On memory and blogging

I’m on a bit of a re-reading kick at the moment. I’m reading new books but we’ve recently acquired a couple of new bookcases and the resultant sort-out unearthed some books I was excited about revisiting. But it got me thinking about unconscious re-reading and some of the reasons I got into blogging.

Have you ever read a book for the second time thinking that it was the first?

Because I have.

As shocking as I found it, I’ve managed to get through at least two books while remaining completely unaware that I’d read them before. On one occasion – accidentally re-reading Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture – I got a creeping sense of familiarity but not enough to remember anything that was actually going to happen. I just assumed I’d read something similar.

My (nerdy but oh so satisfying) excel spreadsheet was the only thing that revealed my blunder; as you type in the title it autofills if the same text has been used above. Cue palm slapping on forehead.

I don’t mind conscious rereading of a favourite book but I’m genuinely chilled when it’s accidental.

When I started noting down the books I read – back in July 2002 – I didn’t intend it to be an aide memoire; it was really just a way of keeping track, of appreciating progress and revealing trends. What happened over time was surprising and quite rewarding. First it became a kind of literary diary – I find I can look back at titles and remember snippets of where I was while reading and the things that were going on in my life at the time. On the other hand, it started to reveal some less pleasant things – namely, that I really don’t remember much of what I read. There are books on there that I cannot recall a single thing about; there are also books that I notice are duplicated on my ‘to be read’ list (like The God of Small Things, which it turns out I read in June 2012, oh the shame).

One could argue that it doesn’t matter too much, that it’s about enjoyment in the moment. That we can’t possibly remember everything we’ve ever read or we’d start losing important thoughts like our address or how to make toast. But it turns out it matters terribly to me. I just can’t stand that the hours (sometimes even days, or weeks) that I spent reading a particular book are effectively lost to me, irreparably.

I started making the odd note next to each title that I entered in the log, with snippets of plot, theme and my reactions. Eventually, as with so many other readers I’d imagine, I found my way to blogging. I wanted to create a more tangible representation of my reading life than a list; a critique perhaps, a dialogue, an analysis. I’m hoping this means that there’ll be no more books slipping through the cracks.

Have you ever accidentally re-read something?

2015 – a year of bookish non-resolutions

It’s been a strange reading year so far. I always begin the year in a gently contemplative mood from which a list of goals and targets gradually coalesces. This year I’ve found myself taking a lot longer to commit to any clear direction. It feels as if what I most want is the absence of goals and targets; a kind of loose, free-flowing openness. And I wonder what I might fill my time with if I leave it deliberately unplanned.

Characterised as it is by lists, planning, deadlines and targets, my life is, on paper at least, a paragon of organisation. But all too often it is a stick with which I can beat myself. This new looseness feels like a sneaky rebellion and even more than that perhaps it feels like it could be a lot of fun.

My reading life is all bound up in this shift. Instead of tackling my TBR with renewed purpose, swollen as it is with the influx of new ‘best of year’ suggestions from the blogosphere, I listened to the whispery inner voice that was saying “but I want to re-read The Hobbit…”, a book I have read at least 8 times before. So I began my year buried in the comforting familiarity of Bilbo’s perplexity as he empties his pantries for a host of jovial dwarves.

Next, I powered through Dr Benjamin Daniels’ Confessions of a GP, which is just as compelling and unputdownable as you would imagine of a book that allows you to sit alongside people in the sanctity of their doctor’s appointment and listen in.

I’m now re-reading Wolf Hall for my book group and savouring the ambiguity of the He’s and the various Thomases and the slowness that it forces upon me, coupled with the driving force of that present tense.

I’m not sure what I’ll read next but a couple of intriguing titles from my TBR list are calling to me. I don’t have them, so it would mean a library trip rather than a root through my bookshelves. But this following my gut has decided me. This year, I will set myself no targets. I will read where it takes me. And best of all, I cannot possibly fail.

The aquisition of books…

I’ve just finished reading Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously and it contained this quote, taken from an essay entitled ‘On Reading and Books’ by Schopenhauer that was written over 150 years ago:

“It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, but this is woefully true of me and my recent book buying tendencies. Having visited a couple of great secondhand bookshops recently and being newly energised by discoveries in my local library, I’ve been ‘acquiring’ books like a fiend. But I have, as yet, utterly failed in my goal to add another few hours to the average day. They still stubbornly persist in being just 24 hours long, minus time for sleeping, emailing (oh please save me), work, more emailing (seriously, how can there be so many?) and eating.

But what a wonderful idea to ponder on.

“I’ll take this Rumer Godden please, and could you throw in 2-3 hours on a Sunday afternoon to make a decent start on it?

Thanks ever so much…”

Book hunting

Every so often, when the twitchy, tingly prickle at the tips of my fingers becomes overwhelming, I go hunting for books. For me, this is truly one of the great pleasures in life.

First I need a hunting ground. It might be an independent bookshop – ideally one I haven’t been in before. More usually it’ll be a local Oxfam bookshop. Occasionally it’ll be Waterstones because they live in beautiful buildings near where I am. If I’m in Oxford, it’ll be the Blackwell’s bookshop. If I’m feeling the pinch, or my husband has made me swear on the life of our (yet-to-be) first born that I’ll not bring another book into the house for at least a month, it’ll be the Library.

Once there, the most immediate experience is the smell. Paper, coffee, binding, people, imagination, carpet and potential.

After that, it’s the sounds. I love the respectful silence of places where books live. Even bookshops with cafes seem to muffle the noise of their clinking cups and scraping forks under a giant, invisible bell jar. I also feel immediately calmer in rooms full of books. I think paper absorbs stress.

Experiencing the books themselves is always about sight and touch. You stand in front of the shelf and relax your gaze, letting it fall where it will. Sometimes it’s colour, sometimes the absence of, it might be font that catches your eye or it might even be the words themselves; wherever you start, your eye will be inexorably drawn to one single spine. Then you pick it up.

The weight of a book is important, as is the separation between the pages. Do they easily flick or do they clump together like a sweaty handshake? I always run a hand over covers looking for that subtle difference in texture between the image and the text. It doesn’t tell me a thing about the book itself, it’s just enjoyable – a bit like running your hands through rice or pulling silk between your fingers. If the cover warrants further exploration, I’ll read some words inside. If not, it’ll go straight back on the shelf.

I’ve never stopped to really analyse what I’m reacting to in that initial impression; I just know it’s lightning quick. They say you should never judge a book by its cover but the hunt is all about fast, unthinking, gut-driven filtering. It’s the sort of snap judgement you’d be ill-advised to make when dealing with people but it’s so much fun.

Then I repeat the process of gazing and touching, ad infinitum, until I feel like that twitchy, tickly prickle has faded. Or until I’m dragged out by a wild-eyed, desperate friend/spouse/family member whose personal twitchy fingers were sated about four hours earlier.

Strangely, buying a book is not necessarily always a given. Coming home empty-handed after clothes shopping is always frustrating. Book hunting, on the other hand, can be just as fulfilling if it ends up being purchase free. I do mostly leave with a book, of course, but it’s not the point. The point is the discovery, the grazing, the total immersion, the feeling of being in a public space and being totally detached from it, zeroed in on a singularly personal experience.

While internet shopping is, at times, an absolute life saver, it’s no coincidence that I never hunt for books online. It’s an entirely visceral experience that needs the combined efforts of all the senses* to be truly sated.

*A disclaimer: I don’t ever taste books. I wish I could find some way of incorporating that into the whole experience. Licking books in bookshops is just plain weird. However eating cake in bookshops is not. So we’ll go with that. The perfect book hunt ends in cake. Taste covered.

Oh to hunt books here! [The Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal - image credited to designyoutrust.com]

Oh to hunt books here! [The Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal – image credited to designyoutrust.com]

The blank page

The enemy of all writers is the blank page.

It paralyses us, doesn’t it? Electronic or hard copy, the block is the same. As much as I love new notebooks, they’re also terrifying. If they’re particularly beautiful, I can never bring myself to write in them. I have two types – the scrappy, spiral-bound nothingy type for making scrappy lists and jotting down inane thoughts. And the works of art that get displayed on my office shelves and will only get written in on the distant day when I have a thought worthy of them.

The first post here was always going to be a toughie because it feels stupidly portentuous, despite the fact that I know not a single person will ever read it.

So I decided to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

It’s my blogging equivalent of the blank page, weighted down with expectation and ideals.

So now there are words.

I win!

Next time there might be books…