I suppose it’s this one, then,” said my husband as we stepped into the garden. “It is,” I whispered, a covetous gleam in my eye and lust in my soul. “It is.”
We had looked at every house in Norfolk within our budget. None had been right. This one wasn’t either, but … running along the width of the bottom of the garden was a former cart house that the current owners had made into two rooms, one big – used to put up grandchildren overnight – and one small, used as a study. Plastered walls, a flagstoned floor, three sets of french doors opening on to the garden: it was, clearly, a library in waiting.
The fulfilment of the only ambition I have held in life was standing before me: a room of my own, with every one of my books around me. There are about 8,000 of the buggers, thanks to more than 40 years of devoted reading and an unwillingness to let go of old friends. Very few of them are lookers – I’ve always gone for quantity of content over quality of livery – but almost every one evokes its own happy memories. Most of my Miss Reads, for example, came from a secondhand shop in Norwich the first time my boyfriend – now husband – and I went there 17 years ago. The shop has gone but we, and the villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre, remain.
In truth, though, I had never dared to dream so big – a library separate from the house. “Your fortress of solitude,” said my husband, considering me with a mixture of emotions as I struggled to contain my glee.
Reader, we bought it. And then I called my carpenter friend Al Lyons and told him that the time had come. Down he came from Holmfirth, West Yorkshire. We stood in the room and I said: “I want to line the whole place with bookcases. Then I want to paint them green, because that is the proper library colour, and then I want to fill them with books and be happy for ever.”
Al nodded and, because his artistic eye is as good as his practical eye, got to work designing something that was not only up to the job of supporting 8,000 volumes and taking in the various beams and bits of jiggery-pokery with which an old structure likes to scupper simple plans, but looked beautiful too. He suggested all the finishing details as well as, most strikingly, the deeper bottom compartment marked out by an unpainted oak shelf. That would, he noted, break up the monotony, give me somewhere to perch, rest piles of books and place cups of tea as needful. And so it has very much proved.
While Al measured, sawed, planed and generally made timber do his bidding, I flicked through Farrow and Ball’s Instagram account, kept a tally of greens I liked and ordered eight litres of the one that came out ahead: Calke Green. I asked the nice lady on the phone what yellow she would put on her walls if she had Calke Green shelves and she said “Sudbury”, so Sudbury it was.
I wish I had a more glamorous decorating journey to share with you. But I have no style and no taste, you see. There’s nothing I can do about that, any more than I can do anything about being 5ft 2in or hating mushrooms. I can only mitigate potential disasters by keeping my options narrow and asking advice from them what knows. To prove all the above points, I went with my instincts in choosing the paint for the doors and they look disgusting.
My real job, anyway, was shelving the books once all was magnificently finished and painted. The room has a beam about halfway along the back wall , which made a natural dividing line between fiction (left) and nonfiction (right). I started unpacking the hundreds of boxes that filled our sitting room, unfolded a picnic table and started sorting one group from the other. Lockdown hit just as I was beginning to sort the fiction into alphabetical piles. It was the perfect project to keep me going insane from fear, worry for my vulnerable parents in London and cabin fever. Whenever life became too much, I could slip away and dwell among my books – which is to say, my memories, and many of my happiest memories at that. As the world outside filled with uncertainties and the government proved new incompetencies at every turn, even as I sobbed over that table I felt better for bringing a tiny bit of order out of chaos where I could.
Fiction-by-alphabetical-order-of-author is only the beginning, of course. You then have to sort your nonfiction, which yields unexpected results. I knew there would be a lot of medieval history and books about language, but I didn’t realise I’d amassed quite so much on New York, gardening or finance. Still, I’m eager to read them all. Sometimes your acquisitive self is ahead of conscious thought.
Then there’s the separate section for beloved books you’ve had since childhood – Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Phantom Tollbooth, all the William Browns and many, oh so many more. Another for reference books. And then things start to get … blurry. You become a little lightheaded. You start to realise that, in fact, there are no rules. When it’s your collection in your room, you can order things exactly as best pleases you. How often does that happen?
And so, I began to deviate from set paths. I set up a “Books I want to read next” section: Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, Jenn Ashworth’s Ghosted. A proof copy (and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be someone who gets sent proof copies, but that is a bogglement for another time) of Charlotte Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist. And many, oh so many more. I put all my Norah Lofts together, separate from general fiction just because I love her so much and she’s never had her literary due. I put all my books on medieval history with fiction set in the middle ages, plus Chaucer (and his biographies) and all my editions of Gawain and the Green Knight, heedless of the boundaries being crossed – and felt only exhilaration. For a goody-two-shoes who has spent a lifetime cowering in fear of authority, this is incredible therapy resulting in profound personal growth. Most rules are human-made, mutable – did you know? I didn’t. I can feel my inner self uncurling and stretching before the warmth of this knowledge. Also, developing the Books About Books section, I came across a biography of Melvil Dewey (of Decimal System fame) that I’d forgotten I had and it turns out he was an absolute shit. So the whole endeavour gave me an even greater glow of satisfaction.
The greatest discovery of all, however, has been that although it is a lifetime’s ambition realised, it will never truly be finished. There will always be a new combination to try, a better shelf to build (metaphorically, Al, metaphorically!), a refinement that one day reflects the ranking of the entire 8,000 that lives in my heart.
Once I find the right sofa, I don’t intend to leave this building. Until then, I spend a lot of my spare time standing in the middle of the room, turning slowly from side to side as my eyes traverse the shelves and my mind the possibilities. It’s my haven when I break from writing in the study but don’t want to break my mood. It is my refuge when life threatens to overwhelm. It is my fortress of solitude except for the silently supportive company of thousands. Only the doors disturb me. I have got to get them repainted.
Lucy Mangan’s debut novel Are We Having Fun Yet? is out now (Souvenir, £16.99).