Sunday, 13 January 2019

Book decluttering

This article caused some discussion on my Facebook feed, but even before the flood of responses I had decided to write a blog post.

First, neither the declutter guru nor the author of the article seem to be the kind of book owner that I and most of the people I know are. Books are neither single-use items nor ornaments of sentimental value. Instead, they are our working tools, supplies and frequently results. Books we purchase – or occasionally get for free from authors and publishers – may or may not be read; we can keep them for later, or we may read the introduction and realise that the book didn't meet our expectations. In many cases, we will re-read a book many times, for various reasons. Sometimes we teach a book, and personally I re-read books I teach every other year. Sometimes we write about a book, and we may write about the same book repeatedly, from different perspectives and for different audiences. Some of us are collectors: of a particular type of books, specific genres, specific authors, first editions, various illustrated or translated versions, and so on. Most of us, I would guess, have two separate book collections: one at home and one in the office, and they are likely to be very different.

Almost nothing argued in the article is relevant for people like me.

But even people like me are very different. Even younger me is very, very different from current me. The younger me grew up in a country where attractive books were in short supply. Where it was not unusual to pay a month's salary for one single highly desirable book – yes, I have done so on several occasions, and they were not incunabula.

In my first professional life, I collected fairy tales, translations of Scandinavian fiction and children's books in English. The latter were particularly hard to get hold of: random books brought from abroad and sold in the only second-hand bookshop in Moscow that kept them. They cost 5% of my monthly salary. No wonder they were dear to me. (A pair of tights cost 10% of my monthly salary, so abstaining from a pair of tights would buy two books).

When I moved to Sweden, I had to pay a 100% export tax on every book I wanted to take with me. This forced me to make some hard choices. I sold my huge fairy-tale collection and my substantial Scandinavian fiction collection, but I paid taxes on Puffin books, which in hindsight made no sense at all since they were easily accessible in Sweden, even before amazon.

I still have some of those Puffins with stamps from the second-hand bookshop in Moscow.

In Sweden my book collection started to grow again, this time only limited by money. I could no longer save by giving up tights.

I like to own books that I work with, so I justified my book purchases by needing them for current research projects or future research projects or maybe-some-time research projects, and expensive encyclopedias that were easily available in libraries. I used to review books a lot; I made friends with authors who would send me their new books. We added bookshelves at home; when I eventually got first a shared and then my own office, I moved work-related books there.

Still we were running out of space. I donated my large collection of Russian children's books to a University library in Finland where I hoped it would be used. Then I donated, to the same library, a very large collection of children's books in English, including all those first signed editions and many books from Australia, Canada and South Africa that I had bought during professional travel and that are not available anywhere else. In both cases, I received nice letters from the Head Librarian.

When we moved to Cambridge and realised the spatial limitations of British housing, we reluctantly admitted that it was time to get rid of books we had bought and never read, books we had read and would never read again, books we had bought for specific projects that were finished, and so on. I donated another huge collection of fairy tales because by that time I knew I would never write about them. I gave most Swedish children's books to my grandchildren. I gave heaps of critical books to my department. At the end, we just told friends: come and take whatever you want. They did. Bags after bags after bags.

Still we brought seventy boxes of books with us. And then we started buying more books. This was the beginning of amazon, and buying books had never been easier. I also had generous book allowance.

Then, five years ago, there was an accident with a happy ending. It made me think about the value and purpose of books sitting on my shelves. I donated my collection of Alice in Wonderland, 250 volumes of various illustrated and translated editions, to the Homerton library. This noble act left a couple of empty shelves in my office, but I continued to declutter and donate to libraries and give away to students and simply put books on “Please take whatever you want” table at work. Interestingly, someone would always take them.

I persuaded my significant other, who is a worse book hoarder than I, to part with some books he definitely would not read or use for work again. Believe me, it is not easy to find places that will take a special collection, even for free. But we managed to find a home for all Swedish fiction and non-fiction, for a huge collection of Judaica, and a substantial collection on Russian history. Still, this did not leave much space in our bookshelves.

I gave all my first editions of Harry Potter (British, American and “adult”) to a colleague obsessed by first editions.

Most recently I donated four shelves of literary criticism to Homerton. I realised I will never need those books again, and if I do in the near future I can just go downstairs to the library. Last term I taught my very last class on fairy tales, after which I donated all my remaining fairy tales. In a couple of weeks, I will teach my very last class ever on picturebooks, after which I will offer all my remaining picturebooks to the library.

I still cling to some favourite children's books and a few shelves of criticism, but not for long. I have seen enough retiring collagues sit frustrated in the middle of their offices that they need to vacate, surrounded by piles of books. I don't want to be in this situation.

I know that I will be moving again soon, and I will only take a small number of books with me. Kindle has made life easier because lots of books do not take any physical space. I will take the books I re-read regularly; I will take a few remaining signed books I value. I will take a copy of each of my own books, but probably not the books I have contributed a chapter to. I will keep all books on dollhouses and miniature-making because they will be useful in my future life as I plan it. Literary criticism or even children's books do not feature in my plans.

This process is a part of my bigger decluttering project. I don't want books – or anything – to be merely ballast. (Admittedly, the purpose of ballast is stability…)

I respect people who happily declare that they own twenty thousand books. I guess if I put together all books I have ever owned I would easily come close to this order of magnitude. But to everything there is a time and a season. A time to keep and a time to throw away. 

Friday, 28 December 2018

Books of 2018

Goodreads tells me that I have read 36 books this year out of 30 I had as a a goal. I set my readings goals low nowadays because I choose long, slow reads, and I almost don't read any quick-paced YA novels or picturebooks, and I read very little criticism for work.

Once upon a time I read several hundreds of books every year, particularly when I was on the national book award jury (120-150 books in just a couple of months) and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award jury (too many to account for), and of course I skim-read a lot of professional literature. I am glad I don't have to do it any more. I still have to read books that my students write about, but that's different than reading for pleasure. As we all know.

Here are some books from 2018.

Best book: Touch, by Claire North
Next best book: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Best book with many sequels: Cazalet chronicles, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Best nonfiction: Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker
Quickest (and highly enjoyable) read: In Paris with You, by Clémentine Beauvais 
Old favourite re-read: Mary Poppins, by Pamela Travers 
Book on which a movie I had seen was based: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
Book I had been planning to read for a long time: The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass
Book I should have read long ago: The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
Weirdest book: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami
Author I have read most: Claire North (seven books!)
Biggest disappointment: Bookworm, by Lucy Mangan

To see all my 2018 books visit my Goodreads.


Sunday, 9 December 2018


I have been away a few days for work, and while away I realised that it would be the first time ever I return to an empty home. (So many things are “first time ever” these days). I travel a lot, even though considerably less than I once used to. When I recently told someone that I didn't travel as much as before, I then remembered that this year I have been in Italy twice, in Belgium, in Austria skiing, in Sweden, not to mention a week at Hadrian's Wall. Each time I returned home to moderate human and enthusiastic feline welcome. There was light outside the garage and light in the windows. Sometimes there was dinner. There was food for breakfast next morning.

This time, nobody was waiting. The windows were dark. There was food in the fridge, and I had made sure that I had eggs and oranges for breakfast next morning.

It was warm, because I have a smart thermostat that switches on heating toward evening.

The dishes were washed up, the kitchen was tidy, the bed was neatly made. “Leave it as you want to find it”.

I usually start feeling homesick on the third day of travel, whether I travel alone or in company. Lying on my king-size bed in the luxury hotel that my conference hosts had provided, I was violently homesick and suddenly felt confused. Did I long for the quiet of my little flat? Or did I, deeply subconsciously, long for the home I no longer have? The home I had previously returned to? I dismissed the thought as irrelevant.

Lonely night in a hotel far away from home

Monday, 3 December 2018

Advent in Gatehouse

It seems that expats become more passionate about their traditions. In San Diego we were invited to a Swedish friend (married to an American) for her annual Swedish Lucia party, and she even had some young girls, maybe nieces or neighbours, who wore Lucia dresses and candle crowns in their hair.

Here in Cambridge, American students celebrate Thanksgiving and share secrets of getting the right sort of pumpkin.

When we moved to Cambridge, I decided to maintain my Swedishness by inviting my new colleagues to glögg on the first Sunday in December – too early for Lucia (which is December 13), but since the term ends in the beginning of December, everyone would have been away. The first glögg was still in Water Street, rather crowded, but I believe everybody enjoyed it because it is so exotic. After that we had the benefit of our spacious living room and dining room in Milton, and at times we would entertain up to forty people. I have a sense that my glögg parties became sort of a legend because first-year doctoral students would hear about it from others, eager to attend, and once and only once when I couldn't do it at all I got cautious emails from people who wondered whether they had slipped off the books.

Glögg is different from mulled wine, even if the general idea of hot, spicy wine is similar, and I use my family recipe that is also slightly different from the Swedish glögg. The two musts to go with glögg are gingerbread and saffron buns, or Lucia buns. I would bake both, although recently I would sometimes cheat and order gingerbread from a Swedish shop in London. They also sell glögg spices.

I usually encourage my guests to bring something they associate with the season, which mostly works well. Occasionally people bring something that needs cooking or oven-heating, which isn't convenient when you simultaniously pour out glögg for a couple dozen guests, making sure that those who prefer non-alcoholic version take the right cups.

This year I had no intention of having a glögg party. It just felt impossible in this tiny space. Then I remembered both Water Street and my glögg party in Finland, where my flat was even smaller, but around thirty people squeezed into it.

I also thought that it was now more or less clear that it was my last year in Cambridge, my very last chance to give a glögg party for my Cambridge friends. To h-ll with it; as the Swedish saying goes: Where there is room for hearts, there is room for bums.

I explained to friends that it would be crowded, and nobody seemed to mind. I explained that I had no oven to bake saffron buns, and a student invited me to do it at her place. I found Swedish gingerbread in an Italian delicatessen. I learned from experience that some people don't drink alcohol, so I make a non-alcoholic alternative with black-currant juice. I brought frozen black currants with me for this purpose.

I was a bit anxious, but you know what? Twenty-five people seemed quite happy to share the limited space. 

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Ceremony of the Keys

To mark the first two months in Gatehouse I performed the Ceremony of the Keys.

In the past forty years, I have had two key rings: one with a single car key, the other with a set of house keys and an office key. All other sorts of keys that some people have on their key rings: garage, storeroom, bank vault, gas meter, mother-in-law's flat – I have always kept separate, in a key cabinet in the entrance hall. What's the point of carrying a bunch of keys that you maybe use once a year? I am puzzled by people who carry a dozen or more keys around. I once asked a colleague what all her keys were for, and she couldn't remember half of them. That's unhealthy, mentally as well as physically. You may think that a bunch of keys doesn't weigh much, but it does.

With Gatehouse came a set of keys that open the front door, the yard door, the gate, the shed and the mailbox. There is a plastic marker with the college name on it, like in a hotel. Until recently, I carried this set in my left pocket, while I carried the key ring with my office key and the two keys to my former home in my right pocket. There must be something deeply symbolic in this left-right separation, but for me it simply worked as a mnemonic device, since I otherwise always carry keys in my right pocket – don't ask me why. So left pocket for Gatehouse, right pocket for everything else. Doesn't make sense, does it, since I use the office key daily, while I only go back to the old house when necessary.

I use the shed key occasionally, and I check my mailbox every now and then because how often do we get paper mail these days? (Although my oldest grandson sends me wonderful letters sealed with red wax).

The time has come to move the keys I use together, to carry in my right pocket. Ironically, in my recent decluttering endeavours I threw away all key rings I had accumulated in my desk drawers. But I had some in my dollhouse supplies.

This was a solemn moment. 

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Cooking for one

When our children started moving from home, it took us a long time to adjust the amount of consumed food. I remember huge pots of pasta, family packs of meatballs and fish fingers, enormous pans of mince-meat sauce, fruit bowls emptied within an hour. With just the two of us, we obviously did less shopping, cooked smaller meals and also used more fresh ingredients rather than ready-made. Still, it's remarkable how difficult it is to calculate a meal for one. Even when I buy what looks to me like small packages, it always turns out to be too much. I can never cook the right portion of pasta. If I cook beans or lentils I always end up with twice as much as I need. I know exactly what you are thinking now: save the leftovers and freeze. That's what I am learning to do. It's hard for someone not used to it. Moreover, I am learning to cook various things over the weekend, to use later. I like vegetable cream soups, so I steam two courgettes, a butternut squash, five carrots, a celeriac, and freeze them in separate bags. Then I take as much as I need from each bag for just one bowl of soup.

Some of you are laughing now: what's the big deal, that's what normal people do. But I am not normal. I have never had a 9-5 job, and the past ten years I would come home with hot dinner waiting on the table. Planning a week of meals for one feels alien to me. Yet it would be below my dignity to eat the same pasta with mushroom sauce seven days a week. OK, go on laughing. Changing habits at my age is challenging.

By serendipity, soon after I moved to Gatehouse I read an article about cooking for one. The point is exactly the same I am making: your food doesn't have to be boring just because you are cooking for yourself. And there are some useful tips. I particularly like the one about keeping onion fresh by using the outer skin layers.

That's a strike of genius! I am doing it now, because I only need a quarter of an onion at a time. I do the same with cabbage.

If I by mistake cook more than I can consume, I freeze it, even if it is just half a cup: I can always have it as a starter.

I eat very little meat, mostly when I have lunch in college, and then I still try to choose fish. Since I moved to Gatehouse I haven't had any meat and only cooked chicken once. Chicken fillets usually come in twos, so again I had to freeze half of it. But it is convenient to have a nice meal in the freezer. (More laughter from you, dear reader).

I have no oven, so some dishes that I used to cook are now out of bounds, such as baked fish.

I am also spoiled by fifteen years with induction hobs, so I have not quite grasped how an ordinary hob works. Takes some time to heat and some time to cool. No built-in timer. I know, very first-world problems.

This is what I had for lunch today: beetroot soup. If you think having a bagel with soup is weird, that's not my concern. 

Saturday, 17 November 2018


Some twenty years ago an English-speaking friend tried to explain to me the difference between loneliness and solitude. This is a good example of how language affects perception: neither Swedish nor Russian has two separate words. I could not understand that the state of being alone could be anything than negative, and at that time I was still terrified by the very idea of loneliness.

Maybe the reason is my childhood fears of being abandoned. I am the only child, and in those carefree days children would be left unattended without further thoughts. I particularly remember two episodes. When I was five, my father and I were staying in an artists' village outside Moscow. He was composing his music, and I assume my mother was back in town working. After breakfast, my father would go skiing for a couple of hours, leaving me alone in the cottage. A couple of hours for a very young child is eternity. Perhaps it only happened once, but someone found me outside the cottage, in the snow, crying. (I don't recall my father soothing me afterwards). Several years later, in another artists' village in summer, I was sent to bed and woke in the middle of the night to realise I was alone in the cottage. My parents had gone out rowing with friends. Again, a neighbour heard my sobbing and came to comfort me.

In my teens and early twenties, I was scared of going to sleep because I thought I might never wake up. (It's the best way to die, but you don't think so when you are young). Of course eventually I would fall asleep, but it was my constant horror. In my brief first marriage, my husband, an archaeologist, was away for months. I felt profoundly lonely.

I also decided early in my life that I didn't enjoy doing things on my own. I had few friends, and particularly in summers my parents would take me with them (or send me) to places where there were no other children. Often they would take me out of school as well. I felt incredibly lonely and found consolation in intense correspondence (often with grownups), diary writing and fiction writing. When I was old enough to go to theatre, cinema or museums on my own, I discovered how much I lacked the after-show chat, the simple: “Wasn't it awesome?” or “Wasn't it awful?” It was out of the question for a young girl to travel alone, but a couple of times when I was granted the privilege to travel abroad, to Poland and Bulgaria, I felt miserable when I should have been happy and inquisitive.

After I moved to Sweden, I travelled a lot professionally, both within Sweden and all over the world. I preferred to stay with friends whenever possible. The loneliness of hotel nights was haunting. Otherwise with three children and hoards of visiting relatives, there wasn't much time to feel lonely. It came later, when I realised that if I wanted to do things I enjoyed doing I had to do them on my own, and eventually, with things that used to be shared, I had to choose between doing them on my own or not doing them at all.

That was my long and winding road to solitude – the enjoyment, even though forced, of being on my own, walking, gardening, star gazing (unfortunately, I haven't been able to do that for a long time now because of glaucoma). Miniature-making became an excellent pursuit, as did book-binding. I still prefer to do all this in company, but I am not terrified of being alone. I have converted the misery of loneliness into the peacefulness of solitude, thanks to the richness of the English language. Maybe it is simply the wisdom of age. 

If I needed more persuasion, I was totally in after reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

So what do I do in my Gatehouse solitude? Actually, pretty much the same I did before. It is tempting, when nobody waits for you at home, to just go on working in the office, but I am quite strict with myself on this matter. I don't work in the evenings and on weekends, unless there is really something urgent. I come home after work earlier than before, since it takes three minutes to walk from the office. I make myself a cup of tea. I drink a lot more tea than I used to, which is odd: you would imagine that tea-drinking is social. But it is a perfect way of crossing the border from work to rest. I read my non-work-related email and social media. I cook my meal. I wash up. Then I read, listen to music or watch a movie. I haven't got a television, but it works perfectly well to watch movies on my computer. I have recently succumbed to Netflix and watched all the big series such as Handmaid's Tale and Black Mirror. Here in Gatehouse, I have watched Alias Grace and Anne with “e” and some movies I have had on my watchlist for ages.

I have also very recently discovered Spotify. I had used it a couple of times before, but never got hooked because for me listening to music is definitely social, and once upon a time we played classical CDs a lot, but not for a very long time now. I have become increasingly sensitive to noise, and some time ago I got myself noise-cancelling headphones. Interestingly, I only used them for noise-cancelling purpose once, on a flight, which was bliss. But the side effect was that I tentatively tried to listen to meditation music in bed, after or instead of reading, and then I moved on to Bach and Chopin, and I was so irritated by advertising that I bought myself out of it, and now I am completely addicted. I think I have decided that I could hypothetically live without books, but I cannot live without music. Spotify has everything I need and more; it is, however, important to choose wisely, finding performances by best artists and of full works, not just popular snippets.

I have also found a way to continue with miniature-making, but this is a separate story. 

Something for solitary evenings