite writers.
Some books seemed to be missing. Where was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, memorably and incisively critiqued by an ex-member of my bookclub with the harrumphed words “Lesbian this, lesbian that, lesbian the other”? I’m sure I own a copy of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen but did not come across it either. I began to have dark thoughts about the people who may have borrowed these and other titles and failed to return them. However, as I read lots of books without actually buying them, it’s possible they were never mine in the first place.
Job completed, I stood back to admire the filled shelves. They looked great, and made the house look better too. Glancing through the TV pages, I discovered there was a whole evening of programmes on the BBC marking World Book Night – a fitting way to end the day.
With time running out this month to track down our next bookclub book, Cutting for Stone, or to order it online, I have downloaded it to my husband’s new iPad. It’s a great novelty, my first time to read a book electronically, and it won’t be the last I’m sure. But it won’t keep me out of bookshops, and the great discoveries to be made by browsing within.
We’ll just have to build more shelves.