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Shelf conscious: I had no idea I was such a show-off

Choosing which books to display has exposed my vanity

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

I’ve just had new bookshelves put up in the hall, a whole wall-full of them, and for the first time in years, books that have been forgotten are finding a home. There are far more books than there is shelf space, so I’ve had to select which ones to display, and I’ve discovered a surprising amount about myself. Anyone coming into the flat will see them and make judgments on my literary tastes and so most of my new library is pretty erudite stuff. Martin Amis is getting a good show. The chick lit is banished to the spare room.

But that’s not even the start of it. I am in possession of quite a number of books that I loathe, but that make me look well read. Many (lucky) people will not have heard of Politics by Adam Thirlwell, but those who have will know it was a moderate succès de scandale when it was published and will be impressed not only by the breadth of my intellectual interests but will gather they have gone back for years. And so yes, Politics has made the cut while the hugely entertaining Sam Jones detective series by Lauren Henderson is sharing shelf space with one of the Shopaholic books, well out of sight. So there you have it. I am both fickle and hypocritical, even when it comes to my own books.

Oh, and I’m a snob, too. I used to possess the complete works of Jane Austen: the local charity shop now harbours them on the grounds that my leather-stamped edition was a bit naff. They will be replaced with something that looks more erudite. And on the subject of the charity shop, it has brought out a cruel streak. Among my possessions is a book by an author we will refer to as D. I used to know D a long time ago and he is so far up himself that he has come out at the other end. At the same time, he has produced a novel that is not actually very good. I felt a smidgen of schadenfreude on realising this when I read it, and I felt an actual thrill as I bunged it, along with a lot of other second-raters, into the charity shop bag.


This is what my new bookshelves have reduced me to: it is not enough that I succeed (not that I’ve got around to doing that yet); others must fail. Oh and the aura of failure that lies around my collection of books… There is the utterly brilliant Hang-over Square by Patrick Hamilton, who ended up dying young of cirrhosis — the clue to his fate can be found in the title of the book. Almost as brilliant is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, who killed himself when he couldn’t find a publisher. Now considered a modern American classic, it was published more than a decade after his death after his mother spent years hawking it around. It looks good on my new bookshelves, along with the drunks, neurotics, ne’er-do-wells and other categories of loser into which so many authors fall.

Quite apart from boasting about my literary credentials (yup: all five volumes of the 18th-century Chinese classic The Story of the Stone are there), my new bookshelves give me the opportunity to boast about how cultured I am in other fields, too. I have quite a few books about art, and if you think John Richardson’s biography of Picasso is stashed away in a remote corner, then you have not been paying attention. I’m not exactly hiding the art criticism or art history, either. It is not enough that I read these books (well, some of them). I must be seen to have done so. It’s like those students who stride around campus holding a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre.

Want to know about my ballet books? Probably not but you’re going to: I have volumes of biographies, histories of dance, photographic memoirs, manuals, collections of anecdotes and much more. And that’s before you get to the programme collection, which is extensive and runs back years. The Royal Opera House is on to people like me who lose no opportunity to show off: not only do they produce their extremely well-researched and informative programmes in a manner that makes it easy to bookshelf them, but they even make library-friendly magazine files in which to display them. And then leave them out on show.

I never thought filling my new bookshelves would be a learning experience: I thought they would just be a way of making a long-overdue attempt to sort out my flat. Instead they have taught me that I am shallow, vain and as determined to keep up with the literary Joneses as any other college grad who once upon a time studied English. Which reminds me. Buried somewhere in the depths of my flat, I have some pretty heavy-duty Eng Lit criticism from those days, you know, the F.R. Leavis, G. Wilson Knight type of stuff. I haven’t looked at any of it for years, obviously, and the new bookshelves are all full up now. But there is still some more wall space left. Time for more shelves…

Virginia Blackburn and Stig Abell, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, on the Spectator Podcast on how they show off with shelves.


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