Clearing out my childhood bedroom recently, I found throwing out all my old books to be a miserable experience. There’s something crushing about coming face-to-face with those hopes and ambitions of long ago and realising that there’s no day rainy enough that I’m going to read the Mahabharata, that research project on Dark Age Wales has long since fallen by the wayside, and that no-one, not even Andrew Motion, has ever written a halfway satisfactory sequel to Treasure Island. Still, now that I’ve moved them all to my new flat and have begun to find them homes on my shelves, I find the cliché is truer that many people realise: books really do furnish a room. Of course, you can bind them all identically in morocco leather and house them in oak cabinets; or you can buy individual cased hardbacks from the Folio Society to adorn your living room in style; but even my ragtag collection of poetry, science fiction, outdoor adventure and Russian Literature; ranging from svelte, selected modern paperbacks to tome-like turn-of-the-century collected works; even this can furnish a room. It provides an abstract pleasure for the eye as it slides along the row of spines, enjoying the change of colour and texture from jacket to jacket without thinking unduly of authors or subjects. A well-tuned bookcase can be a work of art, a kind of linear mosaic that provides visual pleasure independent of intellectual association. After having moved and reshelfed several times in the past few months, I can see fragments of the old patterns on my shelves, broken up where I unloaded a box in a different order, or found space to squeeze in an extra volume. It would be possible to agonise infinitely over the placement of everything, but I’ve decided to slot them in in any order and let them settle in for themselves.
A French friend once asked my advice on ordering her books, and I flippantly suggested colour-coding them by spine. What I didn’t realise is that French paperbacks are an almost uniform flat white, of a sort I only recall seeing here on the spine of a 1970’s Dickens reprint, so that idea was doomed from the start. English books may be more colourful, but they present their own problems. Do I shelf the matte black Penguin Classics together in one great uniform block, or leaven the effect by scattering them among the more vivid shelves? What do I do with something like Branch Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, whose publishers gave it a dust jacket that was half green, half brown? Do I even own any indigo or violet books? At least the Faber and Faber paperbacks provide a basic spectrum from which to expand.
All this for the moment is academic; perhaps some very rainy day, after I’ve laid the Mahabharata aside, I may set to work on an aesthetic theory of bookshelves. In the meantime, it merely adds a new pleasure to that small empty space in the bottom right hand corner, where every night, at the stroke of midnight, the ghosts of all the books I have ever owned and am yet to acquire flicker past; red, purple, green and sober black, they dance briefly and then vanish into a haze of possibility.