My book­case – not e-reader – shows who I am

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Pa­trick Barkham

When life is tum­bling out of con­trol, I go to my happy place, where I can dream, re­mem­ber and find or­der in chaos: I gaze upon my book­shelves.

Book­shelves are back, with sales up by more than 10% in John Lewis. There’s the rise of the “shelfie” – a photo of one’s li­brary. Book­shelves are a cool way to di­vide open-plan liv­ing, and e-read­ers are fall­ing from fash­ion be­cause we pre­fer the beau­ti­ful-look­ing ob­jects pro­duced by con­tem­po­rary pub­lish­ers.

For many of us, book­shelves never went away, but it is heart­en­ing to learn that they are newly de­sir­able. Dis­play­ing the books we love or the books that made us, or even books to im­press, is a civil­is­ing impulse. Be­gin­ners have so many ex­cit­ing ques­tions ahead: do they ar­range their books the­mat­i­cally or al­pha­bet­i­cally?

I adore nos­ing around other peo­ple’s shelves, and I’ll ad­mit one judg­men­tal at­ti­tude – that sink­ing feel­ing when I en­ter a home with­out books. Hon­estly, though, my book­shelves are not for dis­play, but for my own plea­sure. And a Kin­dle can’t match that.

To­day’s un­lim­ited in­for­ma­tion makes the bound­ed­ness of book­cases pro­foundly com­fort­ing. My in­ner li­brar­ian is also soothed by ar­rang­ing books. The big­gest ques­tion for every bib­lio­phile when they move in with a loved one is: do we merge col­lec­tions?

Vir­ginia Woolf’s cre­ation Mrs Dal­loway be­lieved that love and re­li­gion would de­stroy the pri­vacy of the soul; she’d agree with me that merg­ing col­lec­tions threat­ens the same. Per­haps those tak­ing shelfies are right: books are soul mu­sic, made for shar­ing on glo­ri­ously open shelves.

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