I have too many books, even though there is positively, absolutely and categorically no such thing. No such thing, mark me. I’ve been collecting books since I moved in to this house in the ‘Nineties, but it was only during the pandemic, when the charity shops shut and we couldn’t routinely bring them our bags of ‘over-flow’ tomes, that I realised that every inch of available space in the house was jam-packed with books.
Much the same way, I suppose, that my arteries are clogged with Pringles and chocolate. Hey, I’m a writer, okay? Pringles and chocolate (also wine) are as much the tools of my trade as my notebook, pens and laptop. Don’t you judge me.
It was during the global lockdown, anyway, that I discovered I had a horrible, stressful job to do. I simply had to clear out some of the books in the house, not because I didn’t love them with all my being, but because my kids were complaining that there was no room for them to actually live in the gaff, because every single cubby-hole, nook and cranny was stuffed with my readables. I had to concede that they had a point.
It was an enormous task to face. Where would I start? How would I go about deciding which books should stay, and which books (I’m even having trouble typing this) … should go …? Sophie from Sophie’s Choice may have thought that she had it bad, but her choice was a walk in the park on a sunny day compared to what I went through.
The dynamics of my book collection have shifted over the years. Back in the mid-‘Noughties, I was obsessed with thrillers. Anything about a twisted, deviant serial killer who murdered according to a sick pattern that only an emotionally damaged detective could unravel was totally my thing.
Then one day I decided that I didn’t dig man-thrillers any more (as in penned by male authors), because there were too many guns in them and some of the gumshoes were just too emotionally stunted, never mind damaged. So I cleared my shelves completely of the man-thrillers with the boring black sombre covers, no exceptions, leaving lots of lovely room for the lady-thrillers.
Even the lady-thrillers bit the dust eventually, sometime in the twenty-tens, when the plots started becoming too technology-heavy and I literally couldn’t understand them any more, or their dénouements, probably the most important part of these novels, which was bitterly disappointing.
I mean, to not understand or follow an ending after you’d invested hours of reading in a book was a lot like sitting through Midsomer Murders for two hours and then not getting why the villain was, well, the villain. So out went the lady-thrillers too, while I returned to my first love, chick-lit, also known as romantic fiction or women’s fiction, although there’s no law that says that blokes can’t jolly well read it too, if they want to.
I love everything about chick-lit. I adore the covers, for a kick-off. Some women writers just write romantic fiction set at Christmas, and those books have the best covers, dotted with glitter and sparkles as well as featuring the most beautiful festive scenes you could imagine. So, when it comes to culling my book collection, nothing that sports a Christmassy cover or title will be asked to take the walk of shame to the nearest charity shop or recycling centre.
Neither will any novels featuring pictures of cakes, cookies, chocolate, bottles of champagne or wine, books, hats, shoes, shoes made out of cake or chocolate, designer dresses, wedding dresses, adorable puppies or anything ‘vintage’ on their covers. I especially love chick-lit books in which women are clubbing together in, well, some sort of a club.
Like a book club, a club for single or expectant mothers who really just need to vent (Single Parents Alone Together!), a writer’s group, a film club, a travel club, a club for Women who are Sick of Men, a cake-making class or a course for single mothers who make delightfully quirky ‘vintage’ jewellery and hand-made Christmas cards out of recyclables and sell them in a sort of co-op thingy.
There are a million books out there right now about women who want to jack it all in and make cupcakes for their new cupcake enterprise, or it could be artisan doughnuts or speciality coffees just as easily, all made from a top-secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation that must never be spoken of to outsiders. If a writer somehow manages to combine cake-making with book-selling, she’s got my vote.
I remember one Christmas in recent years reading a heart-warming and heart-breaking book called The Christmas Cookie Club (this title takes care of three of my main book needs/requirements in one fell swoop), and absolutely loving the way it made me feel both happy and sad at the same time.
Another terrifically engaging Christmas read was about a woman running away from a broken relationship who spent her festive season living on a barge while enrolled in a pottery course on land. God, how I enjoyed that book! It had everything I wanted in a chick-lit novel.
That’s the kind of thing I write myself now, and the kind of book I’d never usually give away or put in the recycling bin, so all the chick-lits of this nature can stay in my collection and be exempt from all but the severest of clear-outs.
Anyway, I remember when I was touting my debut chick-lit novel, Thirteen Stops, around the pool of publishers. I was always being told by informative articles on the subject that publishers often want to know the answer to the following two questions: Where do you fit in, in your chosen genre? And what other writers are you most like? Here’s my answer to both:
‘I’d put me between Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes on the bookshelf. Put me facing Carole Matthews’ books as they have lovely chocolatey, Christmassy covers. One day I’ll write a book called A Very Chocolatey Christmas Cupcake-And-Book-Shop Where You Can Also Buy Lovely Vintage Hats And Other Vintage Things As Well And Meet A Nice New Fella Too Over A Shared Interest In Hand-crafted Indigenous Dolls And Artisan Hot Chocolates. That should cover everything…!’
I’m quite the conundrum, me, though, in that I also love to read, write and watch horror and mysteries. Therefore, my books by Stephen King, James Herbert, Dennis Wheatley and Ruth Rendell will stay exactly where they are.
I’m also keeping any biographies of interesting celebrities, like Diana Dors, Marlon Brando and Bette Davis. Bios of modern-day television personalities such as Ant and/or Dec or Katie Price, the-model-formerly-known-as-Jordan, would not even be given house-room in the first place, so I’ve already saved myself a major job there.
Any books on the craft/art of writing I’ll keep, because I find them fascinating. And any classics I’ve never read and probably never will, but which I fully intend to read some day, must stay also, just in case. These include books like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, because they’re supposed to be such stone-cold classics, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never read them. So, of course they can stay. Forever, no questions asked.
When the charity shops eventually re-opened, I happily donated an old battered-looking copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, after kidding myself for twenty years that I’d read it ‘some day.’ One book. That was the sum total of the result of my post-pandemic clear-out. Still, I suppose it’s a start. But the struggle goes on.
(c) Sandra Harris