Reading Challenge 2016: A Book Published Before You Were Born


former cover - stanley spencer

Barbara Comyns Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

(The 2016 Reading Challenge: A Book Published Before You Were Born. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and I was definitely born after that.)

I found a copy of Comyns’ novel in a charity shop, and bought it for its attention-grabbing title and beautiful cover – a reproduction of Stanley Spencer’s Marriage at Cana: Bride and Bridegroom (pictured above) – and very glad I am too that I managed to pick up this particular edition, because the newly repackaged Viragos are just hideous.New cover

See what I mean? More Barbara Pym than Barbara Comyns, I would say. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked Excellent Women, but I’m not champing at the bit to read anything else by Pym, whereas I’ve already put in orders for Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (the latter title is a quotation from Longfellow’s The Fire of Drift-wood).

There are quite a few reviews for Our Spoons Came From Woolworths on the interweb-thingy, all largely focused on the same points. To begin with, the book’s reviewers claim that it is mostly autobiographical in spite of its disclaimer, and there is certainly more than a passing similarity between the life of the fictional Sophia and that of her creator. Both married a fellow artist, both suffered extreme poverty, both left their husbands and worked as part of the domestic staff in a country house. However, the disclaimer states that

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty

My feeling is that it’s probably best not to overdo the biographical reading, especially as Comyns has asked you not to. But – and this is another point on which all the reviews agree – Comyns is plain in her wish that special attention be paid to the three chapters mentioned. These chapters deal with the birth of her first child and the absolutely appalling treatment to which she was subjected. Her fictional counterpart, Sophia, is only 21 years old and extremely frightened. In fact, and in reference to the reviews again, Sophia seems initially to have a fairly hazy notion of how babies are created in the first place and certainly has no idea how to prevent conception:

I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control.

The blame for her repeated pregnancies is laid very squarely at her door by her husband Charles and his awful mother, Eva:

She didn’t seem to think it was Charles’ baby – only mine, because later on, when I was upstairs putting on my coat, she kissed me quite kindly, but spoilt it by saying ‘I shall never forgive you, Sophia, for making my son a father at twenty-one.’

How dismal it must have been to be female in the 1930s. And this is before the NHS, of course, so to add insult to injury, Sophia had to find the money to pay for her wretched hospital birth. Once admitted, she is given an enema and a ‘large dose of castor oil’, which combine to render her helpless with sickness and diarrhoea. The nurses reprimand her every time she makes a mess and accuse her of having ’disgusting habits’. Sophia begins to feel that she has committed a criminal act in having a baby and is humiliated by the whole depressing experience:

they made me put my legs in kind of slings that must have been attached to the ceiling; besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully ashamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal.

Of course, the ghastly Charles can barely tolerate the child at all. Sophia tells us that

I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from.

I often heard the threat ‘I’ll kick you into the middle of next week’ when I was a kiddie and I always found this idea rather interesting, that a boot up the bum could be such a hearty one that the recipient would be propelled forward not only in space, but also in time, to arrive next Wednesday. That’s exactly what I’d like to do to selfish, narcissistic, lazy, pointless Charles.

Barbara Comyns-our-spoons-came-from-woolworths
Barbara Comyns

The story of Sophia’s early life is a woeful one, but apart from the chapters discussed here so far, it is told with such lightness of touch and such humour that it is a very amusing book. I wondered how this could have been achieved and pondered the sense of temporal distance that characterises the novel. I had already noted the lack of direct speech which Sophia herself comments on at the beginning of chapter nine: there is indeed some direct speech, but mostly the reader is following Sophia’s own account of events, and spoken utterances are generally rendered in indirect speech as they are filtered through Sophia’s voice. Sophia relates her tale to us exactly as she does to her friend Helen, which gives us the framing device for the story. There is slightly more to it than this, however. My understanding of the novel is that the distance is created because there is no second Sophia, the Sophia-narrator of the past. There is only the Sophia of the present, which explains why everything can be told so simply, with emotional reactions boiled down to bald statements such as ‘I felt very sad’ or ‘I was happy’. While the Sophia of the present day can remember that at such-and-such a period she was indeed very happy or very sad, she cannot describe her emotions as fully as she would have done at the time.

To clarify this further, let’s consider another semi-autobiographical novel such as David Copperfield. There are at least two narrators: the David of the present day, the one who is telling the story, and the David of the past, the one who is living the story. These two Davids are the same character, but two different enactors, because they exist in different time periods and one is older and knows much more than the other. But when the events of the novel are described, they are told from the younger David’s point of view and presented to the reader as the events are being experienced. And this, it seems to me, is the difference between Comyns’ novel and the conventions of biographical novels that one has come to expect. The tale is told by the present-day Sophia and there is no younger Sophia-enactor. This would account for the ever-present sense of distance.

The novel by no means suffers as a result of this device, however. On the contrary, it is refreshing – and no less emotionally charged for not giving way to lengthy lamentation. The reader is a human being after all, and is perfectly well equipped to imagine how Sophia must have felt without having it carefully spelt out.

Only one thing puzzles me: what happened to the war? The story is set in the 1930s and Sophia is relating events from a distance of eight years, so World War II must be in there somewhere. Sophia lives in London, leaving aside her three-year sojourn in the countryside, so must have noticed that there was a nasty war going on. But now I come to think of it, I’m not sure there is anything in the novel which definitively states that the events depicted actually are set in the thirties, although it is confidently claimed that this is the case in the blurb. Comyns herself spent the war working as a cook in a Hertfordshire country house.

I don’t know what to make of this, so at this point, I think we have to recall that Comyns told us quite plainly that apart from certain sections, this story isn’t true. A weedy cop-out on my part, I know. Everything else about the book tells you that the narrator shares the world we live in, but how to account for this huge chunk of missing history? Ah well. Virginia Woolf happily left the war out, as noted by a disapproving Katherine Mansfield.

Reading Challenge 2016: A Book You Can Read In A Day

Julie Maroh Skandalon

Mario Saraceni The Language of Comics

Skandalon_top pictureI’m kicking off this year’s Reading Challenge with a couple of books, both of which can be read in a day: Julie Maroh’s Skandalon, and Mario Saraceni’s The Language of Comics, and I’m going to use one to discuss the other. A little bit of background is necessary for the Maroh novel, however: it can be read and understood on its own terms, naturally, but Maroh provides an Afterword which situates the main character in a different, more mythical dimension and provides an explanation for his behaviour which goes beyond the rather trite summary to be found in the book’s blurb: ‘a fiery and intense contemporary myth about the recklessness of fame’. Well, no, not really. The myth in question here is not a new one for our times, it is a much older myth that has been retold in a modern setting with a main character who is the perfect vehicle: an immensely successful rock star who wields enormous power over his fans, men and women who adore him and follow wherever he leads.

Skandalon is a truly astonishing book. Much is explained in Maroh’s Afterword, which, following the writings of René Girard, sets out the philosophy of prohibition and the way in which myths and rites produce stories which become culturally embedded, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating accepted behaviours. The skandalon is a figure that transgresses these imaginary boundaries, attracting scandal as he does so and encouraging others to mimic his behaviour. But inevitably, the skandalon eventually becomes the scapegoat or victim. He who has vicariously fulfilled the desires of others has to face the consequences as the people turn on him – which they must, if societal order is to be restored. And so it is with Maroh’s main character, Tazane, the name being of course a pseudonym. His real name is Cedric. (One of the other characters suggests that the name Tazane is cursed and all would have been well if they’d stuck to Cedric.)

Saraceni’s book is a wonderfully accessible introduction to the study of comics as multi-modal texts: complicated concepts are made simple and exemplified with reproductions of numerous individual frames and complete comic strips. What I propose to do here is to explore a few of Saraceni’s observations with reference to Skandalon, but what follows is certainly not going to be an exhaustive exploration of how comics work – merely a taster.

One of the most interesting points of Saraceni’s discussion lies in his comparison of the layout and format of a comic strip with that of a text composed entirely of verbal features. He notes that the difference between functional and content words is reflected in the make-up of the verbal and visual language of comics, where functional words (words that link other words together to build a sentence, such as conjunctions and prepositions) have their counterpart in functional components, and content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) in content components. The functional components of comics are things like captions, sounds effects and emanata (text or icons that represent what’s going on in a character’s head, so for example, sweat drops can indicate anxiety or nervousness). In this image here, for example, the ringing of the telephone rendered by the dring sound effect becomes more insistent over the three panels; Tazane ignores it, but the increased size of the letters and the frequency with which they appear indicate both the character’s consciousness of the sound, the length of time which has passed since the telephone first began to ring, and his growing agitation as the words gradually fill the frame. (Eventually he rips the socket from the wall.)


Another functional component is the speech balloon. This is the space that is used to report what a character is saying, and its physical appearance on the page acts as a sort of adverb to tell us how something is said. Here, for example, we know from the visual elements (the crowSkandalon-redd, the microphone) that Tazane is onstage singing, but we can guess from the spiky balloons and large spaced-out font of the letters that he is not crooning softly, but belting out the words. The colour scheme reinforces this impression: think how these panels would differ if rendered in pale blue or green, for example.

Saraceni also argues that the gutter – the blank space separating the panels – ‘is similar to the space the divides one sentence from the next’. The gutter is not simply a blank space, in fact: every narrative is necessarily incomplete and this is a space for the reader to fill with real-world knowledge. Take the following example.

montage skandalon

This montage is made up of two pages, with the page break occurring down the middle, after the third panel from the left: this is important, because in the Western world we read each panel from left to right, top to bottom, and we do the same thing with the whole page.

So what’s happening here? We see first of all a cloud of smoke. On its own, this means that something is on fire, but what? In the second panel, a lit cigarette lies next to a butt in an ashtray, and we can see that the smoke comes from the cigarette. The ashtray is on a table, and in the third panel, we see what else is on the table: empty or near-empty bottles of alcohol – spirits and beer rather than wine – one bottle could be vodka, another Jack Daniels. The fourth panel shows us another view of the table (and all the time, the repetition of the table image is leading us to assume that it is the same one): a pencil, and some papers with musical notation. Finally, the fifth panel shows us the human agent behind all this – a hand playing a guitar – and we can infer that the musician shown here is the one who has been smoking, drinking and writing music. This is Tazane.

Onto the panels on the right-hand side of the montage, and we see at the top a close-up of Tazane with eyes closed, clearly absorbed in his task. The ‘camera’ pans out for the next panel and we see him playing, the tops of the bottles just visible in the right-hand corner. In the panel which follows, Tazane is writing on the paper, and we can infer again that he is writing down the tune he has just played, or perhaps some lyrics. The foreshortened perspective of the image ensures that the hand holding the pencil is central to the panel, with the trajectory of the pencil leading the eye back to Tazane’s face and from there down to the point of the pencil again, following the circle of thought from the origin to the recording of that thought. He returns to his playing for the final frame, depicted from yet another angle, and here we note an interesting point Saraceni makes about the panel – that it is not the same as a photograph or a film still, because the panel represents a portion of time rather than a snapshot. The final frame of this sequence could take up any amount of time: he could be playing for a few seconds, or a few hours. Panels can fill an entire page, as the one shown below does.


And there are numerous other examples of one-page panels in Skandalon. Page 85 is entirely blank, with not even a page number, but this can also be considered a panel; in fact, the page is blank because the narrative has reached a point where Tazane rapes a young female fan, and the blank page emphasises the horror of the scene by hiding it from the reader.

I mentioned the ‘camera’ earlier, and something that has sparked interest in recent years is the presence of the narrator in comics and graphic novels. In Skandalon, Tazane himself does some of the narrating for us, rendered in square captions in a font different to that of the round speech balloons. So Tazane is narrator as well as character. The other character, Philippe, also does a little narrating for us. On finding the remains of Tazane’s mobile phone, he says ‘Not again!’ – but who is he talking to? Ostensibly, himself, but arguably he is speaking to the reader as well and imparting the information that this is not the first time Tazane has smashed up his phone. But I think there is yet another narrator, the one that decides what to show us in each panel and whose point of view we see: close-ups, for example, are more likely to invite us to feel empathy for the character concerned. Creating a graphic novel involves decisions about the shape and size of each individual panel, its positioning on the page, its relation to other panels and its place in a sequence as well as what is depicted, how characters and events are depicted, what point of view is represented, whether or not captions are used, and many, many other decisions relating to both functional and content components. It is perhaps here, in these decisions, that we should be searching for the narrator. Saraceni recognises that the narrator’s presence cannot be reduced to a consideration of captions alone. The kind of syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses that are applied to verbal texts can equally be applied to graphic novels, if we consider creative choices made on both horizontal and vertical levels.


To conclude, Skandalon is a disturbing but immensely rewarding read, and Saraceni’s exceptionally useful book helps the reader to understand and articulate Maroh’s work. I’ve had a happy week with this, all in all.

Interesting use of panels to show the division between land and water in Tazane’s heroin-induced narcissistic hallucination.

Who’s up for a reading challenge?

Good morrow, dearest readers, and I apologise whole-heartedly for the neglect of Aunty Muriel’s Blog last year. For me 2015 was, in the words of the great Philip Larkin, a ‘pig’s arse’ of a year, but life goes on in that one-day-after-another kind of way, and I am determined to put behind me all the stuff that messed up last year and to make 2016 a year I’ll remember as a treasure and a delight.

Now, I haven’t made any New Year’s Resolutions as such, but I have promised myself that I will dust off and revive my moribund blogs – and what better way to do so than with a lovely Reading Challenge? This one has been doing the rounds on Facebook and it’s sparked quite a lot of interest, so I think it’s worth a try.

Reading Challenge 2016

I think we can all agree that this challenge is far more interesting than just telling yourself that you will read at least twenty books this year, because that never works. It’s the end of July by the time you’ve chosen your twenty books and then it’s the summer holidays and then Christmas before you know it and far from having read War and Peace plus nineteen other worthy novels, you’ve only actually managed to read the first chapter of Les Misérables before giving up and watching the film instead.

The idea is to write a blog entry for the book I read under each one of these categories. I haven’t chosen them all yet, but I have sorted out the following:

  • A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller:

Anna Smaill, The Chimes (with thanks to Sarah Elsegood for the recommendation!)

  • A book you should have read in school:

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

  • A book published before you were born:

Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

  • A book that was banned at some point*:

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

  • A book you previously abandoned:

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

*There’s a helpful list of banned books on Wikipedia if you’re struggling with this category.

Righto, so on with the show! I should point out that I have an essay deadline on 1 February, so it’s unlikely I’ll get anything done this month. I’m up to the eyeballs in Katherine Mansfield at the moment, but as soon as I’ve got my essay in, I’m going to dive straight into the Barbara Comyns and I know even at this early stage that I’m going to put off the Henry James until I really really can’t avoid it anymore.

‘Strangers on a Train’: The Hitchcock/Highsmith Smack-Down!


*Please note: spoilers below*

Before I begin, I should point out that I’m not the sort of person who usually succumbs to apoplectic rage over the perceived imperfections of a film adaptation of a book. I was, in fact, immensely irritated by those Harry Potter fans who squawked ‘That’s not in the book!’ and then insisted on listing every single detail that the latest film had left out in order to fit an 800-page book into two-and-a-half onscreen hours. No, I don’t get worked up about this sort of thing because books and films are two different media, and if you really want The Film Of The Book, well, why not just read the book? The idea behind an adaptation is to create something based on the original, but it should be something that explores the text in a different format and perhaps ends up saying something new about it, encouraging the audience to go back to the book and read it again with new eyes. In short, there is NO POINT in simply filming the book. Faithful adaptations are all well and good, but I always think of them as a missed opportunity to say something new.

Having said all that, I HATED Hitchcock’s adaptation of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and I hated it so much that I have to write a post about it in order to get it off my chest. I know Hitchcock was an innovative and inspired director, and that he contributed a great deal to the art of filmmaking, but on the evidence of this film I’d have to say that as a reader of narratives, he was a bit of a duffer.


Highsmith’s novel is a brilliant piece of exceptionally accomplished writing, made all the more astonishing by the fact that this was her first novel, published originally in 1950 when Highsmith was still only 29 years of age. Hitchcock’s film appeared the following year, and the film’s Wikipedia page notes that Hitchcock purchased the rights for only $7,500 after having been careful to keep his name out of the proceedings. Highsmith was understandably annoyed about having been cheated like this. Raymond Chandler produced a screenplay for Hitchcock based on the novel, but almost none of Chandler’s work made it into the final script: you can read his marvellously rude letter to Hitchcock here. (Chandler’s name remains on the credits, though, at the insistence of Warner Bros.)

Highsmith’s novel is based on a very simple premise: two strangers, Charles Anthony Bruno and Guy Haines, meet on a train. Bruno has an idea for the perfect murder: he will murder Guy’s wife Miriam, who is causing trouble over their divorce, and Guy will murder Bruno’s father, who is keeping Bruno on a too-tight rein. If both men are absent with alibis at the time of each murder, there is nothing to link them and their chances of getting away with it are therefore greatly increased. Guy is horrified by the idea, but Bruno goes ahead and murders Miriam while Guy is elsewhere, and Guy is eventually coerced into fulfilling his part of the bargain. Among the many themes of Highsmith’s novel is that of the double, or doppelgänger – the Hyde to one’s Jekyll, a darker side who enacts one’s secret desires, a theme that is brought out through liberal use of free indirect discourse and the ceaseless and seamless interweaving of voices. Hitchcock introduces the double idea at the beginning of his film by showing us Guy’s feet and Bruno’s feet in parallel scenes as they make for the train, but the idea is never pursued as thoroughly as it is in Highsmith’s novel – essentially because Guy has to be a Hollywood hero and isn’t allowed a dark side.


Guy’s status as hero proves detrimental to the entire film, the biggest single problem being that a hero cannot be a murderer, so Guy does not gun down Bruno’s father as he does in the novel – he tries to warn him instead*. But the most terrifying thing about Highsmith’s novel is Bruno’s relentless pursuit of Guy, so in the end Guy is left with no choice but to carry out the deed.

Highsmith’s Guy Haines is an architect at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career, but Hitchcock’s Haines is a tennis player, already well-known and riding a tide of success. This switch of profession is an inexplicable decision on Hitchcock’s part, because Guy’s status as an architect is crucial to an understanding of his character as a sensitive and creative soul whose buildings are inspired by his faith. Highsmith underlines this by ‘quoting’ an article about Guy taken from an English architectural magazine, part of which is reproduced below:

Haines [has] set forth principles of grace and function to which he has steadfastly held, and through which his art has grown to its present stature. If we seek to define Haines’ peculiar genius, we must depend chiefly upon that elusive and aery term, ‘grace’, which until Haines has never distinguished modern architecture. It is Haines’ achievement to have made classic in our age his own concept of grace…

Note that the word ‘grace’ features three times in this very short paragraph, and this is surely important. The novel begins with a temptation scene – Bruno, bearing the mark of the first murderer Cain in the form of a boil in the middle of his forehead, outlines his idea for the double murder – and Highsmith’s story ends with a confession, in which Guy blurts out the truth to Miriam’s ex-lover, Owen Markman. Now, I’m not a religious person and I don’t pretend to understand these things, but my reading is that Guy is tempted and falls, but his confession, and the beautiful buildings he creates, lead him finally to a state of grace. With Guy as tennis player, all this is lost, and we’re left with Farley Granger’s knobbly knees in tennis shorts and some rather dodgy shooting of a match that Guy is trying to win as quickly as possible for reasons that are not in the least bit clear. There is one superb, and very famous, shot which comes out of this tangle, however: all heads are turning to watch the ball except for that of Bruno, whose eyes are fixed on Guy…


And now for Bruno. Robert Walker puts in a marvellous turn as Hitchcock’s bad guy, but he is a cut-price two-dimensional version of Highsmith’s Charles Anthony Bruno. Hitchcock’s Bruno is a murderer who is inept enough to display his name for all to see in the form of a tasteless tie-pin:


Bruno as Highsmith wrote him is young, rich, bored, an avid reader of detective novels (hence his fascination with the perfect murder), and he is terrifying. He is both stupid and an alcoholic and this combination means that he is extremely dangerous because he is unpredictable. His wealthy, cushioned life has made him arrogant. He thinks nothing of murdering Miriam – indeed, it is only a game to him – and he plots the killing of his own father so that he can have full and immediate access to the allowance his father metes out so carefully. The detective Gerard notes that Bruno hates women, and indeed, his latent homosexuality is as clear to the reader as is his Oedipus-like status: the only woman Bruno will tolerate is Elsie, his mother, who in Highsmith’s novel is an attractive, still fairly youthful woman. Hitchcock turns Elsie into a senile old baggage, thus depriving us yet again of an area of potential intellectual interest.


However, I did find something that I liked about Hitchcock’s handling of the Bruno character. Bruno’s ‘bed-trick’, in which he pretends to be his father so he can confront Guy, was a point which sparked my interest, namely because I wondered when I was reading the novel whether it would turn out to be Bruno underneath the bedclothes. Given Bruno’s implied death wish and his adulation of Guy, I entertained the possibility that Bruno would consider it a great adventure to be shot dead by the man he clearly adores. But far more likely that Hitchcock wanted Bruno to call Guy’s bluff at this point so Bruno could direct his attention instead to trying to frame Guy for Miriam’s murder, because from this point onwards, the film departs completely from the narrative as set out in Highsmith’s novel and instead we get a lot of farting about with a lighter which Bruno is desperately trying to deposit as evidence of Guy’s presence at the scene of the crime. As if that would prove anything.

Hitchcock’s plot is ludicrous and scarcely credible. The events of Highsmith’s novel have been twisted beyond recognition simply so that the director of the film can stage set-pieces such as the fast and noisy destruction of the carousel at the end. And I hate the way Hitchcock directs women, how he reduces them. The Anne of Highsmith’s novel is an independent woman with her own successful career: Hitchcock turns Guy’s fiancée into the simpering daughter of a rich Senator, all ready to be passed from one man to another…


…and the film introduces the character of Barbara, Anne’s sister, who plays Scooby Doo’s Thelma to Anne’s Daphne. Of course, the other important thing about Barbara is that she wears spectacles and Bruno’s reaction to the sight of her (because Miriam too, wore spectacles) miraculously informs Anne that he is the murderer:


What utter, utter tosh. But here we come to the only other thing I liked about the film, and that was the way in which Miriam’s murder was filmed, reflected in the lenses of her spectacles which have fallen to the ground:


This shot is really rather good, especially because it leads one to ask exactly who is doing the seeing. We watch the scene through the eyes of the spectacles, as it were: ironically, the spectacles are seeing something that Miriam can no longer see. The spectacles are an inanimate witness to Bruno’s crime.

While I’m on the subject of Hitchcock and women, I feel I have to say something about Miriam as victim. Most notable here is that while Highsmith’s Miriam suffers a miscarriage before she is murdered, Hitchcock’s Miriam is still pregnant when Bruno strangles her. So, for Hitchcock, a pregnant woman and the old man working the carousel are fair game, but Bruno’s rich father is out of bounds in order to protect Guy’s status as hero. That stinks. It just stinks.

Annex - Granger, Farley (Strangers on a Train)_02

I’m reading Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley now. I hope Clément (1960) and Minghella (1999) did a better job of adapting this one for film, otherwise I really am in danger of turning into someone who says things like ‘That’s not in the book!’


*Compare this with Hitchcock’s Rebecca – Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier, does not murder Rebecca as he does in du Maurier’s novel. If memory serves, Rebecca falls and fatally hits her head, so our hero can remain blameless.

People are very funny about books


Me reading a book in sepia

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!