In every book there are two stories waiting to be told; one emerges from the print on the pages, the other comes along with the perceptions and experiences of its reader. So it is then, that the shelves of a bookcase can hold a whole world of stories and a whole lifetime of meaning.
When I was a child we had only a couple of small bookcases - most of my books came from the library and had to go back, they didn't need their own home at ours. But before very long, I grew up and got married. I started to create our family home, to fill the second-hand teak units with an ever increasing collection of paperbacks supplemented by our favourite picture books for the children's bedtime stories.
In my mid-thirties, when I found myself starting all over, with a new life in a new home, I bought a bookcase. It was the first piece of furniture I'd ever bought with my own money, just for me.
I took my time filling its six shelves. The top shelf was for poetry books. Each one with corners turned down where I'd found a poem that expressed the anger and loneliness I felt. Below that, the penguin classics - a whole shelf of black spines with white lettering; nineteenth century novels, complete sets of George Eliot and Jane Austen, Tolstoy and Turgenev, cheek by jowl with Hardy and Dickens. Me trying to convince my few visitors I was well-read, intelligent.
Then came three shelves of the books I'd actually read, arranged not by author or genre, but by the colour of their spine. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News sat next to the faintly intellectual blue spine of Simone de Beauvoir; below that a group of old orange Penguin books including Thackeray's Vanity Fair that I'd won as a prize at school. At the bottom was the white shelf. It's surprising how many books have white spines, how few are yellow or purple. Of course not all the books were single-colour, and not all the same shade, but I spent hours arranging and rearranging the shades, finding the right tones that could sit together. When I was a kid I loved those wide flat tins of colouring pencils, 40 shades from white, through the rainbow, to the special gold and silver at the end. I'd spend nearly as much time sorting out their order in the tin as I did colouring, some days it was like that with the books.
If you picked up any of these books and turned the pages, the chances are a ticket would fall to the floor. A train pass or a boarding card, sometimes a theatre or concert ticket, each a symbol of things I'd been doing at the time I read the book, each a reminder of escape or perhaps truancy from expectation. If you looked to the back of Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, you'd see the edges of a page roughly torn out, used to write a love letter on a beach.
When Philip and I first got together, I loved that he'd read more widely than me, that I could talk to him about poetry, that he'd be able not only to name a poem, but also to quote it and identify the author. I welcomed the books he brought with him, that I might get to read myself someday. At first I resisted their entry to my bookcase, but over time, things changed. Suddenly the top shelf contained travel guides as well as poetry, the third was filled with cookery books. Colour-arranging went out the window, I began to relax into myself, the odd Agatha Christie story snuck in next to an allotment guide, I added my collection of Rowan knitting patterns, the pile of programmes from Bromley football matches began to grow.
Ten years later, the bookcase continues to change. The edges of the shelves have filled with the relics of daily life. As I sit here now I can see the incense burner, an empty perfume bottle, a set of drill-bits and a knife sharpener, some mints, a pair of sunglasses and an empty camera film holder. We continue to accumulate books, read them, love them, then give them away when we run out of room. I was horrified when Philip first suggested a book-give-away - even if I was never going to read them again, it felt like my books were part of me, defined how I felt about myself. But once I'd tried it, seen the pleasure on people's faces as they browsed through the boxes we put outside on the bench, I began to see the appeal - and it's becoming a regular event.
The bookcase does still tell a story about my life, but it's become a story of change and possibility, of mixing and sharing.