A librarian with three English degrees and a literary-minded physicist can accumulate a vast pile of books between them. Yesterday, despite only having two and a half bookcases in the house, and no prospect of being able to afford more in the near future, we set to work on unpacking the vast mountain of book boxes we have accumulated over the course of several recent moves.
In one box, I came across a copy of Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing which, ironically, I had bought second-hand in Cambridge and then promptly not read. Browsing through it, I noticed a passage where she talks about books which fill a temporary need, and can then be disposed of: “You don’t have to pay its rent just because it is a book”.* One genre she singles out here is the travel guide; by coincidence, we had just opened a box full of our old, well-worn travel books and maps, and it struck me that this was an idea worth exploring.
Here’s a small selection of the books themselves, stacked as neatly as possible given the fact that many of them are rather bent and battered, their multi-coloured spines somewhat unified by the use of a monochrome filter.
We used to travel quite a lot; Stephen still does, although Eoin, not being immensely fond of changes in his routine, tends to act rather like a little human ball and chain as far as I am concerned. One day, of course, this will change, but, for the moment, he and I are very much home-based.
By the time we do start to move about again, many of these books will be of little practical use: hotels will have closed, prices will have changed, entire borders may be different. The guides to Paris and Italy, for example, are long out of date, as they deal entirely in pre-Euro currencies. Still, though, we resist ridding ourselves of these volumes. They are the tangible reminders of journeys we have made, and of experiences we have had. Stephen’s term living in Paris, where he discovered the perils and delights of subsidised three-course lunches every day in the university canteen (he says he returned to Ireland twice the size he was when he left). My stay in Florence, studying Italian and art history, and trying to get to grips with the rubbish collection system. Our train trip across Russia, fuelled by tea from the carriage samovar. The time I visited Venice with my friend K, and we witnessed the almost ridiculously romantic sight of couples waltzing by moonlight on the steps of La Salute. A lot of the guides have scribbled notes, crossings out, business cards taped into the covers or tucked between the pages. They may be out of date, but they are also irreplaceable. In using them, we have changed them and added to them as we have changed ourselves, even in small ways, by the journeys we have taken. I don’t mind paying their rent: the memories are worth it.
*Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing: a year of reading from home (London: Profile, 2010), p.7. Please excuse any errors in formatting: I haven’t found either of the MLA or MHRA style guides yet, and I’m useless at footnoting without them.