If There Was Ever A Time To Fall In Love With Books It’s Now

Books

Readers wouldn’t dream of standing near each other.

Lockdown began on March 23rd. It is now May 20th. We have learned a lot by staying at home and pressing the reset button. We can connect instead of avoiding each other and more focussed thinking can replace replace speed-skimming through our days. We’re reprioritising who is useful in society. (Clue: social media influencers, back of the queue). Will these new wonders last? Only until the PR department of a media in-house fashion magazine decides her article on shoulder bags is more important than the fees being extracted from overseas nurses by venal corner-shop daughter Priti Patel – and then it will all go back to bad-normal.

So what have we learned? One, that there’s only so much TV you can watch and streaming services are of pretty limited interest. Two, that after planning to download apps that will improve your French, yoga, and diet you’ll abandon them after three weeks. Three, that a Zoom call is no substitute for sitting in the calm quietude of a garden with a good friend.

But for me and I suspect for many others here there has been a revelation; books. Those things sitting on the shelf ignored.

I mean, obviously it’s books or you wouldn’t be here, but I’m thinking about them in ways I’ve not considered for years.

First came the winnowing out of books I’d kept for sentimental reasons and had no intention of ever reading. The ditching of the dull, the slaughtering of the sensations. Then the reading of books purchased but never quite got around to. The rereading of favourite comfort books. The discovery of books I never knew I had. Then…the holes. Gaps in the shelves from books I’ve lent out or lost or had forgotten I’d given away. The rethinking of a library or a shelf, the identification of times and places when something was read and loved.

I remember being very ill indeed in hospital and reading William Boyd’s redemptive Brazzaville Beach, which at the time felt as if it was saving my life. And Charles Palliser’s astonishing feat of homage The Quincunx, which made me forget my misery. What do you want your books to be, a comfort, a challenge, a repository, a solace, memories, ongoing food for thought?

Now after the weeding comes…the restocking. The opening of the package, the look and smell of the pages. Why aren’t bookshops using their web skilled personnel to run virtual 360 tours of stores to restore the browsing experience? Come to that, why aren’t bookstores reopening? Can you think of a more socially distanced shopping experience than in a bookshop? Readers wouldn’t dream of standing near each other. Reading is a selfish act that craves privacy, a contract between reader and writer that cannot be encroached upon. I am a kindly humanist, liberal but practical, and I still want to beat anyone talking on the phone in a bookshop to death with a claw hammer.

After two months of fannying about with books they are finally in good shape. They’d needed a workout to trim off the flab and gain some muscle. Goodbye to the Not The Nine O’Clock News Annual, hello to a readable copy of Jane Eyre (a book I have avoided all my life). Farewell Jeff Vandemeer’s undiscerning anthologies of SF, hello to Mike Ashley’s beautifully curated collection of forgotten sea stories, From The Depths. Quality over quantity – out go the crime novels pushed at me by publicists to review (only for me to read and hate them). Out go the gigantic dynastic quality novels everyone in New York was reading for about two weeks. In come books hiding in plain sight that I avoided because everyone told me how good they were.

As I’m not going to restaurants I’m going online to spend that money on independent booksellers with good stock and sharp service. And I’ll be falling for my books all over again.

 

33 comments on “If There Was Ever A Time To Fall In Love With Books It’s Now”

  1. brooke says:

    “Why aren’t bookshops using their web skilled personnel..?” Bookshops in our city pay lower than NHS-level wages and have the Donald’s attitude toward employees. Knowledgeable staff, e.g. people who know who Mrs. Gaskell is, get jobs in IT companies–not bookshops.

    I wonder how you will get on with Charlotte Bronte’s creation. You do know that 70-80% of the work is about christian philosophy?

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Bookshops and libraries – I suppose people are worried that the books will become virus laden, and spread infection. Children who had measles used to have their toys and books burnt to avoid passing it on to others.
    My library books are now hugely overdue, which somehow lurks at the back of my mind as I have always renewed or returned them on time since childhood.
    However, I have located my copy of Angel Pavement, so I’m about to remind myself of what people worried about in the 1930s.
    I once heard Jane Eyre described as ‘the ultimate female pornography’. Not sure about that, but I prefer it to most of the other Bronte books.

  3. Hasn’t someone threatened a quarantine system on books and clothing. Anything that’s been touched by a potential customer is moved into a lockdown area. I cannot imagine the complexity of it all. Until the great re-opening, I’m on a voyage of discovery amongst the books that already fill my shelves (and the floor). The great problem as always is finding time for all the hobbies and interests. Urgent: more time required!

  4. brooke says:

    “… Jane Eyre described as ‘the ultimate female pornography’.” I think that may have been Emily’s creati, Wuthering Heights. Both novels had to be published under “male” names. Critics allowed as how the books were okay if written by men but were obscene if written, as suspected, by females. As both are concerned with women longing for choice over their lives and being passionate, yes indeed female pornography.

  5. Peregrine says:

    I see some Wodehouse and some Allingham, but of the rest, it’s a blur!

  6. Peregrine says:

    And some of the wonderful Beryl!

  7. Debra Matheney says:

    I am slowly rereading The Magic Mountain. I say slowly because I have the attention span of a gnat. Anyone else finding prolonged concentration difficult? And I am working my way through mysteries set on the Fens by Jim Kelly and Joy Ellis.I am trying a moratorium on book buying as I have far too many unread.
    Thanks for reminding me of Brazzaville Beach. What a lovely read.

  8. Paul Connolly says:

    I loved The Quincunx by Palliser and think Boyd’s The New Confessions is his best novel. A great book.

    Recently discarded a lot of Jim Thompson crime novels – hugely overrated and not a patch on Cornell
    Woolrich.

  9. lilyami says:

    Jane Eyre is an extraordinary novel. I loathe it, but I do keep re-reading it. Five times now (but I am 74 and I started when I was seven). Wuthering Heights I cannot cope with at all, though I think I would have liked Emily more than Charlotte; actually, I am pretty sure of that. Charlotte sounds to have been poisonous; which doesn’t make her a bad writer, god knows. I would be very interested in your reaction to Ms Eyre.

  10. Jay Mackie says:

    My eagle eye has spotted your copy of Poolside on the top shelf, left side Chris. A great anthology of some strange, but brilliant stories.
    We know the strange appeal of its waterproof pages Chris – have you ever given it a decent outing by reading it in a holiday swimming pool?
    I did attract a few stares in Mykonos!

  11. Simon says:

    Yes, I agree re independent bookshops. In Leeds in the 70/80s there were two really good shops Hardings and Greenheads, where staff were really helpful.

  12. admin says:

    Poolside is one of two paper-specific books I can think of, Jay – the other is the limited edition of Fahrenheit 451 boarded in asbestos.

  13. Roger says:

    “Out of all the books I have ever read it is the one in which I would least like to be a character.” – Lewis Carroll on Wuthering Heights.

    I thought you’d gone over to Kindle, Chris.

  14. kevin says:

    Brooke – You are very right regarding the contempt book stores have for their “booksellers,” i.e. clerks. A bookstore is about selling, not books, or something like that. The only author names clerks need know these days are, yep, James Patterson, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, John Grisham and whoever just happens to be the flavor of the season. I am very pessimistic about the survival of bookstores here in the US.

    And by the way, I’ve yet to met an IT person (male or female) who knows the name Mary Gaskell, or Charlotte Bronte for that matter. Phillip K. Dick or JRR Tolkien, yes, but not those scribbling women.

  15. Wayne Mook says:

    Oddly working from home I’m on the internet less as my wife goes on when I’m at work, so since using it for work purposes when I finish we have to take turns in using it, and there are many times we don’t.

    I seem to be reading quite a bit of pulp, at the moment, a short story collection from the 20’s originally printed in England in Weird Tales. Not at Night! ed. Herbert Ashbury. Plus I’m reading something from a Christopher Fowler, and I’ve been reading another history of Manchester, I picked up a cheap 2nd hand copy from a small bookshop that sells online.

    I’ve actually been catching up on some very old TV, from the 50’s & 60’s.

    Wayne.

  16. admin says:

    Kindle/ physical books about 50/50, Roger – it depends on the book.
    Non-fiction/ illustrated – physical
    Fiction/ crime/ some literature – Kindle

  17. Kim Froggatt says:

    Although I have been an avid reader all my life there have been fallow periods when I became focused on work or family and books took a back seat whilst I spent less time than I would have liked to with them. In the last five or six years, though, books have taken up their proper place in my days again, being firmly at the front and centre of my thinking and time allocation.

    However, with so much extra time recently and in such close proximity to my bookshelves I found myself studying the books there. It suddenly occurred to me that most of the books I love have a great sense of place and their settings play a character in the stories! They are usually series of books with lively characters, rather than one off stories. After this moment of clarity, I had the idea that even though I had to stay in the house, if opened the pages of those books, I could go back and visit some old friends in places I loved.

    My journeying started in London with all of Ben Aaronovitch’s River’s of London series and I said hello to Peter and Nightingale, then I dropped into Lansquenet and Paris and back to Lansquenet again with Joanne Harris and the Chocolat gang. After that I was off to Barcelona to visit the Library of Forgotten books with Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Daniel and his family. Then I headed over to the States for a while and caught up with Spencer Quinn and the adorable Chet the dog and his P.I. partner, Bernie, in the deserts of Southern California and because I wasn’t that far away, dropped into San Francisco to catch Lisa Lutz and The Spellman’s.

    After all that, I almost picked up Peter Mayle in Provence but something stopped me so I looked online and found you, Chris and Bryant and May in amongst the streets of London grappling with Oranges and Lemons. After book 19, I went back to book 1 and started journeying along with you guys, only to realise, I had come full circle and was back in London again. It was lovely to be back.

    The lock down journey so far has been delightful. I have visited lots of old friends in wonderfully familiar places and met some new ones too. It’s amazing where you can go if only you have the right tour guides.

    It’s been lovely to see everyone.

  18. Jan says:

    Having run out of stuff to read as the librarys been shut for ages now I have started to examine the village libraries now housed in defunct telephone kiosks on me way into work. Each village seems to have repurposed its TK into a makeshift library and just at present lots of donations are being made. Just starting off on Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth”.

    I always donate as I make a withdrawal basically shifting things round from one village to the next. Visited one dead posh village with a March Homes+ Gardens or some such glossy mag and THIS WAS ACTUALLY IN MARCH. These villagers have more money than sense I’m telling you. I reckon someone was probably after proving they were well switched on and a fast reader.

  19. Richard says:

    Is that the Scoundrels I see top right of the bookcase? I enjoyed those immensely.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    I am reading In the Heart of the Sea piecemeal because I know there are horrors ahead. It is the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by a sperm whale in 1820 in the heart of the south Pacific. (Ooh, tropics pretty much.) As well as cannibalism (haven’t got to that part yet) there is racism, although anyone not born on Nantucket gets pretty much the same treatment, the inevitable result of inequitable food and housing sharing. I’m re-reading Chris Fowler in between sessions. We were watching a documentary on the South Pacific narrated by Mr. Cumberbatch and the wreck of the Essex was referred to. Ken realised he had a copy of this book which he had not yet read. The delights ahead!
    I’d really like to do a cleanout of the bookshelves but I’d have to discuss it with the other occupant of this dwelling and why ask for trouble. (Three editions of the favourite Geography text book? Really?) Besides, what do you do with the books you know no one is going to want to read?

  21. Annemarie Pondo says:

    I just finished Herzog which has been on my shelf since the 60s. It 2qs fabulous
    I’m also a fan of Walter Mosley and I reccomend John Woman. The best are Bryant and May.

  22. Bob Low says:

    Like the other posters here, my lockdown reading has consisted of books I’ve owned for years – decades in some cases – but never got round to reading, for one reason or another. I haven’t read as much as I thought I would, probably because for the first six weeks of the lockdown, I was still busy with working from home. That’s tailed off a bit now. I have a serious health problem, which has been controlled by heavy duty immuno- suppressant medication for the last five years, so I started withdrawing slightly earlier than the lockdown. I haven’t bought any new books in around six months, which must be a record for me. Among the previously unread books I’ve now got round to are Michael Ondaatje’s ‘In the Skin of a Lion’, which I bought over thirty years ago, before ‘The English Patient’ film brought him into the limelight, started but never finished. It’s beautifully and cleverly written, but doesn’t really work as a novel. The one I’m reading just now is ‘The Island of the Day Before’ by Umberto Eco, which I bought with very high hopes on the strength of his two earlier books when it came out, but found pretty impenetrable. It’s a mercilessly self indulgent book, and extremely hard work, requiring continual internet research just to keep up. Definitely the most fun read so far has been ‘The Monster Men’ by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a bonkers pulp reimagining of ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’, with a completely insane final twist.

  23. Jan says:

    Continue holding off on Jane Eyre Chris it’s well weary. Dead boring most of it. . Preferred “Villette” myself although the character of Mr Rochester has overtones of the slightly out of control romantic hero it don’t really work somehow. But the classic romantic hero elements are still there hes just over preoccupied with her upstairs in the attic. (She’s the most interesting one it the one he’s driven up the wall. )

    I think Brooke might be thinking too deeply about both “Jane Eyre” and ” Wuthering Heights”.

    To my mind there’s no two ways about it there’s a real Mills + Boon aspect to this story and the character of Heathcliff in particular. Yes and it’s definitely got the porno aspect of a racy M+B (some versions of which amazingly are published with a few references to body parts now. I would have written Mills + Book with knobs on.but thought the comment could be widely misinterpreted)

    There’s no point in interpreting Wuthering Heights or J.E. Come to that in a standing on the feminist soapbox kind of way women longing for control over their lives…that’s not really right. Maybe Emily, Charlotte Anne and come to that bro Bramwell were all radical feminists BUT let’s be honest here. Heathcliff is a real template for ten thousand romantic hero’s ever since. Yes he’s basically your original and best talk dark and handsome guy this gypsy type hero ..taciturn difficult ultimately unattainable. All the guff about about the wild weather on the moor is just subtext for the great sex they never got to really enjoy at leisure. In a sense them Bronte girls in their strictly old fashioned lockdowned sort of life courtesy of their dear old dad well these lasses create the template for a million romances ever since. Underneath all the LITERATURE of J.E and W.Hs there’s a real chocolate box romance there.

  24. Jan says:

    Although it’s entirely correct that the pseudonym Currer Bell (or perhaps Dinger Bell! ) was used by Charlotte as this was the only real way for a woman to be published in the 19C this does not really have any real relevance as to whether the work was considered as pornographic or not… I think it’s a misinterpretation of the state of the 19C world view to state the novels would have been totally unacceptable if it were known they were female creations.

    The emphasis on feminist ideals doesn’t really give that much insight into the central elements of both Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights both of which right at the base of them deal with the subject matter of the fascination of two inexperienced young women around two “adult” male fantasy heros. Its that simple. You could pick up any teen fiction romance and recognise aspects of Heathcliffs character in the male hero lead any one of them.
    You have got to to give them Bronte sisters their due the stereo types they did a fair bit to create have persisted. Despite the world being very different.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    A short, delightfully written book that gives me a great deal of pleasure every time I have read it, and that is many times, is ‘Candide’ by Voltaire. It can be read on several levels, as it is part political allegory, and ‘taking the piss out of the poshos’. However, it can be read with virtually no knowledge of 18th century European history – and it becomes a comedic travelogue of almost ‘Carry On’ proportions, with our heroes staggering from one life-threatening adventure to another, escaping by the skin of their teeth, but always dropping from a frying pan into a fire. If you want to get an idea of what it’s like, then I can say that it has exactly the same kind of feel as Terry Gilliam’s ‘Baron Munchausen’ movie (a favourite of mine),’and a similar logic, but far less fantastical in nature.
    Voltaire’s novella, ‘Zadig’ is almost as fun, a rather clever modern(?!) take on the ‘Arabian Nights’ stories.

  26. Helen Martin says:

    I read Candide in the original at university and actually translated the whole thing. I loved it. When Bernstein wrote his musical I saw it on tv and loved it all over again. Il Faut Cultiver Nos Jardins is the last number and a beautiful thing in itself. I have a feeling that a lot of its persistence is the fact that there are references to the earthquake in Leghorne but its worth sitting down with in itself. Think I’ll go read it again. Once I finish with those whalers.

  27. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – out of the whole book, the ‘earthquake’ section is possibly the only bit that might fox the casual reader, with use of the term ‘Auto da Fe’. Oh, on a similar theme, did you ever find out about what became of Robert Damiens, failed regicide, in 1757? If not, – it wasn’t pretty, let’s just say that.

  28. SteveB says:

    Bookshops are open again in Germany now, and to be honest you’d scarcely know there’s a problem here in Frankfurt. People are sitting together drinking, eating etc etc just like normal. It’s supposed to be compulsory to wear a facemask on the train but a lot of the time I feel like I’m the only one bothering!

  29. Liz Thompson says:

    Well I’ve got 12 bookcases full of books, a good two thirds unread. There’s the political (anarchist) bookcase, the murder mystery bookcase which is where I keep those worth re-reading ( Allingham, Crispin, Mitchell, someone called C. Fowler), the young adults (fantasy plus children’s picture books, all read and keepable, either for story or illustrations), fantasy unread (most will be discarded after reading, except Gaiman, Le Guin and Pratchett), scientific/ philiosophy/ social history/ ecology-natural world-photographs (as most of these are 10,000 pages long, they will only ever get one reading and will then be sold to Music Magpie or We Buy Books. Some of them will have come from those places anyway), poetry (3 shelves, very assorted, modern, collections, dialect and translated), assorted modern novels (that I probably bought after reading an enthusiatic review somewhere), and unclassified reference (2 volume S.O.D., maps, foreign language dictionaries, bird and plant indentification, herb books both medical and culinary, cookbooks.
    And folklore and music.(tales, biographies, early American blues, traditional English/Scottish/Irish song and custom, photos of customs. All retained for close scrutiny, comparison, study and, quite likely, criticism).
    I think that’s a fair picture.
    Oh, there’s the patchwork quilt books. And knitting. And colour theory. And most recently, books (novels) by K J Charles. I think they may need a shelf of their own, decently distant from the children’s picture books. Some of them were definitely an education.

  30. Liz Thompson says:

    Well I’ve got 12 bookcases full of books, a good two thirds unread. There’s the political (anarchist) bookcase, the murder mystery bookcase which is where I keep those worth re-reading ( Allingham, Crispin, Mitchell, someone called C. Fowler), the young adults (fantasy plus children’s picture books, all read and keepable, either for story or illustrations), fantasy unread (most will be discarded after reading, except Gaiman, Le Guin and Pratchett), scientific/ philiosophy/ social history/ ecology-natural world-photographs (as most of these are 10,000 pages long, they will only ever get one reading and will then be sold to Music Magpie or We Buy Books. Some of them will have come from those places anyway), poetry (3 shelves, very assorted, modern, collections, dialect and translated), assorted modern novels (that I probably bought after reading an enthusiatic review somewhere), and unclassified reference (2 volume S.O.D., maps, foreign language dictionaries, bird and plant indentification, herb books both medical and culinary, cookbooks.
    And folklore and music.(tales, biographies, early American blues, traditional English/Scottish/Irish song and custom, photos of customs. All retained for close scrutiny, comparison, study and, quite likely, criticism).
    I think that’s a fair picture.
    Oh, there’s the patchwork quilt books. And knitting. And colour theory. And most recently, books (novels) by K J Charles. I think they may need a shelf of their own, decently distant from the children’s picture books. Some of them were definitely an education.
    Thr trouble is, I buy them far faster than I read them.

  31. Liz Thompson says:

    Sorry about posting twice. Carried away with enthusiasm .

  32. Ian Luck says:

    Liz – I often post twice – having fingers like sausages doesn’t help. I have considered doing it on purpose, though, but perhaps changing one word, or bit of punctuation, or adding a non sequitur somewhere, just to see if anybody notices.

  33. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, If one is not familiar with the term Auto da Fe one should just let it go. The passage works without it as I recall.
    Yes, I did find out and it was not pleasant.

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