My house needs a damp course, all the way round. The damp course man says there will be a lot of dust, and I need to move books etc upstairs. There isn’t much etcetera but there are a lot of books, at least in proportion to the house which is two-up two-down with a lean-to kitchen and a bathroom under the stairs. The house is fine, more than fine; it’s the books that are a problem. Damp course aside, there is no more space for new ones.
This has set me thinking about which books I’d keep, if I only had one room. Strangely that is much, much easier than deciding on a few books to throw out (which from now on I will need to do regularly).
Looking at two random shelves, both containing mid-20th century non-fiction, I’d keep:
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. Jewish girl gets deported from Vilnius to Siberia, in 1941. This was read aloud to us in English class when we were 10, same age as Esther at the start.
Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm. Necessary history.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell in the middle of events.
Bad Blood by Lorna Sage. About growing up in the Welsh borders, the curse of family: a great read.
Honour, Family, and Patronage: a Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community by J K Campbell. This anthropological study from the 1950’s was hugely illuminating when I was living in Athens in the 1990’s, trying to understand contemporary Greek politics and society.
Poetry anthologies are on one long shelf, I’ve got around 70. I’d keep:
Staying Alive, Being Alive, and Being Human, edited by Neil Astley – the three big Bloodaxe anthologies of 20th and 21st century poetry, which contain large numbers of exceptional poems by a vast range of writers. The scope, whether poetic, geographical, cultural or emotional, is huge. The thematic grouping, which could have been a disaster, works really well. These three would make up for not having room for books of poetry in translation such as The Poetry of Survival, post-war poets of Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Daniel Weissbort.
The Making of a Sonnet – Norton anthology, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. Formal counterpoint to the largely free verse Bloodaxes, and with poems from Dante onwards.
The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson. Innovative, inventive sonnets, 20th and 21st century.
Carcanet New Poetries V, edited by Michael Schmidt with Eleanor Crawforth, would be my contemporary British anthology because it’s got a higher-than-usual proportion of strikingly good poems. Eclectic is another way to go: I’m enjoying a set of four micro-anthologies, blackbird, kingfisher, swift and kestrel, from Sidekick Books, each with half a dozen mostly contemporary poems on the bird in question, and small enough to nestle in the back pocket of my jeans. Sidekick also produce the full-size Birdbooks.
Legitimate Dangers, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin and published by Sarabande, has to be my contemporary American choice. It contains work by over 80 poets born after 1960. This makes it forbiddingly heavy, but it’s where I first read favourites such as Brenda Shaughnessy, Matthea Harvey and D A Powell. A reserve would be The Best of the Best American poetry, edited by Robert Pinsky, a 2013 selection from all the annual Best anthologies since 1988; plenty of famous names.
Somehow, I don’t feel the need for anthologies of earlier poetry – maybe because it is in my head anyway. I don’t mean that I know it off by heart, but that the voices of my favourites, of such as Horace, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson, are in my head.
20th / 21st century single poet collections are much, much harder. One way of looking at this is to consider which poets I most often pull off the shelf, to read in order to write. The ones I can think of, in no particular order, form a very small subset:
W S Graham, J H Prynne, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Denise Riley, D A Powell, Marie Howe, Jane Kenyon, Paul Celan, George Seferis, Sylvia Plath, Tomas Tranströmer.
Another way is to consider which new books spend a lot of time out, being read and then read again in a different mood or direction: current examples include Omnesia by W N Herbert, The Visitations by Kathryn Simmonds, and Loom by Sarah Gridley.
Neither of these methods works. If it came to one room, I’d ditch nearly all my contemporary novels, in order to keep as much poetry as possible. (I wouldn’t get an ebook reader: electronic devices put me in work mode.) As it is, in three weeks’ time I’m going to have to move some books out, temporarily. I don’t want the upstairs floor to collapse, and there has to be room to sleep.