â€œI could never get rid of a book,â€ plenty of people say, when what they really mean is: â€œI could never get rid of a book that makes me look clever.â€ Middle-class bookshelves are as carefully curated as any art exhibition, crafted to reflect us in the best possible light; a hint of the intellectual (Julian Barnesâ€™s The Noise of Time, Foucaultâ€™s Pendulum), a bit of modern award-winning literature (A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Song of Achilles) and a few stylish, lighter pieces to show we know the difference between a classic and a casual beach read (Whereâ€™d You Go, Bernadette, How to Build a Girl). All so that when visitors cast an eye over the shelves, we can say: â€œHave you read it? I really enjoyed it, actually,â€ without embarrassment, indicating the golden door-stop of Bring Up the Bodies, or the slim elegance of the adoringly reviewed We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
And yet itâ€™s all built on lies. Very few of us want to keep the books we actually enjoyed as we commuted to work, or lay on a Spanish beach. Like cheap one-night stands, theyâ€™re passionately embraced and dumped before the airport taxi arrives. Thatâ€™s why this week, a Swansea charity shop begged its patrons to stop donating used copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.
They have so many copies that nobody wants to keep, theyâ€™ve built a life-size fort out of the things. And itâ€™s not just that ubiquitous work of literary trash that bungs up charity shop shelves. According to a poll from Oxfam, the most donated books tend to be dog-eared works by Danielle Steel, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stephenie Meyer (of the vampire-bothering Twilight Saga), and Bridget Jonesâ€™s now obsolete Diary. Jilly Cooper and Tony Parsons must also be recognised for their sterling contributions.
Clearly, these books are ones that people actually read â€“ thereâ€™s a world of difference between the sun-cream-smeared, corner-turned pages of a battered edition of Cooperâ€™s Polo and the pristine hardback of Wolf Hall that was clearly an unread gift (â€œOh God, what can we get Uncle John?â€). But despite the evidence, the books we really love remain our secret shame, the dark id that suggests weâ€™re actually quite shallow, and just want a good tale that rattles along, rather than a powerful and poetic meditation on loss.
I am a huge fan of Cooperâ€™s romances (Harriet, Bella and the rest). Giddy, sexist little 70s confections, they never fail to cheer me up when Iâ€™m gloomy, and the last thing I feel like reading is something dense about the history of Africa. (Actually, I almost never feel like reading that.) But when I moved house recently, I admit, I threw them into the storage crate, rather than the boxes of books that would be unpacked on to my shelves. Public display was reserved for tomes such as Garth Risk Hallbergâ€™s City on Fire (no, I still havenâ€™t read it, itâ€™s very long), my old Virago paperbacks (such a lovely forest-green spine, so feminist-friendly) and the James Ellroy novels I keep promising my boyfriend Iâ€™ll get round to. (â€œBut theyâ€™re brilliant.â€ â€œYes, Iâ€™m just finishing the new Nicci French, then I will.â€)
Effectively, itâ€™s a severe case of shelf-delusion, as I havenâ€™t picked up one of these starkly admirable books since I moved in. Instead, Iâ€™ve trawled the local charity shop for trashy psychological thrillers â€“ all unmemorable variants on Gone Girl â€“ which I raced through while sitting in the bath. They have provided marvellous relaxation and escapism, but are any of them on my bookshelves? No, theyâ€™re in a shameful little pile, waiting to go straight back where they came from.
I could claim itâ€™s purely because theyâ€™re not lasting pleasures; that once whodunnit is revealed, why keep them? But that would be disingenuous. If Iâ€™m being honest, Iâ€™m slightly ashamed of my mainstream, light literary tastes â€“ particularly as I share them with most of Britain. Deep down, I want to be thought of as clever, interesting, the sort of person who reads Philip Roth without getting bored, and takes Kazuo Ishiguro novels on holiday, though Iâ€™d sooner read a cocktail menu than plough through either.
Itâ€™s reassuring to know Iâ€™m not alone. And at least I donâ€™t have any copies of Fifty Shades knocking about to embarrass me. Obviously I read them â€“ but I deleted them from my Kindle as soon as Iâ€™d finished. If youâ€™re going to sink to that literary low, itâ€™s essential to hide the evidence altogether.