Linda Grant, I Murdered My Library

One of the things that’s interesting about Grant’s kindle single is the way in which the lines between how we talk about physical books[1] and ebooks are constantly crossed by its format and subject. As I say below, pieces of this length are probably financially more feasible in ebook form, and yet it’s mostly about physical books, and has a (electronic) cover that deliberately invokes a very specific print publishing tradition. I think what I was going for in this week’s column is that this makes it particularly interesting to see how the book is read; in what ways it can be (or resists being) co-opted into the various conversations around books-vs-ebooks (and indeed the discourse that puts that “vs” there at all). And the ebook format allows us access to some of that information about how it’s being read/used in unique ways.

I think instead I come across as crotchety and annoyed that other people are highlighting the WRONG things.

(They are, though.)



I find it very easy to be very annoyed by the sort of people who rhapsodise over the smell of books (you can now buy a perfume that claims to capture this) or the feel of them, or the magic space that is a bookshop. I love rooting through second-hand bookshops, but I always want to wash my hands afterwards; I do most of my book-buying online; sometimes I’ll even walk into a bookshop and look at what’s on offer and not want any of it. It feels often as if the idea of books (of being the sort of person who reads) is more important than the fact of them—I don’t recognise myself in the culture that produces such things as the cringeworthy “date a girl who reads” meme. Occasionally someone will tell me that they can’t read ebooks because they require the physical presence of a book, and perhaps this is really true for them; but I find myself wondering how many books they buy and read per year, whether they have magic houses and space-time-continuum-defying shelves, whether they ever move across the world (or just down the road) and have to confront the sheer weight of books. I’m probably displaying all manner of prejudice in doing so, and yet.

One of the several advantages of reading Linda Grant’s short piece I Murdered My Library as an ebook (perhaps the most obvious is that pieces of writing this length are much more feasible in a world where we have ebooks) is that the Kindle usefully marks for you not only the sentences that you yourself have noticed and highlighted, but the things that a number of other readers have. And so I know that here as well, readers have been most moved by things like “you cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books”, or “reading wasn’t my religion—it was my oxygen”. At one point nearly an entire page bears the dotted underline that tells me that other readers have been here before me (in this the whole thing resembles a much-used library book). The only part of the page left un-annotated until I highlight it myself is a section where Grant speaks of a specific author, Jean Rhys, and it’s the most moving thing there.

Because when Grant writes about books it’s clear that she’s very aware of the weight of them, in the metaphorical as well as the purely physical sense. She can speak of Rhys and make me teary; she can also speak of the usefulness of knowing that Tom Stoppard once wrote a novel (“Lord Malquist and Mr Moon was the literary equivalent of the Wonderbra for the intellectually pretentious students of the seventies”). Physical books can be charged with meaning and personal history; reading and owning books can be oppressive to the point that it’s possible to feel hatred.

On the subject of ebooks Grant is pragmatic; some things aren’t available as ebooks, sometimes technology fails, much of the time it’s a relief to have lots of reading material in one tiny device (“[and it] feels more intimate, like a shelled animal carrying its home on its back”). Paper books can be burnt or pulped or thrown away and it’s a sad necessity and/or a tragedy; “but you can’t kill books” (she quotes Amos Oz).

And yet, and yet. “It is death that we’re talking about. Death is the subject”. A library is a bigger idea than the individual books of which it’s made; and it’s at the point when Grant resigns herself to the impossibility of her library and discards most of it, that the book begins and ends. The moment of the murder. You can feel the suppressed horror rising through the book; Grant’s last words are “what have I done?”



 [1] See Raghu Karnad’s “booksing” piece, also Kuzhali Manickavel on maybe not wanting to fondle/sniff/lick/have sex with secondhand books that smell weird.

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