Why I love books and bookshops

My last blog was very much of the heavy, political variety. This one is mixing it up completely. It is born of various ideas and thought processes from the last few months, and as such is likely to be somewhat wandering and full of tangents. This is how my writing would often be if I didn’t try and regulate it a bit, as some of you who have received essay-length emails from me will know. I’m experimenting with just writing as the thoughts arrive after reading this piece today on following daydreams. I hope it works… I once knew someone who went off on endless tangents in conversation, which might have been okay if he didn’t stop now and again and say, ‘ha- how did I get here?!’ AND THEN TRACE THEM ALL BACK AGAIN. It was fiercely tedious- the kind of tedium which doesn’t just make you sink through the floor with sheer fatigue but makes you scream hysterically at the leaden weight as you go down. I will learn from his mistakes, and not trace paths back. Neither will I keep apologising for my wanderings, as I expect that will get dull quickly too.

The main prompt for writing this was reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a new novella from Patrick Rothfuss. Some of you may have heard of his excellent Kingkiller Chronicles, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. If you haven’t read them, do it. I have just started re-reading The Name of the Wind for the first time and it’s even better second time round, especially because I can see this time that it’s so rich that the third, fourth, fifth reads are all going to yield things I hadn’t noticed before. The Slow Regard of Silent Things follows one character, Auri, and as the author says in the afterword, it does nothing a book should do. There is little plot, only one character, and ten pages or so on making soap. But it’s delicious. Auri lives her days by what I interpret as enlarged instinct, following what feels right and trying different things until it all slots into place. We all do this, whether we’re aware of it or not- in what we put on in the morning, and what we eat, and the little decisions we make. I have better days when I follow those instincts very very closely. I am prone to anxiety and if I act on the beginnings of anxious feelings then I get along a lot better- it’s pretty simple, and is often things most people wouldn’t even notice changing their mind about, but I overthink so if I make a decision and then want to change my mind, some part of my brain will try to worry about it. I do better if I just get on with it and ignore my brain, go with the instinct. I really can’t tell you much about the book as it’s not about anything in particular. But it is lovely, and if you need a break and a quiet meandering sort of book, it could be useful for you.

The other prompt for this post is an article I read a long time ago about a university in America somewhere that has a library with no books. It’s some sort of technological college, so it makes more sense for them to be only ebooks and journals, and as any student will tell you, if it solves the problem of a class of twenty all needing the same one copy of a book in the library, great. But oh. A library with no books. It makes me want to cry. I have loved books since I was very small. My mum is a very keen reader and she would tell me all kinds of stories: I remember her telling me the story of Romeo and Juliet, and for as long as I can remember I’ve known that there’s a wizard called Gandalf the Grey who dies but it’s okay because he comes back as Gandalf the White. I used to become totally deaf when I was reading; I wouldn’t hear calls for dinner or the teacher speak, and it was so rare for me to look up when I read that when I voluntarily stopped reading to listen to Elvis sing King Creole on the radio, and ask my dad what it was, he knew he was onto a winner and bought his (utterly bemused) daughter Elvis’s greatest hits for her tenth birthday.

I love the feeling of big buildings full of books. The SOAS Library is one of my happy places. There are more fascinating books in there than I could read if I stayed there for the rest of my life. And bookshops make me happy like nowhere else, which is why, since HMV closed, I try to never buy books from Amazon anymore. It’s deeply annoying having almost nowhere to go to buy a physical CD or DVD (yes, I still buy physical copies of these things, I am not sufficiently ‘down with the kids’ on downloading), but if I couldn’t go into a real bookshop to buy a book, it would take away something very significant. I know it’s tempting to buy online when it’s so much bloody cheaper- I’m tearing my hair out at the moment because so many of my favourite authors have new books out at once, and the price of a hardback can be ridiculous. Siri Hustvedt, David Nicholls, Sarah Waters, Colm Toibin, Graeme Simsion, Lena Dunham, Ali Smith – did you all have to bring out hardbacks at once?? You’re killing me here. And publishers, what the hell is up with the price variation on hardbacks?! The new David Nicholls is £20! And I know your game, making the font twice the size so you can charge more- these days I open a book to check the size of the font before I buy it. I will not be conned. Sometimes, in these days of competing with digital books, publishers will go all out on a hardback and make it so beautiful you can’t bear to leave it behind. I’m looking at you, The Night Circus, and Rules of Civility. Two ridiculous stories behind my purchase of those hardbacks. I saw The Night Circus in Daunt Books on Fulham Road and picked it up, flicked through it, sighed, and set it down because I thought I couldn’t afford the (albeit very reasonable) £12.99. I started to walk away but looking back at it I couldn’t entertain the idea of someone else coming in, picking it up, creasing a page, putting it down wrong (I spend half my time in bookshops straightening books) and maybe taking it home. It was mine. I bought it. Rules of Civility was even sillier. I decided I couldn’t afford the hardback, waited for the very-pretty-but-not-as-pretty paperback, then adored the book so much I tracked down a hardback and bought that too anyway. I have a sickness.

Those were both debuts, and of course the publisher has to do more to sell a new name. But with all the big names mentioned above- with the possible exception of Lena Dunham, as hers is technically a debut and I love what they’ve done with it, making it look more old-fashioned- the covers are fairly dull. Many are in very similar styles to others by the same author, which makes sense as then people will know they’re by the same author, but for heaven’s sake- the cover of The Rosie Effect is THE SAME as The Rosie Project! No expense spent there, Penguin. And I’m glad I don’t want to buy the new book by the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry- again, the cover is identical. We’re not that stupid, cover designers- you can mix it up a touch.

Anyway, I love being able to go in and float about and pick things up and breathe in the smell of books and decide if today is the day I cave and buy one of these hardbacks I so desperately want (today was such a day, I bought Colm Toibin’s latest as a present to me for finishing an essay). Sometimes it’s not the right day yet. Sometimes I’ll shamelessly judge a book by its cover, find something I wasn’t expecting, and discover that it’s the right day to buy something completely different. I can’t do that on Amazon. A few months ago I bought a book called Naïve. Super. It’s Norwegian, it’s beautifully small, and it’s about a mid-twenty-something who has an existential crisis- loses the meaning of it all for a while, and has to stop until he finds it again. It’s perfect and if any of you are the sort I’ll buy a random book for for Christmas, brace yourself to get a copy of this. This, to me, is a great description of depression from this book:

‘We stood there arguing for a while. I accused him of cheating and we studied the rule book and argued some more. I said a few things that were really off the mark. In the end my brother asked me if something was wrong. What’s the matter with you? he said.

I was going to say nothing, but then I felt everything flowing over inside. It was overwhelming and upsetting. I have never felt anything like it, and I was unable to speak. Instead, I sat down on the grass and shook my head. My brother came and sat down next to me. He put his hand on my shoulder. We had never sat like that before. I started to cry. I hadn’t cried for years. It must have come as a surprise to my brother. He apologised for having been so brutal during the game.

Everything seemed meaningless to me. All of a sudden.

My own life, the lives of others, of animals and plants, the whole world, it no longer fitted together.

I told my brother. He would never have been able to understand it. He got up and said come on, shit happens, it’ll be fine. He tried to get me on my feet, boxing me brotherly in the stomach and shouting a little. My brother used to play hockey. He knows about shouting. I told him to take it easy. I said this was serious. My brother sat down and took it easy.

We were talking. I was completely incoherent. Neither of us could understand much of what I was saying. But my brother took me seriously. I’ll give him that. I could see he was getting worried. He hadn’t seen me like this before.

He said there are probably thousands of people who hit the wall every day. Most of them probably have a hard time of it for a while, but then it gets better. My brother is an optimist. He wanted to help.

I sat there thinking this had to be the pits. I was afraid that I had become fed up with life, that I would never ever feel enthusiasm again.’

Naïve. Super, Erlend Loe, Canongate 2005

I wasn’t going to put the quote from that book in this post but it fit and wanted to come in so there it is. I told you this would be a rambling post. In case you’re wondering, the game the brothers were playing was croquet.

The bottom line of it is: make sure you still use bookshops when you can, while you can. I know Amazon is cheap and easy, but think about a world without bookshops. Homes with no bookcases to go and peruse while your friend is cooking dinner. How much we learn from looking at people’s book collections. Think about not being able to open a new, or an old, or a middle-aged book, stick your face in it and take a deep breath of the smell of the pages. I love doing that. I especially love it when I find books that have a particular smell of a series I read when I was a child, about The Chalet School for Girls. I didn’t really like the stories much- they were all very similar- but I did like a) that they all drank milky coffee all the time which sounded marvellous (sadly it turns out I don’t like coffee) and b) the smell of those books. I come across it in other books from time to time, and it takes me back to days of doing nothing but reading and imagining that milky coffee tastes really good. Go and buy a book, and we’ll see if it smells like the books on The Chalet School. Judge a book by its cover, and make those cover designers do some damn work. And go and read some Patrick Rothfuss – you won’t regret it.

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