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Why do you keep all your books?

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Penelope Lively on NPR has the most lovely response to a question many of us get asked all too often: why keep all your books?

penelope lively

Here’s the exchange:

TERRY GROSS: So, here’s my question: Like, why hold on to all those books? Speaking for myself, we have books and records on the floor and on tables and couches. I mean, it’s just – it’s way too much stuff. And you’re not going to be able to reread all those books. So what’s your answer for why it’s worth holding onto them, knowing that you probably don’t need to refer to most of them, you’re not going to reread them, and you might not get to the ones you haven’t already read?

PENELOPE LIVELY: Ah, well, that’s an important question, and there’s a very good answer to that. It’s that simply that they chart my life. They chart my – well, I don’t want to sound ponderous, but they chart my intellectual life. They chart everything that I’ve been interested in and thought about for the whole of my reading life. So, if they went, I would, in a sense, lose a sense of identity. They identify me.

And you’re quite right: most of them I shall never read again. But you never know what you may want to go back to, and it does constantly happen to me that there’s something that I suddenly think, oh, I’ve got that book. Let me just look that up. I do it every day. I look for something along the shelves. And if I got rid of them, then I wouldn’t have them.

But yes, nowadays we can quickly acquire things on Amazon, or whatever. So that’s not the main reason. The main reason for me is this sense of identity, this wonderful sort of familiarity of the way that hands wave from the shelves, as it were, saying: Remember me? You know, remember when you were interested in this? Remember when you enjoyed reading her? And that kind of thing.

So that’s what they’re there for, and that’s why I think I’ve got about 3,000 books, and I don’t want any of them to go. I did think of moving into an apartment a few years ago. I live in a vertical, 19th-century London house. And I could never find any apartment that would have room for about 3,000 books and a lot of pictures, as well.

And I just thought, no. We’ll think of something else. We’ll have a stair lift, when push comes to shove.

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