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Sorting Books and Existential Dread.

It started about a month ago. One of those breezy, well-intentioned statements of commitment which was well wrapped in the ‘sometime in the future’ mantra.

It had got to the stage that not only were there piles of books everywhere but the piles were collapsing. On the odd occasions when I went looking for a book I couldn’t find it. More usually I’d be picking up books near at hand, those lapping on my armchair island, those books carried in by tides of daily impulsive purchases. I’d be reading bits of maybe six books each day. Meanwhile, the volume of unread books grew physically, and so did a gnawing and persistent unease.

I was disrespecting books. The puritan minimalist in me envied the reader who sits in a superbly organised library while enjoying the riches of one book at a time. So, a month ago, I ordered yet another bookcase which currently joins the book piles, forgotten, unassembled.


This morning I was subject to disaster. Yesterday, among the books delivered to me was the Penguin hardback version of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I already have paperback editions – somewhere – but felt Marcus deserved special treatment. The Penguin version is what a book should be, beautifully made and printed. I spent a moment smelling it then placed it on the pile to the left of my armchair which is next to a bookshelf I use for not only books but varieties of detritus such as elastic bands, old pens, and where I place my drinks. Thus it was that I contrived to knock over and spill a full mug of tea.

That did it. I’ve been three hours now sorting books in my main room. I’ve got some empty boxes somewhere so I have made a big pile for the charity shops, maybe 50 books, most of which I haven’t read. Each title reminds me of a time maybe a month, maybe a year ago when I developed an inexplicable interest in subjects I knew nothing about. Sorting the titles I was seized with recognising an underlying manic and possibly Faustian desire to swallow every item of knowledge and thought contained in the universe. Oddly, I haven’t found my book about octopuses which I think is the only non-fiction text I read in 2018 with devoted attention and fascination. Perhaps there is more than a little of the octopus in myself. Or my multi-tentacled selves.

The largest transitory pile contains subjects to which I do profess an interest. Technology and culture, mental health, psychology, philosophy, theology. Too much. One reason I ended up with so many books is that I was beguiled by ones I’d read to follow a footnote or reference to read authors I’d not come across. Every field of human study bifurcates continuously into labyrinthine mazes, fractals. An academic may devote years of their life to researching a tiny aspect of a tiny aspect of a subject. Yet here is me trying to bypass disciplines and wallow in the easy joy of superficial understanding. Well, that last sentence is one aspect of my existential anxiety regarding my reading habits. Another is that such foolish reading habits remind me of something a teacher of mine once said in dismissing a writer: ‘He chewed far more than he could bite off.’

Still, the areas mentioned above are deeply important to me in a very broad sense. A few of the titles will go on the shelf, the rest in a box, a storage space, a dusty archive. I think many of us have a precognition, valid or not, that something may come in use at a future time. (It rarely does, of course: it’s simply forgotten).

Poetry’s easier because such is the high status of poetry in literary culture I don’t bother to separate periods, schools or – God help us! – ‘types’ of poetry. I take the easy way out. If it’s poems it goes in the poetry section. I feel a bit happier now, getting all the poets together. It’s been a while since I’ve browsed and chosen one to enjoy. There’s only one book not going on the poetry shelves – T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets which is now on a shelf just to my left next to some Vedic selections.

Fiction’s easy to classify too. I don’t even bother to stop my pulp crime fiction from sidling up the ‘literary’ geniuses. This is symbolic, not just lazy. The crude distinction between the highbrow elite and the lowbrow masses is rarer these days but it still retains its offensive implications. Let’s be glad that Shakespeare wasn’t pressured into writing only for the galleries.

The most depressing pile of books, happily not too big, contains those How to… tomes. How to reach a million twitter followers. How to set up and run a successful business repairing umbrellas (I joke). How to self-publish. How to become an author-entrepreneur. How to master SEO – the 100% proven and easy way. How to market your book. All I can say is I was duped! One thing I have learned from such books is that they represent a huge part of the reading market. If you follow the fairly obvious advice to use the right keywords and categories, price your book correctly and have an attractive cover you’re 75% on the way to selling your How God can Make You a Millionaire. I’ve also learned that all that book marketing is not for me. Apart from the waste of many hours, and subscribing to a certain attitude of mind which is totally inimical to mine, you have to beware of mixing with the sort of people who, in many modern tragedies, were travelling salesmen.

Then, as the temporary piles begin to collapse and books I love but seem unclassifiable come from the recesses of memory, I find a space for those titles which I need for my writing projects. And there are only three of them! To think that if I spent my time writing I would hardly ever have to read again – an exhilarating yet terrifying thought experiment. And yet, the mess, the arbitrary collection of my books library is one way of looking at my mind. It’s disorganised, disconnected, in bits and forever adding jewels and junk. I should have the physical side of things sorted in the next few days, albeit that will mostly result in tidy-looking chaos. Psychically, from the very start of 2019 I shall be engaged in that strange thing writers seem able to do – to make everything seem so simple. If you want to think mud and Lotos Flowers, please do!

Anyway, that’s enough for today. And don’t get me started on my Kindle library. Somewhere in there are three books I’ve promised to read and review.

Ah, no longer finished finishing when the doorbell rings. A sweet delivery of the Everyman’s Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne

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