Life

Nuala McCann: How to declutter when old schoolbooks hold such spellbinding gifts

I'm sitting surrounded by a lifetime's books and deciding which ones do not spark joy. This wall of books would make for a hard border; I may ship it south

Marie Kondo says declutter but it's hard when books contain so much beauty

SCHOOLGIRL jokes and the ache of first love spill from the pages of my old school books. A stranger gazes out from between the pages... who was that girl?

Now, inspired by the doll-like Japanese woman who sparkles as she helps you declutter, I’m sitting surrounded by a lifetime’s supply of books and deciding which ones do not spark joy. This wall of books would make for a hard border; I may ship it south.

First come the school books... it was a mere four decades ago. Those books were not all loved, but they are dog eared and scrawled with doggerel.

Written in capital letters across the front page: “If this book should dare to room, box its ears and send it home to Nuala M McCann....”

There is the inevitable poem for the Latin book: Latin is a dead language, dead as dead can be, first it killed the Romans, now it’s killing me.”

Here are attempts to sign my name in various styles. Note the M for my middle name in the signature – sophisticated eh? Wouldn’t you know it – M for Mary.

And then I grew up and I met someone whose books were treasured – each one a small perfect child. This was someone aghast at a woman who turns down corners, who writes “exactly!” in the margin of Joyce’s The Dead, who leaves George Eliot upside down in a puddle on the bathroom floor who sets Lady Chatterley for visitors in the downstairs loo, nuzzling up to a Harold Robbins and a well-thumbed copy of The Country Girls. Harlot!

Reader, he married me.

We embraced our differences. Now here I sit, back among my old school books, and it is evident that despite its title, Physics is fun, it never was.

That small slim book of logarhythms instils the same heart’s flutter as it once did in an O-level maths exam in 1977. That book was joyless as the yellow pages. The gothic print in my German copy of Immensee is quaint but beautiful.

And here are my old English books. I never did get to the end of Huckleberry Finn... like the great Mississippi, the story meandered on forever.

The English literature syllabus of the 1970s did not spare the child. For who would study The History of Mr Polly – the story of a man’s midlife crisis – which had scarcely much to say to a bunch of 15-year-olds. We hated it.

It’s the poetry anthologies that tear at my heart. Every man Will Shout was one of my first. The quotation inside read: “I shall write a poem one day, said the boy, and every man will shout when he hears it.” I never forgot that.

Some poems never spoke to me: electric pylons like great naked girls; the ballad of the woman whose baby vanished down the plughole, no.

But there was such treasure too. Our teachers brought us Heaney before he was famous. They served us Muldoon and Montague, Simmons and Frank Ormsby and they showed us American poems about plums left in the icebox and chickens and red wheelbarrows and they asked: Is that a poem or what is a poem?

A Choice of Poets found us with William Wordsworth standing on Westminster Bridge drinking in the beauty of a still morning.

Here was young Willie nicking a boat in the Prelude, farther on Keats slowly faded, falling in love with death, as the nightingale sang her heart out and Thomas Hardy leaned upon a coppice gate at the very turn of a century. Here too was Felix Randall, the farrier... “child Felix”.

It was a slow falling in love with words inspired by great teachers and a mother who read to us all down the years.

We grew up with the Forsaken Merman, with the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens condemned by a foolish king to drown alongside his men.

We wandered with the gaunt knight in search of La Belle Dame, saw Lancelot gaze on The Lady of Shalott and felt a small cruel dagger slip between our ribs with Browning’s Last Duchess.

There are lines learned at an old wooden desk that lodge like a splinter in your heart. And a poem, like a song, can hold the heart even as it breaks.

I sit surrounded by old schoolbooks, spellbound by such gifts.

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