Abibliophobia – it’s real

Abibliophobia – the fear of running out of reading material…

Some overwhelming evidence has been accumulating recently suggesting that I might….might…have a bit of a problem.

First, back in July, my husband took this picture of my bedside table.

I get why this is bad, obviously. First off, it was really difficult to get into the wardrobe. And it’s a terrible way to store books because if you decide you want to read one of the ones near the bottom, it’s such a faff trying to get it out without getting trapped under the resulting landslide.

If my arm was twisted really hard, I sort of knew it was a sign of a larger issue but truth was I really needed all of those books and anyway at least 5 were library books and therefore one day going back to live somewhere else.

Since we moved in just over a year ago, a lot of slow-burn doing up and DIY has been going on. As a result, I never did completely sort out my books as I promised I would in the move. I mean, I got rid of a few while packing but if I’m honest it was half-hearted at best. So when I recently found myself with a lighter working week and a recently decorated and still largely empty room available, I decided to put all my books in one place and tackle them once and for all.

This is what happened.

Those boxes are full by the way. It’s not like the books in front of them are the books that came out of them. I can’t even get everything in one shot. And I think I took the pictures before I was completely finished and ran out of floor space. I didn’t count them but a conservative estimate based on the average number of books in a box/pile put me somewhere in the region of 600-700. Eeesh.

Being realistic, I’ll never stop acquiring books. But I’m glad I’m doing this (yup, still going. It looks better but there’s a way to go). Lessons I have learned include:

  • You don’t need to keep every book you read. Just the ones that you think you might read again, or those that are sentimental or ‘speak’ to you in some way. (I appreciate how that last point sounds but anyone who loves and regularly acquires books will know that there are some books that just belong in your library but you can’t always explain why.)
  • You should really keep unread books together so you can see on a regular basis just how many there are.
  • Knowing how many unread books you have at home is an excellent moderator when you’re out and about and get the urge to ‘acquire’.
  • I have some REALLY GOOD BOOKS that are sort of lost on my shelves and I’m very excited about reading them.
  • I feel much more in control of my books when they’re vaguely organised (now by category, although definitely not alphabetically or by colour – urgh).
  • I love books.
  • A lot.

There’s a box in the hall that’s almost full of books to give away and I reckon I have another box in me. I also know that I won’t keep all the unread books once they’re read, so there will be more shelf-clearing to come. And I feel really positive about how I’ll make decisions on which books to buy and most importantly keep in the years to come. Now I don’t just have books, I have a library.

And I definitely don’t have a problem.

Right?

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Finding inspiration in words and pictures

I feel like I’ve been adopting a slightly scattergun approach to reading recently but it’s been fun and unexpected. I did go on to re-read Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne Du Maurier as I sort of thought I might when I was last here, and I’m still reading Oriel Malet’s collection of letters from Menabilly in Portrait of a Friendship. But in the meantime I discovered some unspent money in my Amazon account (a bit like the happy heart skip you get when you find a tenner in a bag you haven’t used for a while) and of course this little lapse of memory meant that it was bonus money and therefore could immediately be spent on books. By and about Daphne Du Maurier in keeping with my current bent.

However, while they were winging their way my-wards, I found I couldn’t quite commit to anything else and, since collections of letters are often best dipped into rather than ploughed through, I picked up a couple of books that have been in my house for donkeys years but which I’ve never considered actually ‘reading’. They are: National Geographic’s The Photographers by Leah Bendavid-Val and Phaidon’s The Photo Book. My husband is the photographer/image man (by passion and by trade) and although an arresting image will make me stop and look, just like everybody else, I’ve never really studied photos or thought very much about them as pieces of art, composition or, indeed, narrative.

Words are still very much my thing – after a sometimes perfunctory glance at the image, my eye was always pulled to the lengthy captions to find out more – but I’ve been so interested by what’s happened to my perspective in the last few days of being immersed in this avalanche of images.

One of my great obsessions, in both reading and writing, is the way in which everyday things can be completely changed in an instant. Sometimes that’s whimsical or fantastical, which explains my love for books about magic, magic realism and stories like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which have the power to transform the mundane into the exotic. Other times it’s the touch of tragedy, where the shock of a life-altering event casts a transfiguring film over things that yesterday were so workaday as to be almost invisible.

Some years ago, I found out over the phone that one of the people I am closest to was potentially very, very ill. I don’t remember much about that phone call and I remember almost nothing else about what I did that day, but not long after I took a shower and I remember every single thing about that shower. It was an action that I performed thousands of times but this time it was as if someone took my shower and pulled it into another dimension. Like showering on Mars. Or inside someone else’s body. It was such a strange and alien experience despite taking place in a familiar room in my own flat. With a bit of distance, I think that’s fascinating. It’s entirely about a subtle shift in perspective and it’s something that I like exploring in the written word (alongside many other people who I think have done it just brilliantly).

And that – thank you for bearing with me – is what the photos have been doing for me over and over again. I think it was necessary to look at a few hundred for that to start happening. Unless it’s a particularly powerful and timely image, it’s a rare event when one picture can just stop you in your tracks. But after a few days of looking and reading, and sometimes looking again and again when an image resonated, I’ve started looking at the world around me a little differently. There’s so much unspoken story in the pictures, whether it’s what’s happening in the photo itself, the extra layers added by the context given in the caption, or the glimpses of what the photographer’s experience and commitment might look like on the other side of the lens.

About 50 photos in, I started making little scribbly notes and squirrelling away ideas. And I feel all fired up to explore some of them.

I am by no means the first person to discover that pictures can be inspirational, and I feel almost silly for writing it down as if it was some kind of revelation. But I think my personal lesson learned is that one of the reasons I love books so much, alongside my love for the shape and sound of language itself, is my passion for stories. And I could do with a reminder now and then that there’s more than one place to look for them.

[If you click on the pictures, which are credited to the National Geographic, the link will take you to their best pictures of 2016.]

There’s a bit more space in my local library

When questioned by my husband about the new book stalagmites on the living room floor, I’m going to claim they’re a kind of public service. After all, there’s no way the library would manage to fit in all the books if I didn’t help them out.

Sometimes it’s fun to see them all together as a snapshot of where my reading mind is currently at. This little formation represents the combined fruits of about three trips and indicates that I’m still fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction with a leaning towards books about books and writers, stories by people with quite different lives to mine, and a smattering of history.

I’ve also spotted this year that I tend to choose books (both fiction and non-fiction) with a largely unconscious bias towards women writers. I can’t say I’m that all that bothered, more interested. Most of the men on my ‘read’ list this year crop up in particular genres too (I re-read some Dahl and Morpurgo earlier in the year, and reached book 7 in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries). I might have a browse through my TBR list too. I’d quite like to see whether the bias comes through there as well… [Update: it sort of does. Oops.]

Anyway, on to the books.

Recent late-night adventures with Daddy Love aside, I’m not afraid to tackle darker topics and I’ve been meaning to read Primo Levi for just ages. Jennifer Teege’s book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me was a recent find and is a good example of my preference for reading history via the perspective of individuals with a particular connection to the events in question (in this case, Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth who needs, and perhaps deserves, little introduction).

There’s a Christie, because there’s always a Christie. I’d kind of like to have read them all one day.

Gods Behaving Badly sounds like fun and I can see how much I remember about my Greek myths. I’m looking forward to Euphoria because I’ve heard good things in the blogosphere. And Pym’s autobiography via letters and diary entries sounds like a perfect read.

 

David Lodge’s Lives in Writing [not pictured as accidentally pushed under the coffee table, sorry David] features Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Alan Bennett and H G Wells, amongst others.

And just to round it off, there’s Georgian England, witches and some fairly committed messing around in boats.

Now, which one first??

p.s. If, like me, you looked again at the pictures and noticed that Gods Behaving Badly is the wrong way round and is the ONLY ONE, and you were bothered by it, let’s be friends? 

 

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]