I used to have, or rather hoard, a lot of books. Still do, I think, at least by the standards of the average home, but I’m doing my best to get rid. In the last couple of years I have given away hundreds. If the thought of this fills you with horror, then maybe look away from this next part, where I confess that sometimes I even put them in the recycling. Only the really objectionable ones, that I feel I am saving the reader from by taking them out of circulation.
The big book purge began when I decided to go through the shelves and discard any book I was vaguely embarrassed to have in the house, for reasons of quality, subject matter, politics or author (look at your shelves and you probably have your own equivalents). Since then, I’ve been jettisoning them every few months with no regrets. Only twice have I needed to look something up in a book I’ve thrown away, and rebought a cheap secondhand copy.
Some people treat books like totemic, magical objects. I know, I was one. About 10 years ago, my (divorced) parents moved house at around the same time, and gifted me a number of books about which they presumed I might feel sentimental, but which became a sort of albatross in my relationship. When I moved in with my husband, he had very few books, not because he is not a reader, but because he grew up in a Buddhist household, prefers an uncluttered environment and places little value on physical objects. Once he has read a book, he simply donates it or gives it away, and holds on only to the ones he is sure he will reread. Extreme book-fetishists may argue I should leave him, but why should he be forced to live any longer with my hoarding?
I was thinking about him the other day when I saw an internet discussion about a man who told a bookshop employee that he only owns one book at a time, buying a new one when he has read the last one and got rid of it. “The horror! How could he? I simply couldn’t!” people wrote, leading me to reflect yet again on that contemporary tendency to treat having books as a sort of identity.
This phenomenon is best illustrated by a poster that for a while was following me around the internet in advert form, under the misapprehension that because I love cats and read books – and, indeed, have written a book about a cat – it had my taste in interior decor pinned down. The poster shows a cat and bears the slogan: “THAT’S WHAT I DO, I READ BOOKS, I DRINK TEA AND I KNOW THINGS.”
Apologies if you own this poster, but to me it encapsulates everything that is smug and middle class about the cult of book ownership. I don’t mean reading – provided you’re lucky enough to still have a local library, that is a pastime that is accessible to almost everyone. No, I specifically mean having a lot of books and boasting about it, treating having a lot of books as a stand-in for your personality, or believing that simply owning a lot of books makes one “know things”.
I understand that certain books can feel vital and precious. I grew up in a family where there were a lot of books on the shelves, though we couldn’t always afford new ones. I’ve never forgotten the privilege of that, nor of the position I’m in now, where I am sometimes sent books free of charge. Perhaps that’s why I find the idea of hoarding them rather sad – there’s even a Japanese word, tsundoku, for allowing books to pile up unread. Instead, I choose to donate mine to places where there are people who can most benefit from them, or leave them on the wall outside my house, where they always disappear.
I found my own copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch by similar means. Inside, someone had written “READ ME!”, and it turned out to be the impetus I needed to tackle that great novel. Why keep it on my shelves when I’m finished, when someone else could delight in it as I did? My husband would say I’m still in recovery, and I certainly have more to get rid of, but frankly, I can’t wait.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author
• The headline on this article was amended on 24 January 2023 to place greater emphasis on the column’s central argument