Saying Goodbye to Too Many Books : Culling Hurts

A mountain of books, some flying off into the air.This last few weeks has been traumatic for me — I have been saying goodbye to too many books. Culling hurts.

The immediate cause has been simply building work. All the books from one room have been under a tarpaulin for the duration. Now the builders have gone, the room itself gleams with fresh paint, clean carpets and a new en suite shower and loo.

3 hard-backed books bound in blue. held together with twine. On top of them is a cup and saucer, bearing a red heart logo and holding a bunch of blue forget-me-knots The books, however, are higgledy piggledy and covered with dust. Much of that, I have to admit, both dust and disorder, settled in long before the building work started.

And that leads me on to  the deep-seated long term cause. Both darker and more complicated, it involves memories, energy levels and some serious avoidance issues. And a neurotic cat.

Book Falls Apart

child's drawing of a house with smoke coming out of the chimney

Image by MR1313 from Pixabay

My love affair with books began almost as soon as I could read. Oh, and write.

I completed my first book, which I not only wrote but illustrated, before I went to school.

Before it fell apart, my father kept it in his desk with the birth certificates and deeds of the house. It was he, indeed, who had taken the pages to work to get the spine stapled. It was all of 16 pages long.

Interestingly, I have never got weepy about that culling. Unlike many others.

First Time Saying Goodbye to Too Many Books

3 parcels of different sizes, all book shaped, with the label "For You"

Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

My mother was the first one to recognise that I had more books than shelf space. I was seven or eight. That’s a lot of birthday and Christmas presents.

The local boy scout troop were collecting for their second-hand stall at the village fête. My books had spilled off the shelves in my bedroom into one pile of books on my bedside table and two on the floor.

Mother drew the obvious conclusion. I had a surplus. Not that she just dumped a random pile. Steeped in office practice, she took a policy decision: first in, first out.

Girl in a grey sweater leans along the top of an iron railing, with her head on her outstretched arm, looking hopeless.

Image by Hieu Van from Pixabay

I came back to find Noddy and other Enid Blytons, The Water Babies, Japanese Folk Stories and The Violet Fairy Book were no longer among those present.

I wept.

I’d encountered  a new and horrible sense of betrayal. My mother had Let Me Down. Worse, I had failed to protect and care for my precious friends between the covers.

Well, except for The Water Babies. To be honest, I was quite glad to see that one go. I didn’t like any of the characters and the moralising was seriously indigestible, even for a neurotically obedient eight year old. But the others! Despair!

The Second Culling

mediaeval lock in the shape of a heart with big key

Image by Petra Siegele from Pixabay

After their first shock at my loudly expressed grief, my parents found a substantial second hand bookcase, and I learned to live without Enid Blyton.

When someone gave me a book, I would read it, write the thank you letter and then my mother would say, “Is it a keeper?”

Some weren’t and promptly departed. For many years.

A mountain of books, some flying off into the air.But then I left school, went to college and there was another influx of books from the course reading list. Pretty soon, it was clear that my existing bookcase was going to be overloaded with books that I might not want to read regularly but would probably always want to have handy to consult. Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer anyone?

“Be realistic,” begged my mother. “You’re not going to have room for them all when you move into a place of your own.”

Lorna Doone love letterCulling was horrible. Saying goodbye to my childhood, really. Beloved authors like Malcolm Savile, Violet Needham and Pamela Brown. Books I went back to again and again. A Little Princess. Five Children and It. Jennings.The Children of the New Forest. Elidor. 

Lorna Doone, over which I cried all night, after my father came in and made me switch off my light around midnight.

“My darling’s eyes dimmed as with death.” No-o-o.

Only then I found the next morning that Lorna hadn’t died from Carver Doone’s bullet  after all. (I was relieved; but thoroughly peeved at the author.)

Mourning Lost Books

Choosing for myself was just as painful as having the books wrested from me.

Robin Hood went. Ivanhoe survived. I felt guilty about both – basically it was the unheroine, Rebecca of York, who swung the decision. I couldn’t bear not to be able to go back to her scenes in the story whenever I needed to.

But whenever I did, I mourned Robin and Allan a Dale and the fellowship of Sherwood Forest. And how I used to feel when I read them.

But then two separate things came along to help me recover that wild childhood delight in books.

First was an inspirational editor. “You don’t have to bury childhood,” she said. “There are some wonderful children’s books being written now. Try the new generation.” And gave me Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones.

A Kindle reader is propped up in front of a pile of 5 assorted books.I did. And found not only Wynne Jones, but Eva Ibbotson, David Almond and a host of others. The spark re-ignited immediately.

And second was the invention of digital books. Books that lived in the aether, to be called onto the page at will, and didn’t need house room. Or dusting. Or re-shelving in the right place.

Saying Goodbye to Too Many Books: The Third Culling

Shelf of six leather-bound booksIt was fine for a while. Well, many years, if I’m honest. I winnowed the books that I wasn’t going to read again at least once a year.

But then my mother died and I inherited her library. Books we’d read together. I was going to make room for them on my shelves. Of course I was.

And people still gave me presents of physical books. They bought them with love and care. The books often set me off on new ideas. I went back to them often.

Reading, tumultAnd then I started researching the last century for a series of novels. Electronic books aren’t great on indices.

And anyway, when I’m looking for a fact that I remember reading, I know roughly how far it is through the physical book. And where it is on the page. Can’t do that on a Kindle.

tangles cobweb against a wooden fence, with frost on it.

Image by Silvia Stödter from Pixabay

Somehow I stopped winnowing out the books that weren’t keepers. And the piles began, to grow, imperceptibly at first.  And then the  glory holes started. The dust came. And the cobwebs. So many cobwebs.

So now I’m torn. I really want to clear the dust. I want to see the carpet in places where it hasn’t made an appearance for several years. And I want to be cobweb-free indoors.

But, oh those choices!

Wish me luck.

Sophie Weston Author


10 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to Too Many Books : Culling Hurts

  1. Liz Fielding

    Oh, Sophie – I wept with you for those childhood books. I was a spoiled only with a lot of childless aunts and uncle and my mother moved things on — mostly to a couple of families of work colleagues of my father who had a lot of children. Books, toys, tennis rackets, hockey sticks… She was right, I know she was right, but some losses still stay in the mind. I’m glad you found replacement books to love and wish you good luck with the culling.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You’re so right about the impact of some losses, Liz. I still quite often dream that I am reading my childhood copy of A Little Princess – hardback with a cover showing a Victorian image of her meeting with the returned guardian, Ram Dass and his monkey in a green frame. I wake up convinced that I will find it on my shelves if I only look hard enough. And of course, I do and it isn’t!

  2. lesley2cats

    I could write a whole blog post in reply to this, Sophie. Only child, starting reading well before I went to school, and like Liz, had many childless “aunts” and “uncles”. My mother, however, didn’t cull my books, she culled my toys, including my favourite toy cat called Sooty. I mourn him still. And, as you know, I am currently going through almost exactly the same process with building work and, yes, the Great Cull. I am physically and emotionally exhausted. Oh – and I never like the Water Babies, either. I can still see the cover. It haunts me. But the others? Monica Edwards, Malcolm Saville, Pamela Brown and the boys and girls in the band… Still got them.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I’m so glad you’ve still got your favourite children’s books, Lesley. I find it really comforting.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Oh my goodness, you have reminded me of the first horrible cull when we were children. My mother did the same to us and we lost our very precious Children’s Wonder Book and Puddledock Farm, among others. Those two were mourned greatly and my sister and I were delighted when I found both in second-hand online bookshops a few years ago. She has Puddledock and I have The Wonder book. These days I rarely buy fiction outside e-books, but research books I prefer as a proper book. I’ve culled several times and do try not to acquire now. I’m overrun with copies of my own books and that’s bad enough!

  4. Sophie Post author

    So glad that you and your sister were reunited with your favourites, especially after so long. Cheered me up no end, Liz.

  5. annieegac89d5885b

    It’s so hard, I agree, Sophie. We moved a lot during my childhood and youth, and my books (which were often hand-me-downs from my older siblings) invariably went. I grieved for some of them so much that when I became an adult (read uni student) and was living in the city I bought back a lot of my favourite childhood titles from second-hand bookshops and library clearances.

    A couple of years ago I moved into a new house. The old one had at least two big bookshelves in every room (except the loo). I mostly read fiction on e-books these days. I find it easier, to enlarge the print when my eyes are tired, and I love going away with a whole library in my bag, instead of having it crammed with heavy books.

    So I forced myself to give away several large (6′ x 4′) bookshelves, and got built-in bookshelves made. The plan was to cull the books to fit into the built-in shelves (6′ x 12′) and the four large bookshelves I kept — two in my bedroom, one in the guest room (because guests need to have a choice of hundreds, right?) and one in the hallway. Because.

    But culling books is sooo hard. I start with a box, and then end up rereading, and rereading and rereading. . . It’s been two years since I moved and I still have dozens of boxes of books to deal with. Friends offer to come and help me cull — friends I know will be ruthless (like my mother was) but I need to consider every book carefully. So often when I’ve given a book away I find I need it again. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  6. Sophie

    So agree that e-books have been a great boon to people like us, Anne. And I too have bought some books several times – Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet being a case in point.

    But I just don’t have room to house all of them – and the piles on the carpet are actually starting to make me sad. So, by hook or by crook, the ones I don’t have shelf-room for are going to have to go. I just have to strengthen my backbone a bit and learn to be ruthless.

  7. bjschenck

    I share your pain. I had lots of books I loved as a child and more often than I thought possible, I would come home to discover that my dad had given them to the children of friends because “they hadn’t read them and you had,” as he told me more than once. Yesssss — but I might want to re-read! I did want to re-read — and didn’t get to. The pain is still there.
    For a lot of years I rarely bought books but got them from the library because we moved often enough that I didn’t want to have to either pack them all or go through the pain of culling. Then we moved into a house in which we remained for 43 years — and we accumulated A LOT of books. And the one time we did actually give some away, I discovered within months after doing so that I needed them for research and had to start acquiring them all over again. After that I rarely got rid of anything that resembled a “research” book. And fiction books stuck around because I only read what I liked and I actually liked them! BUT — then after 43 years we moved. And necessarily, we had to find homes for books. There were simply too many to bring along even though we’d bought the house we were moving into on the strength of the number of built-in bookcases it has! It was horrible. I still know right where a book was — in which bedroom, on which shelf — in the house we no longer live in. Also chances are we no longer have that book. Sigh.
    But Kindle has saved me. I find it vastly easier to find what I’m looking for in a Kindle book than in the one that used to be on the shelf in the house I no longer have. Who needs indexes? Just do a word search. So, I have built up both my fiction and my research libraries on kindle. They aren’t good for maps or large format, but they have other virtues. They are backlit (if you have a Fire) and you can make the print bigger (old eyesight demands it). You can read them in bed at night and not disturb the person snoring next to you. And, as you point out, they don’t take up shelf space. Ah, the joy!
    And when people tell me they need the “feel” of a “real book” in their hands, I just nod because clearly they have not yet reached the point where the “realness” of the book is in the words, not the paper which has print too small to read, especially in poor light. But I’m happy for them to have the choice. And I’m happy that Kindle and its cohorts have come along so that I can actually keep reading when, in an earlier time, I might not be able to.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Ah, Barbara, I SO feel that pain of knowing where the book was on yesterday’s shelf.

      But there are even more blessings of digital than I’d realised. I’ve never done a word search on Kindle but I can see it must be a hugely successful tool.

      I do like the smell and feel of physical books. But that’s almost a separate treat. I can get as lost in a book on my Kindle, as I am in the physical one. Some people can’t I understand.

      The downside is that the books aren’t instantly and constantly available unless you have both constant power to top up your device and access to the Internet. I have spent time in places where neither is available.

      Also, my understanding is that you don’t own that file, you lease it from Amazon or whoever. I was reminded of this when I found that books I thiought were on my Kindle since the last time I read them, had to be downloaded again, if I want to read them again two years later.

      Of course, all flesh is grass and golden lads and girls all must as chimney sweepers come to dust. And digital files (and providers) can be corrupted. But while my molecules are still hanging in there, for my most dearly beloved books, I want the solid object.


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