On Playing Book Jenga and Sorting Shelves

This week I spent a bit of time having a mini book sort and clear out. By mini, I mean we only did one set of shelves, but it’s a start. To say my house is full of books is an understatement of epic proportions. My house is BURSTING with books. Fiction, antiquarian, cooking, DIY, trains, meditation, everything is covered. The only person I’ve ever seen have more books than my family was one of my professors at university, who had a hallway and office full of bookshelves and plastic carrier boxes with even more books, so you had to shimmy sideways to his rooms down what was originally a fairly wide corridor.

This is great, but does present its own practical problems. Space, for instance, is at a premium, and things only get worse after every Christmas. There are only so many walls we can take up for building shelves, and there are only so many times you can go through and have a clear-out. I’ve whittled down my fiction books several times, but they still occupy a couple of walls and I don’t think there are any more I want to chuck. When I was at university, it wasn’t so much of a problem because I’d take a couple of boxes down south with me. The only trouble would be in the summer holidays when I returned home and had to find space for the boxes’ contents, or spend a couple of months tripping over them on my bedroom floor. Similarly, it’s practically a tradition now that there will be a pile of Christmas books in front of my desk until at least March, when I finally get sick of knocking them over. The pile is currently about the height of my one-year-old Goddaughter, who is tall for her age.

So we’re full of books. Every room in the house has a few shelves, including the split bathroom/toilet.

It's helpful to know what you want to read in advance.

It’s helpful to know what you want to read in advance.

Another trouble all these books present is their accumulation of dust. Especially with the more inaccessible shelves, we’re not regularly handling all our printed collection, taking them off the wall and giving them a good dust. So one day this week Dad and I decided to take on the built-in, ceiling-height shelves in the living room as a bit of a spring clean.

Some of these books are proper old and a bit fragile. And when they’re super-dusty you can’t just jiggle them with a duster; that only gets the thick off, and you could trap dust in the spine and damage it. Here are my tips for cleaning old books:

  1. Tie your hair up and grab a bandana. Yes, you’re going to be sneezing from the dust, but if you cover your hair then you won’t trap any more dust up there for later sneezing.
  2. Music. Brushing books can be a bit repetitive so you need something that you like and can keep your energy up. On this occasion, we used Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack on LP because Dad’s old music collection is in the same set of shelves and needed a sort too.
If I don't blow-dry my hair, I look a bit like Brian May. (Pic from wikipedia)

If I don’t blow-dry my hair, I look a bit like Brian May. (Pic from wikipedia)

  1. Brush – use either a soft bristled brush or an old toothbrush. Turn the book 90 degrees so that the open pages hang downwards, and gently, but firmly, brush from spine to end of the book. Pull any dustjackets down slightly so no dust or grit gets trapped between board and paper.
  2. A hoover with muslin fixed over the end can also be used to suck up muck without damaging book pages.
  3. Don’t forget to clean the shelf too. Any stubborn dirt can be shifted with a damp cloth. Similarly, any foist marks on book covers can be removed with a slightly damp cloth.

We made pretty good progress, and soon had cleaned and replaced all the books. We even managed to free up some space by passing on a few we didn’t want, and shifting a whole shelf of video tapes to a different room. That’s when I got a bit excited about this:


The 1997 video release of the original Star Wars trilogy. I was excited for all of two days, thinking these were the original films, unadulterated by George Lucas’s later editing, but a bit of internet research showed me I was wrong. These were the tapes where he started changing small, but important, things. (#HanShotFirst) Still, I’ve very fond memories of watching these tapes when I was small with my Dad, so I’m not getting rid of them.

Once we’d done the bookshelves, we moved on to the lower shelves where the LPs are. It’s a pretty solid collection of 1970s rock and folk classics, although there is some rubbish I couldn’t convince the parents to part with. Above this, however, hiding behind more books, lurked the cassette tapes. We knew there were a few stored there, but I honestly think they’ve been breeding, because there’s hundreds of the buggers! We weeded out a few, but quite a lot are of family archive importance, such as recordings of my grandfather on the radio, or me burbling nonsense at 10 months old, so until we can find a way to shift them into MP3 format we’ve got to keep them. At least they fit snugly into shoeboxes that can be stashed away.

All in all, we did a good day’s work and made a fair bit of progress on the tidying/spring cleaning front. Now just to go through all the other bookshelves in the house. Shouldn’t take long. (Cue maniacal laughing.)

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