Book columns usually devote themselves to praise and promotion. Perhaps measured praise, expressed in subtly critical language that demonstrates the profound depth and range of the critic's literary compass. Yet when you hear that Conan Doyle's Dr Watson – fellow sleuth of Sherlock Holmes – actually threw a yellow-back across the room in disgust at its predictably formulaic plot, you see clearly that some books are simply not worth reading, let alone buying in the first place.
And then you read words like 'dwarf' (as in Snow White
and) and 'gay' (okay in PG Wodehouse but watch your step) and decide to throw away the children's books (the Moomins, the Alice books, Tarka the Otter
) you used to love and kept in a box under the stairs. You then decide to check through the Scottish literary classics to see whether there are too many hoots-mon stereotypes and Anglicidal allusions. After all this re-evaluation and re-framing of your domestic arrangements and your mental furniture, you come to see that book columns sometimes need to grasp the nettle and speak out.
Some books are simply not wanted on voyage, when you tell yourself (or should) that there is simply no houseroom for them. Novelist Susan Hill wisely decided to stop books pouring into the house, and just read the ones that were there. Her book Howards End is on the Landing
tells the story of 'a year of reading from home', rather appropriate given recent events. This had a damming effect: no new books, turning down review books, cautious library borrowing, taking stock. Such self-discipline is admirable if you have a houseful of books and plenty to read. Most of us have only a few (an imaginary poll might tally say less then 200, excluding electronic texts) and then most for travel, work and cooking.
Taking stock can be quite hard with old favourites. Some books have sentimental associations – the novel we loved at school, the heavily-scored copy of Rabelais or Hume we studied at college, the legacy from Uncle Jack still smelling of his tobacco. We defy our partners and astonish our friends by wanting to keep them. And yet times change, and we change with them, or so it seems.
Even Jane Austen is not exempt. Current thinking appears to be in favour of condemning Sir Thomas, the owner and paterfamilias of Mansfield Park
, for earning part of his living from the slave trade in Antigua. Money, along with class, is always a perennial issue in Austen as we know, but clearly it seems a spring-cleaning or vaccination programme is needed in the literary classics department. My complete and unabridged Huckleberry Finn
will, I'm afraid, have to go out with the rubbish. Perhaps Scott in Rob Roy
will summon the defence of the truth by saying that some of the clans gathering around Bonnie Prince Charlie secretly supported the Hanoverians.
Some books never come into the house, or come in only surreptitiously (like reading Lady Chatterley
in brown paper covers or Marvel comics and bums-and-tits on the sly) because parents rule okay. Territory for A Catcher in the Rye
, which readers of a certain age were not allowed to read until parents learnt that it had become a school English text. Librarians working with children, too, had to be ready to explain why Judy Blume or historical accounts of concentration camps were suitable for stock. Quality, as we know, is very much in the eye of the beholder.
The protection of the vulnerable is a very large umbrella, and its moral shadow is spreading ever wider as political correctness and human rights shape the cultural agenda. It is my right not to be disrespected by anything I regard as disrespectful. Exclusion of liability clauses for intellectual property are gold-dust for writers and publishers.
This is the domain of censorship (and its cousin infringement) and is another story. But the issue of unwelcome books is more a matter of self-censorship, and making sure particular books either don't come into the house or ensuring they don't stay very long.
Some of these, of course, are books we talk about but never actually read, like Ulysses
and Anna Karenina
and Tristram Shandy
, Proust and Piers Plowman
, At Swim-Two-Birds
, The Worm Ourobouros
, Wolf Solent
and Fear and Loathing
. They exist in a limbo of cultural bricolage in all our minds but, only if circumstances are right, do we ever read them.
A friend has taken Bleak House
on holiday for the last 10 years, and knows chapter one really well. Perhaps such restraint is all to the good given how small most apartments and houses are and how sensitive floors are to heavy bookshelves. It is all part of modern living. And foxed and dog-eared paperbacks spoil the décor. At last we can get rid of that smelly Hungry Caterpillar
and those itsy-bitsy Beatrix Potters now the kids are older.
Others are books and authors we tire of – that 20th Stephanie Plum, yet another M C Beaton, how-does-she-do-it Kathy Reichs. We love To Kill a Mockingbird
and admire Gone with the Wind
, but acknowledge that here we are in the presence of authors with only one book in them. Literary agents often tell us that it is the second book from author X that really counts.
Do you, for example, know much about Richard Adams apart from his rabbit-saga Watership Down
? Give it a chance and authors like that have a lot more to give than just one book. There also books that take a formula and gloriously transcend it – Rogue Male
for male heroics, All Quiet on the Western Front
for war stories, Simenon's non-Maigret fiction for narrative realism as good as Zola's, Strangers on a Train
for suspense, Zamyatin's We
as proof that science fiction can change policy, R.U.R.
as evidence that war is crazy.
Even substantial writers have off days. Robin Jenkins' The Cone-Gatherers
is rightly rated as a great book, in the same league as Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea,
Kafka's The Metamorphosis
and Orwell's Animal Farm
. All works that are resilient enough to survive that kiss of death 'set book' status in the classroom.
Yet Jenkins' The Changeling
has disappointed many readers, with its awkward sentimentality and moralising satire. There is a falling-off of talent and interest, too, in the seven-fold series from L M Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables
books. Even she grew tired of them. Conan Doyle even tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, as we all know.
A book can be simply brilliant, original, authentic, and entirely well-intentioned: but nevertheless not make the cut. Simon Winchester's Surgeon of Crowthorne
, for instance, about a madman locked up but who contributed innumerable entries to the Oxford English Dictionary,
is quite compulsive reading. But its tragic and gory finale is more than some care to know. Take Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin
, that 2003 Orange Prize winner about a teenage boy who has a macabre Columbine massacre obsession which leads to an ultimate cruelty. Brilliant, and yet – a book to buy, to keep, to keep in the house for reading again? The thought-police are there to tell you not to encourage self-abuse or true crime, even in the very best forms of writing. As Juvenal said, who is to guard the guardians? Certainly not writers of book columns.
There are many other reasons not to keep a book in the house, and not to have it there in the first place. The first instalment of Obama's political autobiography made a great radio series but a tortuously elaborate read. Where are transient biographies and autobiographies of here-today-gone-tomorrow personalities, except in generous public libraries and charity shops?
Yet we never know what might be valuable in the future: the ephemera of today become the collectibles of tomorrow. Guide books and maps of the Scottish Highlands, for instance, get unuseably dated but then, after the passage of the years, acquire historical or antiquarian interest and turn into collector's treasures. That yellow-back which Dr Watson threw away could fetch over £500. It is as if we all have an imaginative and fungible stake in an Antiques Roadshow
. But how are you to know? And, after all, they smell musty. A tantalising prudential tipping point.
Scores, then, of good reasons why we should not
read books, buy them, borrow them, hoard them, download them, treasure them. Yet can we un-remember any of them, even the mediocre? Our mental bookshelves are groaning with half-remembered titles, and some of us, like the characters in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
virtually have perfect textual recall. Perhaps a memory wipe is called for, a stock clearance and a moment of vision, as we image what it would be like in a world entirely free of books we don't want and shouldn't have. Thanks but no thanks.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a former chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School