Cameron Walters

You see on Instagram the opportunity to partake in a ‘huge book exchange’. Filled with glee and goodwill, you sign up, receive the details, and package up your books to send to five book-loving strangers. You even include a letter written in felt-tip pen and decorated with stickers and glitter. The next day, your kindness is returned, and books start pouring through the letterbox; parcels and parcels, the promised thirty-six free books endowed to you by the love of others. 

It is a socialist utopia: everyone has a copy of Normal People, Sally Rooney is elected President of Ireland, Joe Wicks is 3D-printed so that each household has a PE sex robot and Phoebe Waller-Bridge re-integrates Britain into the EU, becoming its Supreme Leader. Coronavirus is eviscerated and we build a massive monument, a pyramid, some may say, to commemorate the great work done by those charitable people involved in the Huge Book Exchange. We had won victory over ourselves. We loved Huge Book Exchange.

Reading is back in vogue, anyway. Since quarantine began, every blogger, sports personality, celebrity chef, and news outlet are releasing their ‘best reads’ for isolation. These lists are often questionable at best; one began with Boccaccio’s Decameron, which no amount of deadly plague could induce me to pick up. Neither do I need Camus’ La Peste suggested to me for the millionth time. Even more disturbing is the current trend for book swapping and sharing. I realise this is a controversial position to take and also a touch hypocritical when I have already taken part in about three book exchanges. These, however, have made me realise that I can't give away books. I think this might make me a bad person.

I love receiving these books. It warms my heart. I just can’t give any back.

To clarify, in theory, I think book swaps are great. Often, you get a personal recommendation from a friend, who chooses something that they love and, in turn, hope that you will love too. It is also equally important that the book you receive was once theirs. It has sat amongst their belongings and been held in their hands, each page turned, observed and appreciated. It may have scribbled notes, dog-eared corners or torn edges. In some respects, it is the closest we get to something resembling touch during isolation. I love receiving these books. It warms my heart. I just can’t give any back.

I’ll do my best to try and explain why. I think I was about fifteen when I moved all the books that I had read, or wanted to read, into piles in my room. I would look at them and think about reading while currently actually reading three others. Something about having them there would inspire me to read further, read faster. Six years later and I’m still doing the same thing. I put bookshelves up a few years ago and I spend at least an hour each week rearranging and reorganising. Currently, I’ve adopted a hybrid system which involves organising half by genre and half by publisher – I know this makes no sense and some of you will be screaming Dewey Decimal at the screen, but it works for me.

I’m also a slight sadist when it comes to the spine of a book. They must be cracked, split and worn; wearing their use on their sleeve (forgive that). Pages become warped by bathwater – a frequent occurrence – and stained with splashes of coffee. I took up the habit of always reading with a pencil and often pages have ideas scribbled all over them, snatches of thought or underlined quotations to recycle in conversation. Each book becomes a diary from a particular moment in time. 

"I cried into my Anna Karenina while eating crisps on a flight home from Italy" (Anna Karenina, 1935, dir. Clarence Brown)Twitter/@pandorasbox1929

If you’ll allow me a moment of whimsy: my Emma is missing half a front cover and is the first ‘grown-up’ book I read. I cried into my Anna Karenina while eating crisps on a flight home from Italy; my copy of Eliot’s Selected Poems has no white space left round the margin; Kafka on the Shore was given to me when I left my first job and I (somewhat performatively) carried Lyrical Ballads around Europe when I was eighteen and in love. Losing these may, in fact, be a disaster. I certainly don’t want them sent to Geoff in Milton Keynes just because he thought he could cash in on thirty-six free books.

Perhaps it is an extension of my general urge to externalise thoughts. My desk is constantly littered with post-its, paper scratched with notes and numerous notebooks which each originally served a different purpose but inevitably all blend into one. I can only think once the idea is out of my head and can be edited, held, and shaped like clay. Without this, it all gets lost in the vast, and mostly empty, expanse of my consciousness.

Another cause could be the distinct lack of any great ‘family bookshelf’. I am terribly jealous of those that answer Zoom calls in front of magnificent bookshelves that their parents have curated, or always have a first edition Woolf to hand. There is only one communal bookshelf in my house, which consists of two sparse shelves filled with my dad’s prolific Alistair Reynolds collection, childhood or ‘tween’ books, and a few classics from my mum. 

Think Miss Havisham but I’m not wearing a dress: I’m naked and surrounded by Faber poetry collections.

Dad is no great reader, and while mum once studied English, she often had to borrow from the library and (because she’s a good person) had a habit of giving away any of her own. Often, we’ll be discussing a book and she’ll swear she once had it and will spend half an hour scouring the same two bookshelves before admitting that she must have passed it on. This makes me precious about books in the same way that the ancestor of a once great family will be fiercely precious of their last remaining heirlooms. Think Miss Havisham but I’m not wearing a dress: I’m naked and surrounded by Faber poetry collections.


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One day, I want my kids to reach down my books from the shelf and see the handwritten dedications in the front and the notes within. It will be a way for them to connect to a part of myself that I had forgotten. The memories are stored and made physical in the same way that old photo albums always have the ability to shock and surprise. This is why I struggle to give books away: each one feels like a particular loss. This is also, aside from it being a scam, why I am so against the impersonal system of mass book-swapping; the intimacy of the exchange is obscured. The Huge Book Exchange replaces memories with objects; objects that can be infused with new memories, sure, but at what cost?

Or perhaps I’m just a selfish child who won’t share his toys. Yesterday, I asked my sister if I could read her copy of The Aeneid. She looked at me with narrowed eyes, ‘No – you’ll steal it.’ Karma’s a bitch.

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