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  • Helen

Throwing Away Books?

The first conversation we ever had was about books – and we’ve been talking about them ever since – and buying them. Sometimes we agree not to go into bookshops until we’ve read what we’ve got – but the resolution never lasts long. A friend recommends something or a book reviewer whets our appetites and leaves us wanting more of the ideas surveyed in the review – the temptation is too much and the space on the bookshelf gets less.

These days, our daughter who works in publishing, regularly brings us a bag of new free books to sample. There’s no way we’re going to refuse that gift! Sometimes the books in the bag introduce us to new authors and more new books follow.

There’s a major drawback to all this behaviour – we’re running out of bookshelf space. When we both had offices in college, we could kid ourselves that everything was fine. But that fantasy came to an end this week when the college office that Mike had kept while he was still teaching and which housed books from both our working lives - needed finally clearing. We had to bite the bullet!

And so began the process of sorting into three piles – books we can easily throw out, books we need a bit of time to decide about, and books that we just cannot throw away. Quite a few of the books in the third category are books we haven’t read recently but they’re like old friends – old friends whom you rarely see but whose existence gives you comfort. Just knowing some people – and some books – are there for you if you need them is a source of strength and resilience. Before we met, we had both read lots of CS Lewis and he’s always been important to us. His Mere Christianity and The Four Loves, were the subject of that first ever conversation.

The sorting exercise does concentrate the mind. And it makes you realise how many people have influenced you over the years. After reading some books, there’s no going back – the world is never the same again. In that category, we’d both put names like Karen Armstrong and Paul Tournier, Francis Dewar and Richard Holloway. Primary Speech by Anne Belford Ulanov is the most insightful, honest and down to earth book on prayer either of us has ever read.

But if we were on a desert island together, there is one author whose books we agree have been most important to both of us. In the late 80s, we both read Harry Williams’ books ,True Wilderness, True Resurrection, Tensions, and his autobiography, Some Day I’ll Find You. These books have influenced us and many others to whom we have recommended them. When we first read his books, Williams was still alive and living in the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield. I wrote and told him how much the books had meant to us both. (the only time I have done such a thing!) He replied with a charming, spidery handwritten letter which sits in one of our tattered copies of True Resurrection.

He says, “I’m sure you know the old (Chinese I believe) proverb, ‘When the pupil is ready, the teacher comes’. I have certainly found it true in my own case. I have read a book and it has meant nothing to me. Then, some time later, I have read it again, and it has been full of meaning...the reader of a book contributes as much to it as the writer”.

If the Chinese are right, we should never throw away a book in case the time for meaning hasn’t come yet! Maybe we need to build more bookshelves!

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