do I feel about having sold the first and only home that I genuinely
was not involved when my childhood home was sold, but I remember my
resentment about the alterations made while I was still able to
have re-read my blog from summer 2008, and I sense my anxieties then
sky-high above what I feel now. Maybe I have made myself numb
subconsciously, because the pain is unbearable.
never really loved our house in Stockholm. When we bought it, I was
still new in Sweden and I was just about to have a baby. In
hindsight, I realise that we should have accepted the municipal flat
we had been offered and waited with house purchase until things had
settled. At the same time it was important to have stability. We had
only viewed two houses. I didn't know you were supposed to view
dozens before making up your mind. I was awed by the idea of getting
a mortgage, and generally I didn't know what we were doing. It wasn't
my dream house, and it never became one. We repainted the horrible
dark green and brown walls. All our furniture was second-hand or even
retrieved from garbage containers. I had no job. We had five
children. When we had extra money, we prioritised travel (or so we
said). Every purchase of curtains or rugs was a matter of compromise.
I was envious of friends who had nice homes, and I was ashamed when
my Russian family and friends visited.
wasn't particularly into gardening either. From my home country, I
brought a pragmatic view of gardens: that's where you grow
vegetables. But no one needed home-grown vegetables in a land of
plenty. I only got interested in purposeless gardening when I was on
long-term sick leave. Hortotherapy = true.
was not until my mother-in-law died and we inherited some lovely
stuff from her elegant house, that I felt motivated to do something
about mine. By that time I had a job and a salary, the children had
moved out, I renovated the kitchen and the bathroom. Very soon after
that we moved to Cambridge. I remember that at first we thought we
would rent out and return after eleven years. How naive one can be!
What would we be returning to now?
I still didn't love my home, it broke my heart to part with it, and
the first months in Cambridge until we found Woodside didn't make it
fell in love with Woodside at first sight. First the garden, then the
house itself. I felt at home. When we brought our furniture and other
stuff, when everything found its place, when we put up the pictures,
when we lit the first fire. The house had everything I had ever
dreamed of, and many things I hadn't known I had dreamed of. And I
got a garden of just the right size, where things grew and thrived.
And ten years went by, mostly very happy years, and many dear people
came and stayed, and many more came to parties and teas. With all the
doubts and uncertainties, I hoped it would be my home for the rest of
how do I feel now, with the sign “sold” outside our driveway?
Maybe it is different because the home had already been lost for a
while and I had grown accustomed to the idea that it was happening.
Maybe it's because it wasn't my choice. Maybe because during my
reluctant, but inevitable visits these past months the only way to
endure them was to tell myself: This does not concern me at all. Ten
mostly happy years, but it's over, and no point in looking back.
course I still have the whole process of packing, selling, giving
away, cleaning and surrendering the keys.
hope the people who have bought Woodside are passionate gardeners and
will have a lot of joy watching my daffodils and poppies emerge,
rather than cutting down the trees, filling the pond and digging up
my roses. But it does not concern me. They can do whatever they want.
The agent advert suggested endless potentials in knocking down walls.
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
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
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.