After years of making do with shoddy shelving, the benefits of handcrafting a home for your books can't be overestimated.
I've lost count of the number of flats I've lived in over the last two decades, from the red bricked Victoriana of Manchester via the basement bed-sits of Brighton to the crumbling splendour of east London. All those dodgy landlords, mismatching interiors and ill-fitting wardrobes. Until last year, when we did what was until then thought of as science fiction: bought our first home.
Something has happened to me. I'm a changed man. It's not the fact that I now find myself talking about house prices during polite conversation, nor is it the fastidious book keeping and budgeting skills I seem miraculously to have acquired (okay, that's a lie. My wife makes sure I'm up to scratch on all that). No: it's my new bookshelf-building skills. And I'm not talking flat packs from Ikea and Habitat, I'm talking the real thing: hand-cut from wood I've sourced at timber yards, shelves I've measured and fixed together myself, that now fit snugly in the floor-to-ceiling alcoves of each room and look as if they were always meant to be there. Gone are the mismatched bookcases scrounged from local libraries, the cheap Argos space-fillers with the sagging shelves, the it's-a-wonder-they're-still-standing bookcases acquired over the years from skips and outside people's houses. It makes me wonder just what I have been doing with my life to date. Now my books actually look like a serious bibliophile's library, not an assortment thrown onto shelves and into boxes in various rooms, basements and lofts.
It's not all been plain sailing. Building bespoke bookshelves was hard work and, at times, downright painful. But I got through it, and emerged with a new outlook. Nowadays, the first thing I look at when I visit friends' houses is their shelves, not the books on them - and I'm usually disappointed. Rather than salivating over some rare first edition or other, I now hear myself muttering things like, "Have you thought about building your own shelves? It's not as expensive as you might think, and the benefits are myriad". Or "I'm actually quite handy with a jigsaw, you know." Sad, but true.
My new-found obsession bears the hallmarks of our fascination with authors' handwriting, rooms, even their chairs. What are we searching for when we peer in? I recently took to scouring the internet to find photos of authors' bookshelves, and came across a glorious picture of Derrida's study, his absence in the photograph wonderfully tangible. Another, similar photograph taken in Beckett's apartment in Paris shows his imposing bookshelves. I guess what first struck me about the bookshelves in these photographs was not their functionality but the geometry of them, their weightiness; solid, hefty structures, formed in a symmetry that speaks of serious craft and toil. In the absence of both Derrida and Beckett from each photograph we begin to see the permanency of their work, secure in a haven built into the walls around them.
Yet, something about these two photographs already suggests that time has moved on, and I am beginning to ask myself just what authors of the future will make of all this bookshelf business. Not much, I fear. As the likelihood of carrying a whole library around in our back pocket looms that little bit larger, will we even have bookshelves at all? Sadly, I very much doubt it. With the once-distant digital shores now just a click away, it makes me cherish the shelves I've built that little bit more.
- Lee Rourke, Guardian.co.uk