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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Not all prose is deathless

As part of my plan to be a better, neater, more organised person, my bookshelves have come in for some culling.

Unfortunately, no one else in my family gives a fig about being better, neater or more organised. Nor, presumably, do they have a morbid fear of ending up as one of those old ladies who dies because the path to her front door has been blocked by a stack of two decades’ worth of the New York Times, and is only discovered three weeks later, by which time choice bits of her have been eaten by her 15 cats. But I digress.

My point is that no one gives a toss about the teetering piles of books in strange corners of our house, so no one really helps with the clearing.

The total contribution of assistance from my family members came from my son who spotted me stacking 25-year-old National Geographic magazines in a crate and exclaimed: “What are you doing? You can’t get rid of those!”

I pointed out that the only time I’d seen one – I think it was the one on Newfoundland – removed from the shelf in the last six or seven years was when someone used it to usher a bee out of the window.

To which he replied loftily, “It’s about nostalgia,” which is something I understand, so we compromised and he returned a few choice issues to the shelf, where they will still be, no doubt, unopened when I am being eaten by my cat.

So, how to cull one’s book collection?

The kids’ books are easy – a few precious ones are kept for posterity/ sentimentality, the rest given to a local school library. Novels are subject to natural attrition. They are put into broad circulation at the book club, taken on holidays and left there, or passed on to friends.

It’s the non-fiction books that stick around like so many dusty old pedants at the history department cocktail party, muttering into their gins.

You’d think many of them might be useful for reference at some point, but it was very obvious in the book clear-out that nothing ages as fast as the trendy non-fiction book of the year. Chris Anderson’s Free was all the rage some years back.

I reviewed it at the time, and would often hold forth at dinner parties about its central tenets – for instance, that in the digital era, many services, products, information and such, will be free. It seemed so interesting, then. And so obvious now.

Malcolm Gladwell books age faster than child starlets, and it’s just as hard to remember what was so charmingly fresh and precocious about them a couple of years ago. If someone these days starts in on the 10000 hours rule, claiming that the key to success in any field is practising a specific task for a total of around 10000 hours (which, let’s face it, is simultaneously startlingly self-evident and also total nonsense), I want to lob a copy of Outliers at their head. Instead, I toss it into the “to go” box and move on to the next shelf.

The only thing that stands the test of time less well than the hot non-fiction best-seller of the year, is a biography of Kgalema Motlanthe. Just a few short months ago it was the inside story of the man who would be king. Post-Mangaung it’s the story of, you know, that guy who was President for a bit? Yes, him.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist


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