Books – why I love them, why I buy them, why e-readers are OK, and why libraries are amazing

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!

Colour picture of a shelf of books.

 

Writing about writing, and why I find it difficult

In the course of research for a recent writing commission, I have been reading a number of writers’ websites, their biogs on their publishers’ websites, and interviews with writers.  In these, they talk about their ‘practice’ (their writing process and rationale), their formative influences, and the philosophy underpinning what and how they write.  It’s been interesting, and was necessary in order to write my piece, but the experience has left me feeling more awkward than ever about something I have long struggled with.

Judging by the feedback I get, a lot of readers of this blog enjoy reading about the writing process.  But I find it so difficult to write about!  Talking this through with my partner the other day, I described it as being “a bit like asking someone to talk about why and how they breathe.  You just do it!”

OK, if you are a singer you will want to do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to manage your breathing and make it work for you so as to be as expressive as possible in your singing.  But, basically, you just do it.  And you can’t imagine life without it.  Writing has always been like that for me – I’ve just done it, and can’t imagine not doing it.  I read books and go on courses to learn new skills and techniques, but I’m not learning how to do it – I just do it.

I know I could read and write in Dutch by the age of 5, because that’s when my English-medium education started, and I was hugely frustrated by the vagaries of the language after nice, regular, phonetic Dutch.  But I know that by 7 I was writing my own books, keeping a diary, and devouring chunks of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary.  I wrote stories, poems, and lengthy pieces on natural history, accompanied by full-colour diagrams of leaves and dissected flowers.  By 8 or 9, I was torn about what I wanted to be – a private detective or a writer.

Although I excelled at English language, it was history I really loved, and which in some shape or form I’ve continued to study ever since.  I did ‘A’ level English, though, and was lucky enough to be able to do a pilot of a very progressive (for the mid 1980s) syllabus which included a large creative writing component.  My work was chosen for inclusion in a collection produced by the exam board to be used by teachers and students as an exemplar.  I got a good grade, my longstanding inability to write a decent literature essay more than compensated for by my facility with writing and practical criticism (the latter now coming in useful when writing reviews!).  But although my teacher was enthusiastic about my writing, the message from home and school was clear – you can’t make a living from writing, so do something else.  Interestingly, not one of us went on to study English at university.

Alongside academic essays and dissertations, I continued to write poetry for some years, and a series of jobs gave me opportunities to write across a range of genres: manuals, reports, press releases, newspaper articles, courses and training materials, strategy documents, and for the last decade or so, web content.  Writing was rarely in the job description, but was always a necessary aspect of the work and somehow I managed to subvert things so that it became a major part of the role.  For the last few years I have also been writing commissioned work alongside the day job, and now I’m writing full time, a mixture of commissions, blogging, and working on my first book.

I have from time to time thought about enrolling on a creative writing degree course, but for a couple of reasons I have decided not to.  Firstly, almost all syllabuses are designed for people who want to write novels.  I don’t want to write novels.  I quite like reading them, especially if they are historical or whodunits, but my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t imagine dwelling within an imagined, parallel universe for the time it takes to research and write a novel.  It’s not that I don’t have an imagination (I do, a very vivid one, which is particularly visual), but I like to start with something factual, often historical, and maybe give a slightly different slant on it.  What story could this object tell?  How might it have felt to be in that place at that time?  Modules on plot and characterisation don’t seem very relevant to me.  The courses which aren’t about novels are generally about poetry, and whilst I do write poetry from time to time, it’s not my passion in the way that non-fiction is.

Secondly, it would mean a commitment of at least a year, full time.  I’m not sure that I can justify that at my age.  It’s not as if I don’t already have a track record of writing, and of getting commissions.  I’m not saying that I’ve got nothing to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I’m not sure that, even if I could find a course that was relevant, it would be the best use of a year of my life.

I can’t conceive of not writing.  It’s as natural for me as breathing, which is why I find it so hard to describe what I do, my ‘practice,’ and why although I’m rigorous about my structure, use of language, tone, and so on, and edit ruthlessly, I find it difficult to create literary-sounding biogs about how and why I write.  I’m interested in places, things, people – especially, but not exclusively, historical.  I always want to know why (this used to drive my family nuts when I was little!).  And then I want to use words to share what I’ve discovered.  Quite apt for the little girl who couldn’t decide whether to be a private detective or a writer!

It’s a process which is often quite solitary, but where the finished product potentially reaches many, many people, including many whom I will never meet.  In much the same way as I weave – first researching the design inspiration and the properties of the materials, then creating the design, then exploring the technical aspects of the piece, then making it – I craft the words on the page into a shape which I am happy with, and which I hope others will find stimulating, interesting or enjoyable.  Just as not everyone is going to like my tapestries, not everyone will like what I write, but as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, I’m happy!

Photograph of a woven tapestry of a seascape, entitled Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer

Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer. Woven tapestry, 3×3 inches.

Going Dutch again: reclaiming my bilingual heritage

I have just finished reading my first ever book in Dutch.  More precisely, my first ever book of fiction for adults – as a child I read many children’s books in Dutch, some of which I still have.  The book in question is not exactly literary – it’s a yellowing, fragile paperback entitled De Cock en de wurger op zondag (De Cock and the Sunday strangler), by A C Baantjer, published in 1965, and it is a police procedural whodunit.  Nevertheless, this is a big thing for me.

Ironically, I learned to read and write Dutch a year or more before learning to read and write English.  I am half Dutch, half British.  When I was small, we lived with my Dutch grandparents (Oma and Opa) in the Netherlands, and my parents decided that the best way to bring me up bilingual was for them to speak English to each other and to me, while I would hear Dutch all around me and would converse in Dutch with the wider family.  This worked well – by the age of 5 I was completely bilingual verbally, and I learned to read and write Dutch easily – it’s phonetic, very regular, and pleasingly logical most of the time.

There is a myth that if you bring up a child bilingual, it will be confused, will mix up the languages and be held back in its language development.  This is, in my opinion, rubbish.  I knew full well which language was which, and which language was used with to communicate with which person.  For example, my (British) father’s Dutch was appalling – I remember being embarrassed by how bad it was, and wishing he would stick to English.  I only borrowed from the other language when the one I was using didn’t have the exact word I was looking for, e.g. there is no English word to translate ‘gezellig’ (it’s a bit like the Danish ‘hygge’ which is so trendy at the moment, but with more sociable connotations – see what I mean about there being no English word for it?!).  I could switch effortlessly between the two, and thought and dreamed in either language.

Moreover, I am convinced that a bilingual start makes it easier to learn subsequent languages.  There appears to be something about understanding from the very beginning that there’s more than one set of sounds and language that makes the acquisition of a new set of language skills less challenging than it seems to be for those raised monoglot.  I went on to learn French, Spanish, a bit of German, a bit of Welsh, some Hebrew, and beginners Latin, all with very little effort  – I am convinced that learning more than one language to begin with makes it easier to learn subsequent languages, and I consider that being brought up bilingual was a great gift.

When I was 5, two things happened.  Firstly, we left the Netherlands.  Secondly, I started my education through the medium of English (starting with learning to read and write English, which was way harder than Dutch as it’s so irregular – in fact, it’s so irregular there seem to be more bits of the language that break the ‘rules’ than follow them!).  I was home schooled, something I have very mixed feelings about, and until I was preparing for public examinations I was taught by my father.  My parents continued to speak English to each other, and to me, and because our lives were (for reasons I won’t go into here) nomadic and we were not well integrated into the countries we lived in, I was heavily influenced by the BBC World Service (and the radio was on for much of the day), so that what I was hearing every day was formal standard British English.

My mother was Dutch, and (in common with many of her compatriots of that generation) had been educated to school leaving standard in English, French and German as well as Dutch.  Her accent was near perfect in all three languages – no one ever guessed she was foreign, they simply assumed she was from a different part of their own country that they couldn’t quite identify!  She lived in Scandinavia for some years, and was fluent in Swedish and had a good command of the notoriously difficult Finnish.  She learned Malay in her colonial youth, a smattering of Spanish when we lived in Spain for a while, and Welsh in her old age.

My father’s family were Liverpool Welsh, and were of the generation who felt that it would disadvantage their children if they spoke Welsh, so although Welsh was spoken at home, he lost it as soon as he started going to school, and sadly was not able to pass it on to me.  He did not have a Welsh accent, though, and neither did he sound ‘Scouse’ – his accent was more the very precise, formal tones of the (probably fairly well educated ) first language Welsh speaker, from North Wales or metropolitan Cardiff, speaking English.  If you’re not familiar with it, it probably sounds like rather ‘posh’ English – something I am often accused of being!

Growing up, I really only spoke Dutch to my grandparents.  My main writing practice was regular letters to them, and no one seems to have thought to buy me Dutch books after the age of 7 or 8.  When I was in my late teens and at school in the UK, it seemed sensible to do an ‘O’ level in Dutch, as it was a painless way of getting another qualification.  I revised for that by reading a couple of old copies of Libelle and Margriet, women’s magazines, which were sent over for me by family in the Netherlands.  I found the exam ridiculously easy, and got an A grade.

Fast forward 30 plus years.  My Dutch-speaking family are long gone.  It’s been 30 years since I visited the Netherlands, as I only went to visit family.  Because I never spoke Dutch as an adult, and didn’t go to school there, my vocabulary was childish and old fashioned – not only because I haven’t been around to pick up contemporary idioms, but because I learned my Dutch from elderly, formal and middle-class grandparents who didn’t really do slang and idiom!  I had reached the stage when I was too nervous to engage in conversation with Dutch people I encountered here in the UK – knowing it would take too long to get my brain in gear, saddened that I was no longer fluent or bilingual.

Enter my partner, who announced a couple of years ago that she wanted to learn Dutch – not least to encourage me to engage with it again, and stop me losing it altogether.  She is making good progress, although as we are not currently following any one course of study, it’s a bit erratic and her vocabulary is random and eccentric (she knows the Dutch for ‘volunteer’ (vrijwilliger) but not ‘plate’ (bord), for example!  For a British person, her pronunciation  is quite good – she’s inevitably struggling with ‘sch’ as in Scheveningen, but it’s coming on nicely.   She follows the exploits of the Dutch royal family on Twitter, which gives her not only a nice bit of translation and comprehension practice in fairly correct Dutch, but also glimpses of Dutch culture.   We are planning to visit the Netherlands soon.  I am very nervous about this, because somehow I feel I ought to know all about it, how the transport system works, how to book things, what the rules of the road are, etc because I’m half Dutch – but of course I don’t, because I didn’t grow up there and have never been there as an adult, having to engage with such things.  I am simultaneously native and a foreigner, which is very confusing.

However, what I am very excited about is my reclaiming of the Dutch language.  With my partner’s encouragement, I have been reading Dutch on the internet, subscribing to Dutch language magazines online (who knew that you could get National Geographic in Dutch?!), watching YouTube clips of Dutch comedians, and have joined a Facebook group for Dutch people living in the UK.  Half my Facebook feed is now in Dutch, and a couple of months ago I realised that I am now back to just reading Dutch, rather than translating it into English first.  I’m not yet thinking or dreaming in Dutch again, but I suspect that might happen if I was in the Netherlands, hearing it around me all the time.  I have to look up some words in the online dictionary, but generally I’m surprising myself how rarely that happens.  Bit by bit, I am becoming bilingual again.

And then, just before Christmas, I happened to glance at the second hand books table in my local supermarket – and amongst all the chic lit and gardening books I spy De Cock en de wurger op zondag – so of course I had to buy it!