Me reading a book while on holiday in the Norfolk Broads a couple of years ago
People are very funny about books – funny peculiar, that is, rather than funny ha-ha.
For example, the last time I bought a bookcase, the retail assistant informed me that the smaller compartments in the particular case I was looking at were handy for storing DVDs or displaying ornaments and other such fripperies. ‘No, I need all the space for books,’ I replied, and even as I said it, I knew what her response would be – and yes, it duly came – ‘Oh, yes, well, I’ve got far too many books myself. I never have enough space for them.’ Right, fair enough, but then why try to encourage me to use up valuable book-storing-space by plonking a vase where the books should be? The thing is, the assistant felt that I’d made some kind of imputation about her intelligence because I’d implied that I owned more books than she did, and she felt the need to correct me on this.
But – the number of books you own is not an indication of how clever you are. What sort of books do you have? Do you have a houseful of Barbara Cartlands and Jilly Coopers? All very well if you like that sort of thing, but I doubt it’ll do much for your IQ. And if you own books of a more intellectual nature, have you actually read them? Again, it’s all very well to own expensive hardback copies of the major works by influential western philosophers, but if you haven’t read them, then you may as well clutter up your bookshelves with china dogs and tea-light holders.
People say they don’t like giving books away: ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly part with my books. It would be like giving away a little bit of myself.’ Would it? Of course it wouldn’t. There isn’t any part of my physical being that I would give away – at least not while I’m alive and still using it – but I donate books to Oxfam all the time, because I’ve read them. I give books away partly because I know I only have a finite number of years on this planet and it’s very unlikely that I’ll have time to read them again, but mostly because I only have a finite amount of storage space and I part with the books I’ve read in order to make room for the books that I haven’t read. (Of course, this doesn’t always work. I keep the books I know I will need again – textbooks – plus the books I know I will read again – mostly comic books – and just occasionally, I’ll give a book away and then decide that I wished I hadn’t: I did this recently with du Maurier’s Rebecca. Three weeks after having parted with it, I ended up trotting round the charity shops looking for a replacement copy.)
People like books as a physical object. Kindles and similar products have not really taken off as they might have done, despite some clear advantages over bulky hardbacks: Kindles take up less storage space (again!), and are not so heavy to hold. This latter point may seem frivolous, but I struggle to read Simon Schama’s A History of Britain mostly because it’s so bloody heavy and my hands start to ache after twenty minutes or so. The advantages to Kindles are obvious if you are travelling – no excess baggage payments and more room for insect repellent and stomach tablets. But I must confess here that I prefer a good solid paperback myself, although my own reservations about Kindles have more to do with the comparatively small amount of text shown on the screen and the continuous interruption to the reading experience that ensues as a result. We can’t use our peripheral vision when reading from a Kindle in the same way that we do when reading a book, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been any research into this area yet, so it’s possible that when using a Kindle, we might be missing out on a vital part of the reading experience. I do know that I always cover up the last page of ghost stories with my hand because I don’t want to glimpse the ending by accident before I get there.
People won’t write in books or deface them in any way. Why not? It’s your book. You can do what you like with it. I scribble all over mine. I like my books to contain my experience of reading them. For example, there are crinkly pages in my copy of The Three Musketeers because I blubbed all over the chapter in which Constance is murdered, and as for my copy of Watership Down – well, some pages have been welded together forever with snotty salt water. I like it when I buy a second-hand book and someone has drawn little pictures in the margin, or written a mysterious note to the previous recipient of the book. It’s nice if a book retains that small fragment of human experience.
What I’m getting round to, I suppose, is that a book should be a dynamic, not a static, object. It shouldn’t sit on a shelf gathering dust. It shouldn’t be used as a status symbol. It should be read and wept over and annotated, and then it should be passed on for someone else to read and perhaps spill coffee on, and then passed on again and again, until eventually all the pages fall out when the glue in the binding perishes and then it can be recycled and made into another book. Hurrah!