Judging a book by its cover – the book as art and artefact

I have always been fascinated by old books and their tooled and gilded bindings.  Years ago, when I worked at an academic library in Cambridge, a favourite part of my job was to carefully rub a special kind of polish into the leather covers to keep them fed and supple.  I would fetch the key to the climate-controlled, fireproof strong room in which the ‘special’ books were stored, select a volume which looked in need of attention, and get to work with a soft cloth.  As I worked, I would marvel at the intricate designs, and above all at the antiquity of these objects – we held books dating back to less than a century after Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention of printing with moveable type, most of them in their original bindings.  Whose hands had touched these covers and turned these pages before me?

Recently I was able to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.  Entitled Beautiful Books, the exhibition consists of twenty-two books and an accompanying film which show the bookbinding process.  Perhaps counterintuitively for a library, the emphasis is not on the content of the books, but on their bindings.  Created between 1849 and 1993, the books showcase the talents of remarkable bookbinders whose work goes far beyond simply making covers to protect the words within.

Colour photograph of the binding of Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales.
Houses of Leaves, poems by Dafydd ap Gwylim. Binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

For a few years, I subscribed to the Folio Society, and a number of attractively-bound limited edition volumes were added to my bookshelves.  Apart from that, I have had little exposure to modern binding, and this exhibition was therefore quite an eye-opener for me.  As I worked my way around the glass cabinets, a number of themes emerged.

These bindings are works of art, and not just in the way one says of something impressive, ‘wow, that’s a work of art!’  These fine bindings create pictures, images, in way that is reminiscent of textile art.  They use of blocks and lines of colour, gilding, texture, and motifs which respond to the subject of the book, combine to make artworks which stand in their own right.

Stylistically, they are very much of their time.  For example, the binding by Elizabeth Greenhill for Louis MacNeice’s The Burning Perch (1963) put me in mind of a tapestry by Graham Sutherland, and would not have looked out of place scaled up on the wall of a brutalist concrete building on the South Bank in London. 

In many cases, it really is possible to judge the book by its cover, as the binding gives a hint or preview of the contents.  For example, the cover created by Julian Thomas for Houses of Leaves, a translation of the work of fourteenth-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwylim by Rachel Bromwich, published in 1993, takes its inspiration from the book’s title, and features lines based on the outlines of leaves and the tendrils of foliage which ornament medieval manuscripts.  And with the binding for Across the Straights by Kyffin Williams, Thomas’ collaboration with arguably Wales’ most famous artist results in Williams’ essential simplification of landscape being transferred to the book’s cover.

Colour photograph of the binding of Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas.  Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales
Across the Straits by Kyffin Williams, binding by Julian Thomas. Image: Julian Thomas/National Library of Wales

As a writer, it is a strange experience for me to be looking at books as artefacts as well as texts (or indeed as artefacts instead of texts – with the exhibits contained within glass cases, it is of course not possible to interact with the printed words within).  This has made me muse about the books I own.  Are some of these, too, artefacts rather than just texts?  Do I choose to have them because they symbolise my aspirations to be knowledgeable, cultured, or well-read (whether or not I’ve actually read them)?  Do some of them earn their place on the shelves because of the tactile quality of their bindings, or their attractive cover designs?  There are certainly some books I have bought because I was entranced by their covers, and others where I have been pleasantly surprised when their plain, worthy covers prove, on actually reading the book, to belie the fascinating content.  Book covers matter.

The exhibition Beautiful Books continues at the National Library of Wales until 9 December 2022- more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/exhibitions/beautiful-books

Just upstairs from this exhibition is another, which also caused me to think about the significance of books.  Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) celebrates the four hundredth anniversary of the publication, in 1620, of the translation that became the standard text of the bible in Welsh until the 1980s.  The significance of the Welsh bible goes far beyond religion – as with many languages, the standard translation defined the language, providing a benchmark for written Welsh and a foundation for cultural and literary life to the present day.

Colour photograph of Mary Jones' bible.  Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society
Mary Jones’ bible. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Bible Society

Here, too, I am brought face to face with the book as artefact.  In this case, it is the bible owned by Mary Jones.  Her barefoot journey across North Wales in 1800 to buy her own copy of the bible in her own language has become a story that is told across the world.  This object – dark with use and age – is more than a book.  It connects us to an individual, a real person who held it and turned its pages, and also to a whole history of a language and the people who speak it.  And it tells the story of reading – at that time, Wales had one of the highest rates of literacy in the world thanks to the ‘circulating schools’ pioneered by Griffith Jones and his successors, which would come to a district for a while and teach people of all ages and genders to read, the aim being that they would be able to read the bible for themselves.  Literacy was perceived as what we still know it to be today – the gateway to knowledge and independent learning that can change lives.  Mary Jones’ bible is symbolic of the world of words and ideas that was opened up to her when she learned to read.  There can be few greater gifts than the ability to read.

The exhibition Beibl i Bawb (A Bible for All) is on until 2 April 2022 – more details here: https://www.library.wales/visit/things-to-do/beibl-i-bawb

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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In other words – writing, reading and literary translation

I have recently been working on a translation into English of a short story in Dutch.  It’s part of an ongoing project, and I am finding the process fascinating.  As a writer who is also a translator, there are a number of things going on at the same time when I undertake literary translation, and although the temptation is to say that much of it is instinctive, in fact there are layers of practice at work which I find it helpful to analyse and articulate.

Any translation has elements of decoding meaning from the source language (which in my case is Dutch) and encoding it in the target language (in my case, English).  Sound straightforward enough?  Well, not really, because the differences between how languages work, the building blocks that make up meaning – things like word order – mean that it’s not simply a case of grabbing a dictionary and swapping one word for another.  Also, you can’t just translate expressions and idioms literally, because the same idea may be expressed completely differently in the two languages.  For example, iets kennen als zijn broekzak literally translates as ‘knowing something like his trouser pocket’ – which makes no sense whatsoever in English.  The equivalent idiom in English would be ‘knowing something like the back of his hand’.

But what if the meaning of the text is made up, not only of dictionary words, or even idioms and colloquial phrases, but of subtle nuances of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on.  This is most obvious in translating poetry, of course, but any literary text is more than the sum of its words, and my challenge is to extract a sense of those extra layers of meaning and to convey that into English.  It is my job to write the short story in English which the original author would have written if they had been a native speaker of English.

This is, of course, impossible, but the best translations get so close to this ideal that the reader forgets that they are reading a translation.  This is what I am aiming for.  I need to identify and isolate the quirks, style and individual voice of the author and find a way of distilling that into an equivalent voice in English.  If the story reads as if I wrote it, then I’ve failed.

Ironically, I believe that it is the fact that I am a writer which equips me to do literary translation.  Finding my own voice, using all those tools of tone, sound, repetition, alliteration, rhythm, pace, and so on in my own writing, enables me to put that toolbox at the disposal of the author whose words I am translating.  Because I am a writer, I am well-placed to see the workings behind the scenes of the original text, to recognise what the author is doing, and to do what is necessary to create the corresponding effect in English.

It can be a slow process.  This is not like translating an online article about a new archaeological discovery, or even like translating a piece of academic writing.  Those kinds of texts are mainly about conveying the content.  The voice of the original author is rarely the main feature of the translation, and the task is to convey the information in appropriate, equivalent English.  It may take time to do the necessary research to find that appropriate equivalence – especially where there is specialised vocabulary involved – but it is not an especially lengthy process.  With literary translation, by contrast, I need to live with the text for a while before attempting to start translating it.  In the case of this short story, I first read it more than six months ago, and have gone back to it many times since.  I have it read straight through; read it for structure; for style; for vocabulary; for geographically-specific references (the author is Flemish, and the story is set in Antwerp).  I have marked up ‘problems’, passages where it is not immediately apparent how I should translate the text.  One particular phrase occupied me for a long time – in the end I decided to take a risk and move quite a long way from the literal meaning of the original Dutch word in order to create the same shock-value and controversy in English.  Re-reading my translation now, I am really pleased with the ‘solution’ to that particular ‘problem’.

There is a campaign ongoing in the translation and publishing industries at the moment to put ‘translators on the cover’ – in the vast majority of cases, literary translators are not named on the covers of the books they translate, even when these translations go on to win major book  prizes.  Often – in Anglophone markets, anyway – it is hard to know that the book you are reading is a translation.  At best, you might find the translator mentioned on the title page, but usually they will merely get a credit tucked away on the copyright page, which only the most nerdy amongst readers ever actually reads (I do – but I’m an ex-librarian and back in the day, when cataloguing was done manually, this was where you found the information you needed in order to catalogue a book).  If you live in an English-speaking country, you have probably read the work of literary translators without even realising it.  It is my hope that, having read this post, you may seek out the work of literary translators and enjoy the results of the process that I have described.  There is a whole world of books out there, and literary translators are the people who make it possible for you to read them in your own language.

Photograph of part of a page from a Dutch/English dictionary, showing the entries for 'vertalen' (to translate), 'vertaler' (translator) and 'vertaling' (translation).

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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2021 – My Year In Books

2021 – My Year In Books

New Year’s Eve has come upon me suddenly – in the limbo between the public festivals of Christmas and New Year, the days seem to merge into each other, especially this year when the grey skies touch the ground (alternating occasionally with thick fog) and it never seems to get properly light.  There have been a lot of ‘best books of 2021’ posted on social media over the past few weeks, and it set me thinking about what I have read this year.  Some I have reviewed on this blog or in other publications, but others I have read simply for pleasure or out of curiosity.  Here, in roughly chronological order, are my top 10 books of 2021.

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem.  I originally bought this for my beachcombing mother-in-law, but it looked so interesting that I got a copy for myself too.  The author posts prolifically on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, so the book is very much a starting point for an ongoing engagement with the finds that emerge from the Thames, and the stories and history behind them.  Maiklem moves down the river, from the tidal head at Teddington to the estuary at Southend-on-Sea, telling the story of the riverbank, the characters who inhabit(ed) it, and her own experience of mudlarking along the shore and the artefacts she has discovered.  The book sits between travel writing, social history, and memoir, and is accompanied by photographs of some of the finds she refers to.  I am always entranced by the humble objects, sometimes lost for centuries, which give a glimpse into people’s everyday lives, so for me this book was a treasure trove.

Ghost Town: a Liverpool Shadowplay, by Jeff Young was another book which was originally a gift which I ended up reading myself.  This had a personal resonance for me, as the streets which Young describes so evocatively were trodden by my own father, half a century earlier.  Many of the places are familiar to me from tracing my family history.  In Young’s luminous memoir, he walks through his ‘ghost town’, and explores themes of metamorphosis – his own, and that of the city of Liverpool –and loss, remembering and mis-remembering.  A compelling narrative, highly recommended for anyone interested in place writing.

Next up was The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy.  I read this just a few days before the swifts arrived from Africa, perfect timing for this love song to the marvel of nature that is the swift.  Born of a passion bordering on the obsessional, Foster’s book describes the bird’s life-cycle, its mind-boggling feats of aerobatics and endurance, its biology, and the history of humans’ relationship with the species.  I wrote a full review on this blog here.

Where? Life and death in the Shropshire hills by Simon Moreton was a new departure for me – I have no experience of the graphic novel/zine genre which Moreton specializes in, and this innovative book combines text with illustration and collage in a way I’ve not seen done before.  Where? is a memoir, in which Moreton juxtaposes the narrative of his father’s illness and death with memories of a childhood in rural Shropshire, in a landscape dominated by the presence of Titterstone Clee which looms over the surrounding countryside, and near the summit of which is a radar station where Moreton’s father worked.  Again, this is place writing about somewhere I know slightly, and I enjoyed reading it, admiring the weaving together of the two strands.  I am aware, though, that there were aspects I didn’t ‘get’ because I don’t have the visual lexicon to understand the artwork which is such a large component of this book.

A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George.  I have followed Josie George on Twitter for a long time, and pre-ordered this book when she announced its publication.  However, it took me a long time to summon up the courage to read it.  In a year where so many themes were dark and hopeless, it seemed perverse to read an account of disability and chronic illness.  I was wrong.  George’s account of her life with a condition which long defied diagnosis and which continues to deliver twists and turns of challenge and disability, is full of light, hope and love.  Not that there is any false cheeriness here – she pulls no punches about the pain and hardships of her situation – nor is there any of the ‘disabled person as an inspiration to us all’ nonsense.  This is an exceptional person, taking life one moment at a time, doing what she can, not doing what she can’t, refusing to get frustrated, determined to continue loving, convinced that the world is good, that life is good, that being alive is the most amazingly wonderful thing, to be savoured and celebrated in whatever way we can in that moment.  It is heartwarming, not in an It’s A Wonderful Life kind of way, but in a way that stays with you, challenging the way you look at the world, at each small moment of our small lives.

The Long Field by Pamela Petro is again memoir/place writing about somewhere I know – in this case, Petro’s love affair with rural Wales started in Lampeter, at the university we both attended.  I reviewed The Long Field here.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton was initially quite a challenging read (I don’t do philosophy, which dominates the opening chapters) but my persistence was rewarded by an insightful exploration of how language and culture influence and shape each other.  Barton tells of her experiences as an English teacher in Japan, and the fifty sounds of the title (which form the chapter headings) are onomatopoeic words in Japanese which she unpacks in her journey into Japanese language and culture, and into her own personality.  I wrote a full review for the Cardiff Review.

You will have noticed that all the titles in this list are non-fiction.  I have struggled with reading fiction since the beginning of the pandemic, but The Listeners by Edward Parnell may have rehabilitated me.  This clever, taut, beautifully written delight gave me more reading pleasure than anything else this year, and I reviewed it joyfully here on this blog.

Finally, two books which I am still reading.  Light Rains Sometimes Fall: a British Year Through Japan’s 72 Seasons by Lev Parikian is arranged in short chapters covering 5 or six days each, in which Parikian closely observes the natural world around him, partly through pandemic lockdowns, noticing details of the changing seasons.  I am a big fan of Parikian’s nature writing, and as I’m consciously attempting to live more in the present (rather than the past or the future) I liked the idea of reading this in ‘real time’, a chapter at a time for a whole year.  The current ‘season’ is called ‘Storms Sometimes Blow,’ which seems about right! 

As an utter map nerd, and a fan of his other writing, it was inevitable that I would eventually read Map Addict by Mike Parker.  At the time of writing, I am halfway through this blend of memoir, cartographical history, and celebration of the glorious Ordnance Survey map, and it’s so nice to connect with a fellow map addict! (I’ve written about the origins of my own map obsession here).

And, on this last day of 2021, I bring you good news – I have a whole lot more books lined up to read in 2022!  My ‘To Be Read’ pile includes poetry, a lot of exciting non-fiction, and even (tentatively) a bit of fiction.  I can’t wait!

Wishing you a Happy New Year.

Photograph of the books referred to in this blog post.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Belated book review – The Listeners by Edward Parnell

It grieves me that it took so long for me to get round to reading this book.  I know Ed Parnell, and have read his non-fiction Ghostland, so I knew his debut novel would be good.  But the arrival of my signed copy of The Listeners was followed closely by the arrival of Covid and the first lockdown, and I suddenly found it impossible to read fiction.  It was as if the surreality of real life, with everything we took for granted suddenly swept away into an unknowable and dystopian future, seemed to make my brain incapable of coping with imagined realities.  I had a large ‘to be read’ pile which included a number of fiction books by authors I knew I liked, but each one was closed and put aside after only a few pages.  I just couldn’t hack fiction. 

For a year and a half I read only non-fiction.  Then, last summer, I started re-reading the Golden Age crime fiction collection on my Kindle (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham).  These were safe, generally not graphically violent, with structures that were familiar and worlds which trundled along on their predictable tracks.  All very comforting.  Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, too.  But it has taken until last week for me to feel up to tacking new, more challenging fiction.  It was time to open The Listeners.

I love this book.  I’m sad I’ve finished it – I eked out the last few chapters over several days, to put off the moment when it would be over.  It is a treat, a gem, a perfectly-formed little treasure, like a beautifully crafted piece of work by a skilled artisan.  It is utterly beguiling.  And yes, I know that sounds hyperbolical, but I mean every word.

The Listeners is set in the wartime years of the 1940s in rural Norfolk – in an area near to where I used to live, so I recognize the descriptions of landscape and wildlife that provide the staging for the events of the book.  It is not so much the events that carry the reader forward, as the voices of the various narrators who take turns to give their perspectives.  It takes quite a while to work out which, if any, of the narrators are reliable.  Much of the action is in the shadow of events up to a generation earlier, events which are only hinted at.  The way those past events, and their implications for the present and the future, are gradually and subtly revealed to us is a masterclass in understated writing.  At several points in the narrative, I had a sudden, nauseating jolt as I realized what was actually being referred to, what it was that had happened and was not being talked about, or what was, with a sickening inevitability, going to happen next.

It is, in many ways, a dark book.  Anyone who has read Ghostland will know that Edward Parnell is an aficionado of the dark, the weird, of things hinted from the shadows.  The Listeners, which predates Ghostland, should really be depressing – I can’t tell you about all the motifs because it would spoil the plot for you, but let’s say that most kinds of violence, abuse, betrayal and grief feature in it – but the writing is so beautiful and the characters so deftly painted that it glows with chiaroscuro like the work of an Old Master.

The pace is measured – a pace appropriate to country folk who are, despite the upheavals of WWII, simply getting on with the necessary cycle of the agricultural year and domestic life – but the book never drags.  The change of voice with each chapter shifts our viewpoint, keeps the reader on their toes (and often doubting everything they’ve just read in the previous chapter).  And the ending – with the reader now knowing something which the protagonists do not – is genius.

The Listeners (the title is borrowed from the poem by Walter de la Mare, for reasons which will be come apparent) won the Rethink New Novels Competition in 2014 – this is another reason why I am calling this a ‘belated’ review.  The good news for those of us who are late to the party is that it is still available to buy (direct from the author at https://edwardparnell.com/buy-signed-copies/, or from Amazon as a print-on-demand book or on Kindle).  I have reviewed a lot of books this year which I have very much enjoyed but, for me, this is my book of 2021.  I just wish I could un-read it so that I could have the joy of reading it again for the first time.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Guest blog post for Liza Achilles (lizaachilles.com)

It’s always a great pleasure to be invited to be a guest blogger, and today’s post is for fellow-blogger Liza Achilles. She asked me to reflect on a book that has influenced my life, and my response is a piece called Words, Words, Words – The Book That Made Me a Writer (the picture might just give you a clue about which book that is!). Head on over to lizaachilles.com to have a read – and while you’re there, do have a look at her posts on seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere.

Book Review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset.  When I unwrapped the tissue-packed parcel, I was captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and vertiginous speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is a book born of an obsession.  On his own admission, Charles Foster is obsessed with swifts – where others might be content to watch them in the skies over Oxford, and be blessed by their occupation of nest sites in the roof of his house, Foster travels on pilgrimage to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.  He tracks the progress of their migrations via other obsessives on the internet, and the swifts’ presence or absence in the air above him is mirrored in the highs and lows of his mood.  It is as if he cannot live without them.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, January to December.  In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures.  We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift.  For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed and occasionally when encountering very bad weather during migration.  They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep.  Following the cornucopia of insect life (what Foster refers to as aerial plankton or krill), they migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique.   They lay up to four eggs, but the fourth hatchling (if there is one) never survives.  Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks, sometimes days, of fledging. 

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago. Swifts are also long-lived – they can have a lifespan of 20+ years.  They return to the place where they were hatched, spending their first couple of summers screaming around the sky with their companions and generally, it seems, having a ball, maybe even tentatively pairing up, before scoping out a potential nest site for the serious business of claiming a nest and breeding.  We know that most of the birds which travel to western Europe for the summer breeding season spend a while over Liberia, gorging on the insect soup swirling in the air after the rains.  From there, the swifts I see in Somerset will have travelled some 3,100 miles, in as little as five days.

However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts.  There are myriad theories, for example, about how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate, and what accounts for the wide variations in how long it takes individual birds to make the journey.

Foster explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer.  He also rails against the appropriation of the swift as somehow the possession of the observer.  Swifts, he says, are not ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  They are their own selves, untameable, masters of the sky in a way that we can only dream of, and in no way reciprocating the sense of connectedness we feel with the swifts who condescend to make fleeting use of our roof-eaves and insect supplies.  It is this unconquerable wildness which, for Foster (and for me) makes swifts so compelling.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for their mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’.  Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book.  The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are perfect.  Of course, I loved it all the more – and was so excited when I heard that Little Toller Books were going to be publishing it – because of how I feel about swifts.  The sight of those exuberant little black sickles slicing through the late spring sky at the end of their epic migration is viscerally energising.  Shrieking squadrons, skimming just over my head between the red-brick cliffs of the town houses, sound so intensely full of life that they make me feel alive, too.  And the day in August when suddenly the sky is silent, empty of little black sickles as they follow the call of their African winter home, is the day the year turns towards winter for me, too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by (and available from) Little Toller Books, 2021.  ISBN 9781908213846

Photograph of the front cover of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall.  As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living.  If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button.  Thank you!

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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.

 

#Shelfie – books I am currently reading

Over the Christmas and New Year break, I have been enjoying a bit of leisure to catch up with my reading.  All writers read – it’s just a part of life, like breathing, and since I was very young I have not been able to imagine not having several books on the go at any given time.  This time of year is especially exciting as kind people tend to give books as Christmas presents!

As I like seeing other people’s #shelfies, I thought that today I would share mine with you.

Photo of a pile of books on a shelf.

Starting from the bottom:  Masquerade, by Kit Williams.  Published in 1979 and long out of print, I was recently recommended this and managed to track down a secondhand copy.  The first of the ‘armchair treasure hunt’ genre, the frankly trippy illustrations and accompanying story of Jack Hare – written like a fairy tale with riddles twining through it – created a clue book.  The author buried a piece of jewellery, in the form of a bejewelled 18 carat gold hare necklace, and waited for it to be found by the first person to solve the riddle of the book.  It was claimed a couple of years later, amid some scandal, and the whole affair was chronicled by Bamber Gascoigne (who witnessed the burial of the treasure) in his book The Quest for the Golden Hare.  My interest in the book is, of course, primarily because of the hare who is the hero, and the hares secreted in every illustration – but also in the concept of a picture book for adults, where each image repays close observation, and where the image and text have a dialogue.  Regular readers of this blog will recall my recent review of The Hare and the Moon by Catherine Hyde, which does something like this.

For more on the story of Masquerade, have a look at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-47671776.

There are more hares in my next book – over 400 of them!  A Christmas present from my partner, this is one of a series of beautiful coffee table books by Alan Marshall, which feature the work of British printmakers.  This is The Artful Hare, and it’s gorgeous.  89 printmakers interpret the hare, in a variety of styles and techniques which both show the rich diversity of this art form, and also illustrate aspects of the life and mythology of the hare.  This will keep me very happy for a long time – if I treat myself to just one print a day, it will take me well into 2021!

The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher, is more by way of work – I like to keep up to date with short form writing, both fiction and non-fiction.  So far I am still on Hensher’s excellent introduction, so I can’t comment yet on the stories themselves.

Another Christmas present is From Bears to Bishops: Norfolk’s Medieval Church Carvings by Paul Harley.  In over 130 stunning black and white photographs, this catalogues wood and stone carvings from Norfolk’s 659 medieval churches.  Several of these I’ve seen in person (for example, the Green Man at King’s Lynn Minster, the woodwoses on the font at Acle, and the cat on the font at Castle Rising), and I am keen to explore in search of more.

Regular readers will remember that I recently attended an event for writers at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich.  The highlight for me was meeting Edward Parnell, who spoke about his move from fiction to non-fiction, and the recent publication of his book Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country.  Edward kindly signed my copy!  Beginning with the ghost stories of M.R. James (which I re-discovered last year), Edward’s book is an intriguing exploration of place, haunting, and writers, interlaced with his own memoir.  I am less than a quarter through the book, and it’s fascinating – and it’s also inspiring me to go in search of authors I hadn’t previously encountered.

Social history is a major interest of mine, and I am also a textiles geek, so The Button Box by Lynn Knight was always going to find its way onto my bookshelf.  Using heirloom items from the family button box as the hooks on which to hang her narrative, Knight explores the intimate, domestic side of women’s lives through the stories of their clothes.  This is a book to be relished slowly – I am dipping into it a chapter at a time.

Completely different – and straddling the space between work-related reading and reading for leisure – is The Ritual of Writing: writing as spiritual practice by Andrew Anderson.  Purchased on a recent visit to Glastonbury, it covers topics such as responding to the spirit of place, working with old tales, and using the wheel of the year.  Again, a book to be read slowly – with time to reflect on each chapter before embarking on the next.

I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before – I am half Dutch.  The older I get, the more pronounced my Dutch traits seem to be becoming (or so I am told!).  I was therefore attracted to Why the Dutch are Different: a Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands.  The Author, Ben Coates, is a Brit who has lived in the Netherlands for many years.  In this book, he explores the legacy of Dutch history on the culture, attitudes and behaviours of the Dutch – writing as an outsider observing from the inside, which is rather how I feel sometimes in Britain.  I am enjoying the book immensely – learning a great deal that I didn’t know about Dutch history and geography, and also recognising so much of the national psyche in myself.

Finally – did I mention I’m a textiles geek?!  Some time ago I spotted The Golden Thread: How fabric changed history by Kassia St Clair on the shelves of Waterstones, and promised myself I’d buy it when I had made a few more inroads into my ‘to read’ pile.  I was delighted, then, to find it amongst my Christmas presents!  A friend had also spotted it and thought it was my kind of thing.  St Clair tells the story of fabric , starting from prehistory, through the wrappings of Egyptian mummies, silk and the Silk Road, the sails of Viking longships, medieval wool wealth, cotton and slavery, to the clothing of arctic explorers, artificial fibres, space suits and modern sports fabrics.  This is yet another book to be dipped into and savoured – a rich tapestry of history, laced with literary quotations, which encourages us to look more closely at the fantastic textile creations we use every day, and so often take for granted.

 

Links to books cited are generally to Amazon UK, although where possible I give my custom to my local bookshop, or use Hive.co.uk and Abebooks.co.uk to buy new and used books online.  If you are in the UK, many of these titles may also be available through your county library service.