‘Lay off our books, Marie Kondo’
The bookshelves in our cottage are full, but some day there’ll be space for more
These shelves need the Philip Judge book-classification treatment. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Christmas has left an awful lot of freshly acquired stuff behind and our cottage seems to have shrunk. For years a slow motion tsunami of accumulating possessions has been flowing inexorably into every room. Naturally I blame our sons and ignore my own complicity. But the tide – swollen by December’s gift bonanza – threatens to overwhelm us, and my wife is taking action. Ever since reading Marie Kondo’s book about magical tidying she has been muttering darkly about “de-cluttering”.
Further encouraged by the new Kondo Netflix show she wanders menacingly around the house like a Grand Inquisitor ominously tapping on things to see if they “spark joy”. Then she applies gentle yet implacable pressure on me and the boys to get rid of things no longer needed. Naturally all of her personal belongings are either invaluable or beautiful and therefore worth keeping. I’ve recycled some favourite but ragged shirts and am considering disposing of trousers I had been hoping to fit into again some glorious morning. However, I refuse to get rid of any old books – despite having an inviting pile of new ones on my bedside table – and thankfully, this is where she also draws the line.
In our imaginary extension (which may one day be real), there will be many attractively displayed volumes
Years ago when we first lived together, we begrudgingly let some go. We often had our own editions of certain classic works and we tussled over whose copy survived. There were academic arguments about superior typefaces versus better-quality binding – spurious quibbles based on sentimental attachment – but we each relinquished a reluctant few. She too got books for Christmas, which will also need to be shelved when read.
In our imaginary extension (which may one day be real), there will be many attractively displayed volumes. We’ll have a wall of oak shelving in the study and accessibly arrayed recipe and wine books in the kitchen. In spare rooms there’ll be elegantly angled bookracks with eclectic, amusing selections of bedside reading. For the open-plan living area we foresee cunningly designed floor-to-ceiling bookcases on castors which can be rearranged, as required, to separate the space into quiet nooks and snug corners or wheeled fully back to make room for general roistering and festive cavorting.
But for now we have to make do with the bookcases I built when we moved here. A century ago cottages like this housed more babies than books and were designed accordingly, so my options were limited. There was a high recessed niche across the breadth of the kitchen fireplace. Now it houses favourite cookbooks to the left and recipes by foul-mouthed or finger-sucking celebrity chefs in the middle. At the right there are practical guides to country living such as: Mushrooms for Morons, Pickling for Pillocks and Gardening for Gobshites.
My book classification system is subtle, intuitive and learned, but my wife says it is pants
Once we’d arranged the furniture we had a yard of free space between the sofa and the stove. So I knocked up a narrow shelf unit the height of the room: poetry at the top; drama at chest level; assorted arty books beneath; and firewood at the bottom. The sitting room, situated in the single storey extension at the back, is accessed through a short corridor. Its door was never closed so I removed it and built fitted bookcases along the adjoining walls using narrow planks just wide enough for a single row of paperbacks because of the tight space. Jutting out above head height is a deeper shelf for bigger coffee-table books. This top heaviness offends my wife’s aesthetic sense but she accepts that it’s better than barking your shins on sharp corners at ground level.
Carpentry aside, I’m most proud of my book classification system. The fiction section in the corridor is traditionally alphabetical – regardless of genre – but sorting non-fiction was more of a challenge: how would I arrange history, politics, biography or science? (After all, everybody has a copy of A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. ) The Dewy Decimal and the Library of Congress systems both had their attractions but would have required numbering each individual volume, and feck that. I deliberated and came up with partly thematic and partly chronological plan: a sort of overview of human intellectual development. It is subtle, intuitive and learned, but my wife says it is pants and when I attempt to explain the nuances she seems to lose the will to live.
The boys don’t object to the classification used in their room – or perhaps they just don’t care. I built probably my most expertly fashioned and best proportioned bookcase for them. The top shelf holds books they liked when they were babies. Along the bottom are larger, specially illustrated editions of children’s classics bought to mark their births, first Christmases and notable birthdays – the nostalgic favourites from our own childhoods which we only half remember and they will probably never read. The middle shelves are most used. They’re lined with chronicles of appallingly behaved children enjoyed by the younger boy and tales of espionage, crime and judicious violence favoured by his brother. I hope, when they’re older, they’ll explore the shelves downstairs: I can’t wait to explain my system.
In Sight of Yellow Mountain by Philip Judge is published by Gill Books