Avus's recent post about discarding books, and his daughter hhb's helping with some of the difficulties of this by re-homing them on beautiful new bookshelves, and how e-book reading has come to fill a different role in his reading life, and encouraged him to explore different writers, struck some chords. We've got rid of a great number of books this summer; it hasn't always been easy, but it has been thought-provoking and generally fairly liberating. Detachment again.
I've come to the conclusion there's rather a lot of precious nonsense talked about Books. I've probably talked quite a bit of it myself at one time or another, and may well be about to again.
Dale said lately one of the things he's had to let go of is his own idea of himself as a well-read person. I too used to consider myself so, and enjoyed the epithet as a compliment sometimes, but lately I've come to mistrust it. I'm aware also that, what with blogging at one time, and browsing around on the internet generally, or knitting, or walking the dog, or watching fairly lightweight telly for the sake of companionship with Tom (and more knitting time) or whatever other interest I might currently be following, and also with my own loss, with age, of patience and staying power for reading matter, I'm no longer a great reader. I have a reasonable catalogue of stuff read and remembered, and I'm glad of it, but it's not such an essential part of who I am now.
I've also come to see that owning and having read a large number of books does not, in itself, make you a serious and cultured person anyway, any more than travel necessarily broadens the mind. I have one older acquaintance, who hauls her battered old library around with her from one move to the next, sometimes adding haphazardly to it, priding herself on never throwing one out and cramming them into smaller and smaller accommodation so her living space is so cluttered you want to scream (she has a hoarding problem anyway). She is, frankly, shallow, casually prejudiced and not very clever (with friends like me...), in spite of how well-read she appears to be, and in spite of the pretentious way in which she says 'Oh but I couldn't be without my books!' or expresses disdain for e-readers because 'There is simply nothing like turning the pages of a real book!' On the other hand, our young sculptor friend, for example, who has too much energy and need to be doing to bother much with reading, is no less deep-minded and cultured for all that, far from it.
E-readers can be cover for those who don't want to give away the less than edifying nature of their reading tastes (50 shades etc) but they are also a good antidote to books as vanity. It's gratifying to be seen to have a lot of books, showing off your taste in reading, books do furnish a room, look at me, I'm a reading person! etc etc. But who knows what you've got on your Kindle, could be Proust, could be Mills and Boon, a slim grey electronic device can't brag or pose - despite the ridiculously overambitious stuff most of us collect on them, because hey, it's out of copyright and free! (Or nearly) Edmund Burke anyone? The Complete Henry James for just two quid? Michelet, in French? What's your bit of pretentious Kindle vanity? But at least your only mostly pretending to yourself.
There are many things, though, I'm really pleased to have on Kindle, and which, like Avus, it's encouraged me to read when I might not otherwise have done, since I don't have to find shelf room for them; the Patrick O'Brian canon, which I'm working my way through in fits and starts - I know it's time to get the next one when I find myself struggling with something else and thinking 'why am I reading this when I could be reading about Aubrey and Maturin? - are so much nicer to have stored electronically, always to hand, than taking up a whole great shelf of physical space in a bookcase. I weakened with one, baulking at paying the e-book price when I could get a second hand copy for a penny plus postage - and now I regret it, the lone scruffy paperback - even with the beautiful Geoff Hunt cover painting - floating about when it should be in the set with the others on the device.
It is true that some types of book don't really work on the e-reader: poetry isn't great (line lengths etc), though I do read some there, or a lot of non-fiction or reference, anything with pictures, obviously, anything in fact you need to dip into, move back and forth in, get your fingers in amongst the pages of, browse randomly. Indeed, it's best for more traditional fiction with a fairly linear narrative, I find, even some modern novels with unconventional structures which you need to shuffle about in can be better in good old codex form, though the search function on the e-reader can be handy too, and the built in dictionaries are great, even help me to read a bit of French there.
Yet to make too much on the whole cult of the 'real' book as object is only a short step from the vulgarity (far be it from me to be judgemental...) of Reader's Digest, and their upmarket doppelganger the Folio Society*, 'luxury' 'collectable' 'sumptuously bound and presented' editions, all tooled and hefty, supposedly there to look good and decorate one's shelves, to satisfy, again, some kind of vanity,. It should be the text itself that counts, not the vehicle for it.
Mistake me not, I do recognise the beauty of a truly well-made book, and many old books are lovely objects, I'm as much of an admirer as the next person of sturdy cloth bindings, good creamy paper that doesn't yellow, nice old fonts and printer's flowers and all that. Even a good quality paperback can be a very pleasant thing, but books aren't treasures any more, they are cheap, disposable and don't last. Nothing wrong with that, but dragging them round as a badge of our superiority, or like a trail of scruffy, lame old wrinkled retainers who've seen better days but there's some perceived sense of mutual obligation between them and us is, I think, a mistake. I looked at my old paperback novels I've kept from as far back as the seventies and eighties, and saw that they are simply no longer of any real practical use; the spines threaten to crack and lose pages, the paper is yellowed and brittle, the print looks cramped and uninviting. In the generally unlikely event of my wanting to revisit and reread them, I'd be far better off getting them as e-books, which mostly should be possible.
For that's another thing. Books that were deeply, life-changingly important to me in my twenties, say, simply no longer are. Sorry, but Doris Lessing seems more and more to me a profoundly humourless, self-important writer, whose take on feminism was downbeat and discouraging to say the least, her attitudes to sex depressingly heteronormative (I got that from our grand-daughter, good eh?) to the point of Lawrentian, and to mental illness surely often unhelpful, and whose later vision of the destiny and purpose of humankind was almost laughably wrong and a little too close for comfort to Erich von Daniken. To the dechetterie with her!
Even the shelf of chunky out-of-copyright Wordsworth Classics, which Tom got me the Christmas before we came to France, and which I worked through in the first hard, hard early days here - Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, Villette, The Riddle of the Sands, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc fond though I am of the memory, can go. They are easier to read as e-books, available for free, and the memories are not dependent on their physical presence, which goes, of course, for so much of the stuff to which we shackle ourselves for sentimental reasons.
That said, there are many books I've not been able to part with. I was barely able to get rid of any of the poetry, even the ones I don't much care for I find I have a mawkish attachment to, almost a sense of responsibility - who will take them in, no one will want them, where will they shelter oh where will they sleep? It doesn't help that there's nowhere really to send second hand books with any certainty they could be found and appreciated by anyone; Emmaus does have an English language section, and a lot went there, but they're overwhelmed with books anyway, I gather. The dechetterie has started a book drop, from which they are distributed to schools and libraries, and they said they accepted English language too. But this concern for their afterlife, as Tom pointed out, is a distraction, we need to simply leave them at on the doorstep and forget them. Still, there are those whose connections with people,times and places are simply too important to let them go; detachment's one thing, ripping your heart out is not required.
A Paris food blogger I follow, living in very restricted space so frequent decluttering is essential, photographs her books for the memory or the record when she turns them out. We considered this but didn't do it, it threatened to hamper the action, and we didn't really see the point. One of my knitting buddies told of how her son-in-law has used old books as insulation in his roof, visible, I think, but not really accessible. Tom says that's one way to have very erudite mice.
* here I must plead guilty to having fallen for the Folio Society con once,a long time ago, long before the internet, when we were actually quite starved of reading matter in English, a state which seems incredible now. They were offering some good reference books as bait, a Brewer's Phrase and Fable I still have and like to keep in book form, and some other things. But the overpriced and overweight 'Stones of Venice' in its stupid box has gone and good riddance.