When I moved into the house I still live in, I thought I would never be able to fill it. It’s not huge but I had few possessions at the time. Yet if you ask me what my domestic priority has been in the last ten years, I’d say decluttering. The fact that it is still top of my to do list tells you how well it’s gone. I am not alone, and a 2020 study found that 50 per cent of British people have difficulty getting rid of unused items, mostly because of their sentimental value.
Last time I saw Tim he told me that his wife had gently encouraged him to get rid of some of his wine collection. I smiled when I overheard him five minutes later offering some of his surplus bottles to an MW student, trying to extract some use from these wines he won’t drink, and somehow turning a culling exercise into a recycling one.
My wine collection is not as extensive as Tim’s – I am the one sending samples and not receiving any – but I had stockpiled hundreds of books until a much-needed redecoration project this summer forced me to take action. Like Tim with his wines, I tried offering my books to friends. I suspect wine would have been more popular as only five books went this way.
They eventually went, they had to go. But choosing which ones to keep and which ones to get rid of was agony. As Marie Kondo advises, I held each book in turn, thanked it for the good time we shared and put it in the disposal crate. OK, maybe not each book but I tried my hardest. I had Terry Pratchett’s entire Discworld series, you see, and like kittens, I couldn’t bear the idea of them being separated.
In a futile attempt to somehow keep hold of the ones I sacrificed, I logged them on an Excel spreadsheet, the rationale being that it would stop me from buying them again by mistake.
This painful exercise made me question why I’d hoarded so many books for so many years. Tim’s wife told him that collecting and hoarding stuff is a male pursuit, probably to make him take action. The conclusion I’ve come to though is that my book collection somehow defined me: look how clever I am! All those big books I’ve read. In French and in English. There’s even a German one in the corner which I’d be incapable of reading now. But I’ve read all of Zola. What? Did I love Belle du Seigneur? Er, never finished that one, but I kept it still. It’s a classic, innit? I had a few edgy titles too to show balance. To try and look cool. Not that it’s ever worked. I pictured meetings of minds in front of my groaning bookshelves: ‘I loved that one! So glad you read it too.’ As if random strangers would get to visit my living room. When friends come round, they stay in the kitchen. They eat and drink and do not psychoanalyse my book collection.
They often look at my minuscule wine cellar though. I must have about a dozen cases in there and no, I sadly do not have another few hundreds secreted in Basingstoke or Stevenage. Not true actually, I bought six bottles en primeur from The Wine Society this year. Hurray! Like I hoped my books would define me, my cellar did somehow to some wine friends, but not in a good way. I’ve had some scathing comments through the years. Because when you pay full whack for every single bottle you buy, and you like drinking wine, stocking up at 25% off in Waitrose isn’t such a bad idea.
You could say my wine collection kept me humble, but I admit I bought a few status bottles to try and impress tricky visitors. The problem with good bottles is that I drink them faster than the ordinary ones. And then, unlike books, once consumed, they’re gone. But I’m sure that in the same way I kept my clever books at the front, Tim would only produce the most impressive bottles for his guests, leaving more mundane samples to age far longer than they were intended to. Maybe I should have told him that I’d decided to study towards the MW, snuck into his cellar and helped myself to a few cases of leftovers? I’m not proud; I’m not a wine writer after all.
Tim tells me he’s now sorting out his books. ‘I suppose it’s about admitting there are books we will never have time to read,’ he wrote. He is putting them into storage ‘to see if he misses any of them’. He calls it a halfway house. I call it cheating, trying to forget the bookcase upstairs where I’ve put books I mean to read again. When I have time.
Wine is so much easier. Next time I crack open a bottle I’ll tell myself I am decluttering my cellar.
Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash