I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog to find that I love books. I’m a writer, after all, and I’ve never yet met a writer, in any genre, who didn’t love books. Not only that, but I spent quite a few years working in academic and public libraries, which was rather like working in a sweetie shop (but less fattening). I’ve got it bad.
As a child, I didn’t have many books. We lived in various parts of Europe, and in those pre-internet days (1970s and early 1980s) getting English- or Dutch-language books abroad was pretty much impossible (see my post about being brought up bilingual). My father would make an annual trip to London to shop at Foyles bookshop, and bring back as many books as he could carry (which wasn’t a lot to last a voracious young reader a whole year). When we stayed with my Dutch grandparents, I would read their extensive collection of English-language whodunits (my grandmother was severely addicted – her favourites were Dorothy L Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie, in that order) which sowed the seed of a life-long love of classic crime fiction. I read Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass a dozen times. When all else failed, I read the Pocket Oxford Dictionary like a novel – there are worse ways to train as a writer.
I may not have had many books, but I knew what I did and didn’t like. I liked Enid Blyton’s mysteries and adventure stories, but not her more surreal, fantasy output. I adored Cicely M Barker’s Flower Fairies books, not least because of what they taught me about plants – I can still recall snatches of them when I see wildflowers growing in the hedgerows. I didn’t care for classic children’s stories like Mary Poppins or Peter Pan, but then, given that I was by that stage already a fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, that’s perhaps not surprising. I was at best ambivalent about classic novels – to be truthful I still am. Apart from Persuasion, I am unmoved by Jane Austen. I appreciate her talent, I just don’t much care for the books. I found Dickens interesting, but heavy going. Amongst the Brontë sisters’ output, I liked Wuthering Heights, and once I’d discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea I could see the point of Jane Eyre. Sherlock Holmes came into my life at the age of 16, and I still re-read those stories when I need something comforting.
In fact, I discovered lots of books at the age of 16, because that’s when we settled in the UK and I started to use libraries. My school library had virtually no fiction on its shelves, but the local public library was huge, and I systematically stripped the shelves. I was doing A level English too, so there was Chaucer (yay!), Shakespeare (OK, especially Hamlet and Twelfth Night), D H Lawrence (hmmm), Austen (see above), R S Thomas (dark and melancholy but wonderful), and my beloved Dylan Thomas (with whose work I had fallen in love when I first heard Richard Burton intone the opening lines of Under Milk Wood). John Donne (sorry, I’m sure it’s great writing but I haven’t got time for this), Wordsworth (lovely but a tad self-indulgent), Tennyson (the less said about that the better), and Keats (lyrical but lengthy), also figured in the syllabus. I did three A levels, but the only one I can remember in detail is English – I can still quote the odd line here and there. For light relief I read James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped was possibly my favourite book through my teenage years), and every Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers I could find.
It’s probably no coincidence that I went on to spend many years working in libraries (university and public). The windows on the world offered to a teenager in a remote Snowdonian town by the presence of a good library were a gift, and I am passionate about the continued provision of public libraries. Yes, the internet is an amazing repository of knowledge (and misinformation!) but it cannot replace the serendipity of going to the shelf for a book and becoming entranced by its neighbour, which you didn’t know existed and would consequently never have searched for. As a student, some of my best essays were written using books which weren’t on the reading list (because those had all been borrowed by other students writing the same essay), which meant I had a slightly different slant on the topic. Being able to access, for free, a huge range of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, is a precious thing and can be truly life-changing for a child whose home is not filled with books or whose family cannot afford to buy them. Libraries set people free to out-grow their circumstances – just look at Jeannette Winterson.
As soon as I could afford it, I bought books. I love being surrounded by books in my home, books I can savour at my leisure and don’t have to give back. I have mixed feelings about bookshops – on the one hand, there is the rush of excitement at being surrounded by so many books, doorways into parallel universes, questioning minds, and illuminating knowledge. On the other hand, there are so many books that it can feel hard to make a decision about what to buy. Is it OK to treat myself to this book that I really fancy, even though I don’t actually need it for a course, or for research? How can I hush the voice in my head that says “Not MORE books!? You haven’t read the ones you bought last month!”
I have quite a lot of books. A couple of years ago we downsized massively, and sold hundreds (literally) of books. For a while, we had just two small bookcases full. But inevitably, stealthily, the books are taking over again. “Of course you need that book for your research…Have you read the review for this? It looks so interesting…Oh look, she’s got a new book coming out next month, shall we pre-order it?…If we buy the paperback it’s easier to share it between us than if we get it on Kindle.” You get the picture. Because of where we live, most book purchases are online (using Hive or independent bookshops where possible) and the thump of a book landing on the doormat is so exciting. All those new words, new ideas, new pictures in my head. I love having a whole shelf of books I haven’t read yet – so much to look forward to.
Kindle came into my life a decade ago, and I don’t regret it for a moment. It’s especially good when I go away on holiday, and want to take some light reading with me without lugging heavy books around. Because it’s hard to flick back and forth inside an e-book, I find it less good for reference books, or indeed non-fiction in general, and my elderly device doesn’t show illustrations well. I use the app on my smartphone when I’m out and about – on the train, or dining alone. I often buy the Kindle version of a whodunit which I know I’ll only read once, or if it’s by an author I’m not familiar with and I’m not sure I’ll like it – and I admit that’s because it’s cheaper on Kindle. But for reading pleasure, the aesthetic experience of words on the page, an attractive cover, and the tactile heft of a book, I’ll choose a ‘real’ book over an e-book every time. Oh, and let me be clear about this – marking pages or turning down page corners is a sin!