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5 May 2021

Browsing my children’s shelves, I understand how the books we read make us who we are

It’s why we keep books, isn’t it, for the little ghosts of our past selves contained within? 

By Tracey Thorn

We’re having a book clear-out, partly triggered by the youngest, who has been home over Easter and decided to finally rid his room of all the books I have forced on him since childhood. At least, that’s probably how he views it. He was never an avid reader, despite having loved bedtime stories when he was small. As he grew, he drifted away from books, finding that they couldn’t quite hold his attention. Too many other things were more immediate, more distracting.

In the boxes he piles up outside his room I can see all my various suggestions. I would often leave books lying on his bed, hoping he might leaf through and find one that appealed. Fantasy novels, murder mysteries, spies, detectives, popular science, alternative comedy – I tried them all. And some landed, though I could never quite predict which.

I learned a lesson though, which is that you can’t force reading on anyone. It either appeals or it doesn’t, and I had to get used to the idea that maybe he would never be a fan. And then one day he came home from school saying they had been reading James Joyce’s Dubliners and his eyes were opened. He had never loved a book as much. For Christmas that year I bought him a poster of the original cover artwork, and it still has pride of place on his wall.

So I’m not bothered now when I see him throwing out all the books that failed to grab his attention. Inspired by his example, I start looking at the shelves on the landing outside our daughters’ bedrooms, full of books not taken with them when they left for university. Pretty soon, instead of throwing things out, I’m absorbed in the story told by the collection I find.

[see also: What is literature for?]

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Here is a huge tome, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, awarded as a school prize. I don’t think it has ever been opened. Here is the Faber Book of Science, next to a book of Jack Monroe recipes, and Sexual Politics next to Skulduggery Pleasant. Here is a copy of The Virgin Suicides – I remember how I worried about them reading that – and next to it sits Testament of Youth; I remember the tears that were shed over that.

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With a smile of recognition I pick up the huge brick that is Les Misérables. Not only is it 1,647 pages long, but it is in French, and was read by my non-French-speaking daughter when she became so obsessed with the story that she felt she couldn’t possibly have read it “properly” unless she read it in the original language. Once again I am reminded how utterly amazing teenagers are, how their passions could fuel the world.

The more I look at their books, the more I can see how they reflect their different tastes and personalities. The Periodic Table sits next to The Skin Type Solution; Louise Bourgeois next to Biology of Microorganisms; Emma next to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. All of these have gone to make up the people they are now: young women who have read Brick Lane, and Prozac Nation, and This Book is Gay, and On Beauty, and Do No Harm, and 1984, and Rebecca.

In among their own choices are some borrowed from me. Here’s my copy of Selected Poems by TS Eliot, with a deliberately placed cigarette burn on the cover. Placed by me, I should add, as a student. And inside, that’s my handwriting, those notes in the margin. Oh God, what have I written? “Indifference is seen as a universal condition”; “stifling routines”; “sordid sexuality”; “destruction, madness, panic”. I imagine I constructed an essay based on those original observations; probably really opened my tutor’s eyes to the true meaning of the poems.

I shouldn’t laugh. It’s why we keep books, isn’t it, for the little ghosts of our past selves contained within? Traces of who we were haunt the pages – what else were we doing when we read this book? What were we thinking? What were we wearing? I bet none of us re-read the books on our shelves as often as we think we might, or as often as we mean to. But we like the look of them, and the reminders they offer. Here is a potted history of a life, here on the bookcase.

I’m not going to get rid of very many. 

[see also: While many learned to bake or sew in lockdown, I have revelled in the beauty of isolation itself]

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?