Last year, over the summer, I experienced a period of major depression. It hit me like a juggernaut, comprising of a familiar crash in confidence but also, less familiarly and far more worryingly, a crash in identity. I had no idea who I was anymore, and struggled to visualise myself as a meaningful human being, instead feeling like a nothing-person, as empty and nondescript as a discarded carrier bag on the wind, and not the tasteful Whole Foods recycled kind that carries overpriced yoghurt, but the flimsy black plastic kind that carries four cans of Red Stripe from the offie. I alienated myself from family and friends, believing that only my beautiful two-year-old truly loved me, as he was as yet unacquainted with my discarded plastic bag status. Despite genuinely questioning the point of my existence on this earth, I obsessed about and carried on my shoulders the bad things that happened in the world, as if I were both their root and their solution, forgetting that discarded plastic bags do not wield such omnipotence.
During this deeply unpleasant time I read a lot, not always taking in what I was reading, but appreciating books for their companionship during sleepless nights, and as a distraction when my mind over-busied itself during the day; providing a modicum of excitement when newly begun, and a fleeting sense of achievement when concluded. Most of all, at a time when I had I lost all tenderness for myself and others, it was reassuring to feel a brief moment of empathy with a character, fictional or otherwise, even if my empathy often meandered into distress (it was perhaps the wrong time to tackle a modern rewrite of the West African legend of Queen Pokou, who sacrificed her infant son to save her Baoule people, and questioned ‘Why is it that women must always send their children off? Why isn’t their love strong enough to stop wars and keep death at bay?’ Oh, how I feel ya Queenie). The Ex Libris sticker of the probably-never-to-be-identified-but-give-t’internet-a-challenge Sylvia White (a previous owner of my copy of Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë), that proclaims ‘my best friends, my books, books my sure solace’, never rang truer.
Weekly therapy sessions helped me work out how I had found myself in the emotional mire. There were many light-bulb moments, about very fundamental things, and it was as unsettling as it was exhausting. One of these epiphanies centred on how I had felt as a ‘bright’ (I hate this term – all children are full of light, not just the academic ones – but will endure it as a convenient shorthand) working-class child propelled into uncomfortable middle-class territory at school and university. I had developed a protective strategy of performing accordingly: tailoring my accent, references and even opinions to fit into each camp (and they are camps – class slices through this great isle, and if you can’t see the cuts, then you are clearly on their fortuitous side), all at the expense of working out, and accepting, who I really was. This non-existent sense of self meant that when wonderful but head-messing motherhood came along and ripped away the superficial sense of self I had built – all skinny jeans ‘n pale ale, dancing on tables/headbanging party gal, throwing in the occasional Philip Larkin reference just to keep tings fresh, yo – I had no core identity to fall back upon. Hence that discarded plastic bag on the wind.
And I began to see that my gargantuan, treasured library, collected from my teens when I was still gloriously unaware of how far believing in one’s entitlement to life’s best things steered one’s life chances, was part of that performance. I accumulated books to evidence the only thing I felt gave me any credit: my learning. In the absence of knowing my true self, when I couldn’t find the words to describe myself, and when I felt too shy to do so in the (if unpoliced) sloppy North London vowels that mispronounced words I had read but not heard, my books did the talking for me, displaying my passions and interests. Over the years, as I accumulated more books but lost track of who I was through my well-worn performance, my books therefore genuinely became ‘my self’: I was the book girl, buying more and more, in order to consolidate myself, to make myself meaningful and interesting. They had to be Clever Books and I had to read each to the very end, for fear of being declared fraudulent in my asserted knowledge – forgetting my right as a reader to abstain from an unenjoyable read (#fxckoffUlysses), never being as confident as the friend who swapped Dostoyevsky for Jackie Collins in full view of a beach-holidaying public. Plus the stash of volumes climbing up the ceiling were a convenient mimic of the middle class homes I admired as a teenager, a source of pride that slightly bridged the gap I felt between myself and an unfamiliar world in which I felt perpetually gauche. That’s why I can’t get rid of any of my books and am genuinely terrified of anything happening to them: it would be like destroying myself. Suddenly, my library became distressing evidence of the fact I have never had a strong sense of self, and never felt I stood up to scrutiny without the buffer of academic achievement – overall, never quite felt good enough just as I am.
What a bloody sob story! But it’s my truth. So there we are.
I wondered if I should get rid of my books and try to stand alone on my merit – whatever that was – but I knew that would never happen, not least because our house would suddenly look very empty, but mainly because it is a nice legacy for my son if he is ever interested: a ready library at his disposal, compiled with anxiety, but also curiosity and thrift. And, moreover, as my depression began to lift, I began to feel some pride in those stuffed bookcases. I look at them and remember that all of our personal libraries are unique, and mine if anything is especially eclectic. In unknowing homage to that great working class autodidactic tradition, I forged that path myself, working my way through the tangled literary jungle of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘not good’ to read, and becoming confident enough to plough off-road away from those tiresome (and mostly male and white) 100-books-to-read-in-your-lifetime lists (#onceagainfxckoffUlysses) to identify some lesser known gems myself, emerging ‘Well Read’ on my own terms. Each of my books reminds me of this journey of building my knowledge while travelling through my life, being inscribed with the date of purchase, and filled with the ephemera of the years its words filled: pub and restaurant cards, theatre and exhibition tickets, even my name scribbled in Ukrainian on the fly-leaf of a volume of Robert Bridges poetry (according to an Old Etonian on a date in mid-2000s Shoreditch, a peak class-crisis dating episode – mind you, Old Etonians have fibbed before, so it may just be Squiggles to Impress a Tight-Trousered Lady). My books have long been a reassuring backdrop to my life and indeed a sure solace, and will continue to spark joy in a way Marie Kondo will never understand as I work towards a Pork And Beans state of mind (see below). They deserve my care and love in return.