The Wall of Books
This is my #shelfie. My pride and joy: the wall of books in our flat in Hampstead.
In our previous, smaller flat upstairs, which we inhabited for five years, the books took over. It started with three jam-packed Billy bookcases. Then we had to buy bookends to allow for books on top. Then the floor-stacks began. By the time we left we had about eight thigh-high piles of books in the sitting room, and six in the bedroom, not to mention the unsightly mess of books under my bedside table, the teetering stack on top of the fridge, and Matt’s art and photography books, laid out like gallery pieces across our dining table. Things came to a head when Matt’s mum, who had understandably had enough of books filling every nook and cranny of her place too, delivered fifteen further boxes of his books to our door. The humans had to succumb. ‘Time for a kindle,’ my friend texted me. We found a bigger flat.
In our new flat, they are all in one place. It’s a delight. Because Matt and I are a little odd, half the bookshelf is mine and half is his. We’ll share most things (business, bank account, baby) but not books.
Unpacking them in the new flat was a surprisingly nostalgic experience. The great thing about physical books is that the cover image, the font, the weight, the odd notes made in the margins and on the frontispiece, all take you back to where you were when you first read or studied that book. Othello - my AS level text, 2001. I wrote ‘Othello is jealous’ in capitals on an early page, in one of my most profound moments of literary criticism. Pale Fire by Nabokov - 2nd year of university, 2005. I read this stunningly difficult book to impress my then boyfriend, now husband, and still don’t quite understand it (shhhh). The Wind-up Bird Chronicle - the first book I read after finishing my degree, when I realised I was actually allowed to read for fun, as well as for essay-writing purposes. Murakami was suitably thrilling and bonkers. There are plays too, endless plays, highlighted with the parts I took and the director’s notes I was given. There’s even a section of children’s books. Matilda - first devoured, age 8, in my childhood bedroom. Perhaps her love of books inspired mine. I read it again last year to a 9 year old Russian student who was trying to improve her English; we were in her treehouse in the woods outside Moscow, and she looked at me like I was a lunatic as I sobbed my way through the final pages.
So no, I won’t be getting a kindle.
I think books are the best.
You can scribble on them (I do, Matt doesn’t - hence, no borrowing). You can arrange them in size and colour order, and they look better than wallpaper. You can read them in the bath (essential) and then dry them out on the radiator until the pages go thick (Matt’s not a fan of that habit either). Best of all, you will always be drawn back to them. Sometimes I treat my wall of books like a shop. A benefit of my slightly bad memory is that I’m happy to read old favourites again. The Grapes of Wrath is next on my list, which I first read in the lower sixth, when I was studying American Literature. All I remember is the weeping.
I’m so glad Matt is launching his publishing company, Wundor, this year. He, like me, believes in the power of books. Great talent deserves to be treasured in the form of beautiful physical objects. I’m also privileged that through my teaching I get to introduce kids to some of the books that have informed my understanding of the world, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to Pride and Prejudice to Hamlet.
And while I’m a full believer in clearing out, spring cleaning and minimalism: don’t touch my books. They’re the stories of my life.
My 10 Favourite Books Ever (See The Big Summer 11+ Reading List for my recommendations for children).
East of Eden (John Steinbeck) - I read this in Kyushu last summer and it blew my mind.
To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf) - This memory belongs to my first year in Oxford, in my room over-looking Christ Church Meadows. The first time I read it, it didn’t have much impact; when I revised it for my first year exams, it floored me.
The Human Stain (Philip Roth) - I remember reading this aloud in the bath in my little flat in Earls Court in 2008. Something about the narrative begs to be read loudly in an American accent.
Matilda (Roald Dahl) - First enjoyed in my little bedroom at home, aged 8, and again in a Russian treehouse.
The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak) - I read this last year, in the old flat upstairs. As it contains one of the most loveable father figures in literature, I also gave it to my Dad for father’s day.
Beloved (Toni Morrison) - This was introduced to me in 6th form at boarding school. I discussed it in my Oxford interview and wrote endless essays about it.
Ronia the Robber’s Daughter (Astrid Lindgren) - This was read aloud by my form-teacher when I was 9. It’s another weepy.
Middlemarch (George Eliot) - I tackled this massive novel during my first year at university, then again with a postgraduate tutee in Golders Green. Reading chunks of it together, we screamed with laughter; I hadn’t realised it was so funny the first time.
The Go-Between (L P Hartley) - Roccamare, Tuscany, last Summer. Unbelievably evocative and compelling.
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) - I’ve devoured this too many times. It gets better with every single reading.