Sunday, 20 January 2019

Farewell, my cherry orchard

How do I feel about having sold the first and only home that I genuinely loved?

I was not involved when my childhood home was sold, but I remember my resentment about the alterations made while I was still able to visit.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

It 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?

Although 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 easier.

I 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 my life.

So 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.

Of course I still have the whole process of packing, selling, giving away, cleaning and surrendering the keys.

I 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.

The displaced hedgehog wanders on. 

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.