I’d like to cut the clutter, but I’m an unrepentant bibliophile

An unrepentant bibliophile, Peter Hellyer hopes to never have to cull his oversupply of books.

Don't ask an unrepentant bibliophile like Peter Hellyer to make drastic cuts to his collection of books. Photo: Sammy Dallal / The National
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This week, as I enjoy the much more pleasant climate of my holiday home in the British Channel Island of Jersey, I have been engaged, as usual, in trying to sort out my book collection.

The walls of my study are lined with overflowing bookshelves, the sitting room is also lined with shelves while one of the bedrooms, not currently being used, also has full shelves and piles of books tucked away in cupboards.

Every year, I amass more – brought from Abu Dhabi, purchased in the local shops, picked up on my travels or donated by friends who have downsized their accommodation. These include PhD theses on UAE geology, given to me by the eminent professor who supervised them.

Each year too, it becomes an ever-greater challenge to decide how I am going to organise them.

The piles of those for which I can’t find bookshelf space have grown to such a extent that I’ve even started thinking about adding on a new room or, at least, purchasing a well-insulated garden shed to serve as an additional storeroom.

Do I, though, think of giving some away, or of taking space at the weekly bring-and-buy sales that seem to have popped up all over the island? Not really – a few rubbishy novels, perhaps, and there are plenty of those, or a few duplicate copies but nothing of any significance.

I was amused, therefore, just before I went on leave, to read a piece in The Life section of this paper that put forward the “Top 10 tips for de-cluttering your life at work and at home”, as advocated by the founder of the Dubai-based business Decluttr Me, who advises people how to tidy up their lives.

The number 10 tip, headlined “Be Ruthless”, concluded: “And once you’ve read a book, get rid of it. If you feel an urgent need to read it again, you can always download it.”

What a remarkable attitude – particularly at a time when virtually every educationalist would encourage people to read more, not less.

Are all the novels by my favourite authors, like John Buchan and Arthur Ransome, available online? Even if they are, I prefer to read relaxing in a chair, rather than staring at a screen. Should I waste paper by printing out hard copies of every book I want to read that I can find online? And then waste it a second time by throwing it away? Anyway, it’s usually when I look at the bookshelves and see a familiar title, perhaps one that I haven’t looked at for years, that I decide I want to read it again, for the second, third or fourth time.

What about the books inherited from my parents or from more distant ancestors, often beautifully bound in tooled leather?

A copy of The Shores of Lake Aral, by Herbert Wood, is available through Google for download, so should I throw away the 1st edition copy, from 1876, awarded to a great uncle as a prize at school, over 100 years ago? Or copies of books by the explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, signed by the author, or books written by my father, a horticultural author of some note? I’m unlikely to sit down to re-read all of them. Some I have never read. They are, though, treasured parts of my library.

So too are the books into which I dip for a bit of research from time to time, like my collection of out-of-print books on the UAE and the rest of the Gulf or the Buchan novels and historical biographies that I used earlier this year while preparing a paper on the relationship between him and Thesiger.

My regret is not that I have too many books but that I don’t have the space to display and store them all properly. That applies not only to my home in Jersey, but also to my home and office in Abu Dhabi, as visitors can testify.

No electronic device for downloading and reading books can ever provide the same pleasure as having the real thing – fact and fiction, works of literature and novels for light reading, antiquarian classics of travel writing and a few modern first editions, such as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

I’m a bibliophile, a lover of books, and not ashamed to be described as such. Get rid of a book once I’ve read it? Good God, I hope I’ll never do that, unless, of course, I achieve the long-cherished dream of having my own bookshop!

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture