The joys & perils of sorting out old books

Are you struggling to remember happy times? Is the sadness of your loved one’s passing overwhelming you? Here’s an idea about creating a memory board, but first a personal reflection:

It’s officially spring-time – although I can’t say it particularly feels like it yet – and now’s as good a time as any to try and make a bit more space in my home office. In other words, it’s time to get rid of stuff.

Today’s long overdue project was starting to go through my bookshelves. It’s amazing what you collect over the years – fiction, non-fiction, and some books that defy easy descriptions. Now, with several big boxes of books ready to give away and a big bag of rubbish too, it’s time to reflect. Actually I did quite a bit of reflecting while on the activity. It’s tough to sort out books as you end up finding some things you always meant to read, and then you start dipping in and out of the pages, and then you get nowhere fast!

I can remember when I bought or was given some of the books, including many of those that have been returned to my shelves. A secondhand bookshop here, a car boot sale there, an Amazon online order; books bought at particular events, or books that I in some way contributed to.

A lot of the books that are in the give-away pile today are from an old project that has long since passed. I could have disposed of them a decade ago really. It was odd looking at those books, especially ones that I had used for writing projects, and seeing my post-its and highlights and notes, almost like they were written by another person. Leafing through the books brought back lots of memories, not all of them good. That’s why I included the word “perils” in this post. If your life has been tumultuous and you’ve suffered loss, then it can be a bit hazardous to revisit.

On the other hand, there are joys. I shook open a book that decades ago I used to enjoy and often reread, and lo and behold, out fell a picture of Catherine as a baby.  So cute in her stroller, with her thick wavy hair even though she was less than 6 months old in the picture.

IMG_20180306_153505_resized_20180306_042757480That’s the joy, the happy memories, and the very welcome discovery of a photo that I didn’t even know I had.

I’m so glad I’ve been taking my time with this, and checking inside each and every book. I wonder what other treasures I will find when I make it to the books in the rest of the house, and finish up my office too. That will have to wait for another time though, as by the time I got to the oldest books on the shelf, I became entirely distracted.

Some years back I started collecting old Victorian books like “The Quiver” which is really a compilation of periodicals from the time, with some Christian content and a lot of general interest, fiction, and travel stories. I started the collection when I was looking for quotations and snippets I could use in my books of daily readings and some made it into Daily Moments (and yes this is a little bit of advert)

The books are from the late 1800s. I found a flower pressed between the pages. I think I might have put it there although I can’t quite remember – a Victorian flower would have surely turned to dust by now?

One thing I always enjoyed in these books is the art  – black and white line engravings, but so finely done they almost appear to be in colour. There are a few examples below.

The articles and stories in the book are of its time, and much of it isn’t something we’d be comfortable with today.  It’s rather like that famous quote:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

It it is true of ourselves too. When I look at some of the books I used to read and some of my highlights, I’m about as uncomfortable as reading some of those Quiver chapters – maybe more so.

On the other hand, there are articles about pets with lots of illustrations which remind me of the ubiquitous cat videos we find on social media! So not everything changes.


19th century cute cats

I guess in our own personal histories, we all have that mixture of good, bad and plain odd. Our past “self” can seem strange to us.

This seems to reflect a significant part of the experience of living with grief; looking back, trying to sort out what was good and was not, trying to make peace with ourselves. How many of the bereaved struggle with regrets or guilt? How many of us replay the last conversations, wishing we had said more or wishing we had left something unsaid? This is particularly the case, of course, if our loved one’s passing was sudden and unexpected.

I have replayed my last conversation with Catherine so many times. I stand at my kitchen window where I stood during that conversation on the phone. Each time I take a train I gaze at the part of the platform where we said our goodbyes after her visit before she got on the train home. None of us knew that this would be the last hug, the last sight. I can picture in my mind’s eye, seeing her get on the train, walking through the carriage, sitting down. That’s just short of seven years ago.

That’s a precious bittersweet memory that I am glad to treasure, whereas thinking about something like her bipolar disorder and how difficult it made her life is not at all positive or happy.

Memories aren’t quite like the books on our shelves. If we have books we don’t like on our literal physical bookshelf, we can discard them, but if we have sad memories, then they stay with us.

I’ve observed from my early experience of bereavement, and from conversations with others, how for some people it can seem feel like their “virtual shelf” of memories is so overloaded with sadness there are no happy thoughts there at all. After all, wasn’t there a sad ending to the book of his/her life?

But I truly believe there are good parts in every person’s life. Maybe it is as simple as how they enjoyed their coffee, or how you celebrated birthdays or Christmas. Maybe it was their talents or funny odd sayings or sense of humour. Maybe it was their pleasure at getting a job or passing an exam. Sometimes we need to dig deep, rummage through our thoughts, to find the happy memories. It can take an effort, a determination.

If you’re someone whose shelf is filled with sad memories, I hope you’ll yet find some happier thoughts, some moments and conversations to treasure.

Try this: Get a noticeboard. Pin up pictures of your loved one enjoying themselves. Fill up the board with these reminders of happy moments. Write favourite sayings or typical jokes they made on slips of paper and add them to the board. Put up postcards of places they visited, or a picture of their hobbies. The date they qualified. A label from a bottle of their favourite drink. A tea bag or a chocolate bar wrapper. A photo of their pet or their car. You get the idea – actual pictures but also other items that are reminders of whatever it was they enjoyed, their happy moments.  Put it where you can see it. Now you can enjoy it.

There. You have a happy memory board; you have a better shelf.

Read more here:

The geography of grief

About sudden death


Illustration from The Quiver. I wonder who the child was and what was her story?


Illustrated poetry page from The Quiver, about 1885


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