Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Book Thief

We're back in the UK for a few weeks, tying up (or severing) loose ends in preparation for our longest stay yet in the Corfu house.

After paying a horrifying amount to move all the books in our flat to Corfu (they haven't arrived yet, six weeks on, but that's a moan for another time), I've decided I need to be ruthless with the remainder. Hoarding books is a dangerous addiction, and it needs a quick, brutal cure.

You see, we're currently staying with my mum in Hertfordshire, squirrelling away enough money to see us through our long Corfu summer. And back home, I'm confronted with the musty fruits of a lifetime's book-hoarding: books piled everywhere, zig-zagging up the stairs like an angular snake, piled on every flat surface, stacked two-deep on the bookshelves and in the wine-crates which have invaded every room in the house. Something needs to be done.

It's difficult enough popping out to the shops without bringing back a book, without meaning to- I always marvelled at the randomness of second hand bookshops, where a sort of Jungian Synchronicity ("Ooh, I was just thinking about that") seemed to determine the stock- but the addiction worsened with the discovery that my local Oxfam bookshop threw away hundreds of perfectly good books every day. Peering behind the shop in search of a bin (for a pork pie wrapper, oddly) I found a group of men straight from Mayhew clustered around (and in) a giant plastic container FULL OF BOOKS.

OMFG, as they say.

Oxfam isn't popular in the secondhand book world, due to their aggressive cornering of the market and hogging of prime retail space. But few of their critics realise, I think, just how many books they obtain, and discard, each day. Considering the rather weak selection in my local branch, the riches in the bin were astounding: an 1860s book on heraldry, in a print run of only 50; the lifetime's collections of, judging by each different day's crop, archaeologists, Latin teachers, retired Army officers... even a few dozen early '60s Pelicans with Melvyn Bragg's name and Oxford college scrawled spiderishly on the flyleaves... I think they just discarded books they felt were too arcane, or obscure, for quick sale, instead of offloading them to hospitals or other charities.

For months then, I'd trot along to the bin each evening, make smalltalk with the small coterie of tramps and tweedy eccentrics that knew of the secret book mine, and plunge deep within the bin for literary gold, before hauling my finds back home, buckling under their weight. It just seemed wrong for them to be thrown away.

One find that summed it up for me is Class 1902 by Ernst Glaeser, a German antiwar novel deemed "a damned good book" by Ernest Hemingway and now quite rare after being turfed onto Nazi bonfires (Wiki: "In Berlin, some 40,000 people gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined the crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”.) This edition- printed in English, in Berlin- survived the Brownshirts but fell foul of Pam and Margaret in Oxfam. The surprising violence of the old dears' philistinism began to be expressed when they realised their discards were being sifted through: then they would methodically rip each book in two, unless the leather bindings were too much for them. It began to feel more and more like a rescue mission and consequently I discriminated less and less over what I saved.

Then, moving to London after getting my first post-uni job, I abandoned the bin. I'd acquire spanking new, shrinkwrapped, print-scented books, gratis, from publishers (one of the secret perks of TV production) and left my mum to cope with the literally thousands of bin finds and vastly diminished living space alone. Until yesterday.

I've embarked on a massive clearout, and it's a weirdly liberating feeling throwing away hundreds of books- something I always felt utter horror about. It's like smashing up a sandcastle you spent hours building or- possibly- feigning a lonely canoe death. I've realised that there are dozens of authors whose works I will never read- Iris Murdoch, Laurens Van Der Post, most of David Lodge- and that I'm quite happy that's the case.

So there's now a massive stack of books in my mum's dining room, precariously piled, and looking like an oddly sentient, menacingly amorphous blob. I've just rung a charity shop to send a van to pick them up: the Oxfam bookshop. Karma, innit. Who knows, perhaps some books might get a 4th chance.

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