The millennial bibliophile

Too many books, too little space and the insecurity of renting

Artillery Row

There is nothing quite like moving flat to make one reflect on the cost/benefit balance of owning books. Especially when moving to a new house which, whilst possessed of many virtues, has less shelf space than the one you’re leaving.

I love owning books. Not just to read them – like many, I buy them faster than I read them – but as an article of décor. They give a room character, specifically the owner’s character. Not for nothing did we spend the early stages of the pandemic judging the bookshelves in everyone’s Zoom backgrounds.

They give a room character, specifically the owner’s character

But how much room do we millennials typically have? Those of us who live in London, especially, are usually forced by this country’s broken housing market to stay in flat shares long after we might wish to own our own home. 

The insecurity of renting, and thus the prospect of moving frequently, is also a strong deterrent against building up a heavy and space-intensive library. My poor brother, who volunteered to help me move and was thus stuck carrying the things, suggested more than once that one should simply keep a note of the books one wished to own and buy to fill a house once you’ve bought a house.

Gazing at the as-yet-unpacked bags of books and trying to work out where they all might go, there is undoubtedly wisdom to the advice. But there is a cold injustice to it. Much ink has been spilled about how unaffordable housing prevents people settling down and raising children. Must it prevent us owning books as well?

Besides which, there are downsides to the alternatives. I could store thousands of books on a single Kindle, yes, but the reading experience simply does not match that of the printed page. Nor does it feel like a proper break from the screen the way an actual book does.

More seriously, I think it is harder to actually own a digital product. This is a trade-off I’m happy to make with music, having come of age too late to get sentimental about a record collection there is scant downside to the convenience of Spotify. But with the big streaming providers already showing signs of bowdlerising or censoring old films and TV series, I’m not keen to let big tech mediate my access to books. 

Using the library, meanwhile, poses fewer of these problems (although we surely cannot rule out mediating their collections at some point) but is a step even further away from ownership.

In the end, we settled on a compromise. I’ll shelve as many of my books as I can, and then give the remainder a serious sift before simply sticking them under the bed or trying to haggle for some space in my parents’ attic. There must surely be some that I can bear to part with. (My brother’s barbaric suggestion of simply throwing books away I attributed to his sore arms.)

But how to shelve them? This topic provokes strong feelings in certain corners of Twitter. Should you organise by author? By genre? By colour? Or, like the 43 per cent of respondents to a recent YouGov poll, do you simply “not organise your books in any way”?

I worry that my system would probably fall into the “not organised” category. It certainly baffled my old housemate, a firm believer in a well-ordered shelf. 

But there is a difference between the appearance of chaos and actual chaos. The absence of a formal organisation system might make my library more difficult to outsiders to interrogate, but that’s not the same thing as being disorganised. My books are grouped in various ways – graphic novels on one shelf, small books on that one shelf that fits them – but mostly simply by what I think makes sense to be next to what. Order arises organically, spontaneously, as I use and replace them. 

I wonder how many of the 43 per cent are in the same boat. The thought of genuinely assembling a collection of books with no coherence at all is enough to short-circuit the brain. But how many others read the question as whether or not they had a uniform system for the convenience of others?

To work, then. One can only put off the onerous task of unboxing a couple of hundred books so long, even by writing about them. And I never feel truly moved in to a place until I have unpacked my library.

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