Books V Coffee
My barrista is at pains to point out that I can have my coffee styled 127 different ways, so why is it that we rarely discuss how we like our books? Do you prefer yours clear and straightforward, or decorative and densely descriptive? Do you like both? Do you even have time to read now?
I measure a lot of things against the price of a cup of coffee. Yesterday I bought a book from a rack outside a community centre, from a lady in her eighties who looked frozen (the temperature was hovering around 2 or 3 degrees). She charged me 50 pence for JB Morton’s ‘The Best of Beachcomber’, a fairly rare paperback that will provide hours of fun. Feeling guilty, I added some junk to it and gave her a fiver. My local take-out coffee is Â£2.80. I cannot think of anything that gives me quite as much pleasure for so little, beyond feeling the sun on my face.
Publishers discuss books as if everyone in the country read them constantly. Their faith is touching but hilarious. Despite the fact that ‘Author’ was chosen last week as the number one perfect job by students, for most it remains perilous and poorly paid, demanding the kind of hours you might associate with doctors or farmers.
Presumably when they’re away from us, publishers discuss things like demands on attention in leisure time, new delivery systems, demographic balance – I don’t honestly know, because when I have a book coming out all I do is submit some names to a PR who invites them to a small launch. The days of book tours and advertising are long gone. On Amazon there are around 50,000 books ahead of me in the sales charts, so what can I expect?
Assuming you do have time to read, it apparently means that you are increasingly likely to be a/ retired, b/ middle class, c/ a commuter, d/ female e/ rural. To publishers it’s enough that you read at all, let alone wondering just how you’d like your book. Unlike music, which provides instant gratification, books require work. Secondhand ones don’t float about in the ether ready to be plucked down, as music does online; they still require work.
This is where the secondhand market comes in. I’m lucky enough to live a few steps from Bloomsbury, London’s book capital, where there are always secondhand books to rummage through. I just discovered yet another bookshop on my doorstep, tucked inside the station, and there’s even a barge bringing books along the canal.
Excuse me for stating the obvious, but books require calm, and create calm. I use them as others would use tranquillisers. If you’ve ever had a long wait in a hospital, you’ll know how calming a book can be. But books are a habit that’s easy to break. Friends who were avid readers stopped when they got iPads, which are essentially browsing devices, nothing more (and already look to have saturated their market, as sales are declining).
I’m not a reading snob. Some books should be disposable and easy to read, others tougher, that’s fine. EL James can exist beside Dickens. You choose your strength as you choose your coffee. I like Joe R Lansdale and Cormac McCarthy; they’re both great writers. I wouldn’t say that about James, who never pretended to be, but there are people who like Starbucks.
When it comes to classic crime, say, there’s a simple reason why Agatha Christie is still favoured over Margery Allingham. Her prose is clear and to the point, almost skeletal. Everything is labelled. You can’t make mistakes. It’s like shopping at Ikea, you just follow the arrows. Allingham demands more of you. Her plots are as good but her language is steeped in the period in which she’s writing, and pulls you up short on every page. Once you discover her, though, you have to read more. It’s like climbing higher to get a better view. You’re no longer content with what you see on the ground.
This isn’t something we sit around and talk about with publishers; how should I set the strength of my prose? But it probably should be. I’ve been working on a thriller for a long time now, and my agent has been advising me on exactly this. I overworked it and made it too clever. Now I’m taking out some of the plot twists. When Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim wrote ‘The Last Of Sheila’, their first draft came in at four hours, so they cut it back and created a brilliant film.
I still prefer my coffee strong.
PS Book-lovers: See what I did with that headline?