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