I can’t remember how old I was when I began collecting second-hand books. I’d like to say
eight or nine, but that’s because I want to be thought of as bookishly precocious. In fact, going
by the purchase dates I bothered to scribble in the volumes in my collection, I must have been
about 12. I’ll settle for that. Twelve’s good. There are worse things to do when you’re twelve.
My father wasn’t so sure. From the very beginning, he turned his nose up at my bringing books
home before I’d read the previous ones. He didn’t understand that books could just sit on
shelves, unopened, and still satisfy whatever need drove someone to collect them. ‘It would be
like me ordering a meal and not eating it,’ he said. An eventuality that was, indeed,
inconceivable. ‘I’ll open them all one day,’ I told him. But the truth is there remain hundreds
I haven’t opened yet. Cold on my shelves, they stare out at me, with chill reproach. But who is
to say the hour won’t yet come when they are needed?
My mother was a reader and understood my passion but nevertheless she also had an issue with
it. The books I was bringing home stank the house out. Hardly surprising, given where I found
them - on market stalls and in junk shops, floating in public drains or tied up in bundles waiting
for the dustbin men to collect them. ‘The smell’s so bad people will stop visiting us,’ my mother
complained. To avoid trouble, I would spread out the most sodden books in front of the electric
fire in my bedroom, but the smell, like that of burning shoe leather, was no better received.
I have called my zeal for getting hold of second-hand books “collecting” but that’s too grand
a word for what I did. I just wanted to own as many books as I could.
Well, some people may say that in the digital age my library has run its course. So shall I get
rid of it? I’m not talking about selling to turn a profit. I bought many of these books for pennies
each and I’d do well to get that number of pennies back. But I could save a little space. I could
replaster the walls and hang paintings. Yet I am unable to. The truth is, their presence alone
remains vital to me. Books breathe as trees do. With all the books gone our mental climate will
change. No matter that I can quickly find a digital version of a novel I’m looking for, I still fly
into a rage when I discover I no longer have it, and remember who borrowed it and failed to
return it. For me it is irreplaceable. It has my scribblings in it. The marginal expletives.
The turned-down pages. And you don’t get that on a Kindle, or a free e-book courtesy of Project
adapted from http://www.bbc.com