The Common Reader

I fell a little bit in love with a book this weekend. If you haven’t already, then please please go out and read Anne Fadiman’s ‘Ex Libris.’ It’s a book for book lovers, by a book lover and if class yourself as one of us, then it is absolutely a must read.

I read this little gem almost in one sitting, although I tried so hard to make it last longer: I just didn’t want it to end. It made me laugh, it made me nod my head vigorously in agreement and it filled me with a sense of relief: there are people out there who feel about books the way that I do. Sometimes I doubt that.

As I read Anne’s bite size snippets of the foibles of book lovers I felt utterly at home. I recognised myself on almost every page. I discovered that I am a courtly, not a carnal lover of books – a broken spine or a folded down corner makes me feel slightly nauseous and I said a silent prayer of thanks that Ian is not a book lover and we will never have to marry our libraries! I laughed my socks off at ‘Nothing New Under The Sun’ where Anne makes a footnote on almost every sentence but above all I loved how Anne shared the little quirks of her and her family, the little bookish habits that I could so relate too: I too read mail order catalogues and sleep with a book under my pillow and find myself proof-reading - I love a good error on a restaurant menu. I have duplicate books that I can’t bear to part with and I want to spend 7 hours in a second hand bookshop on my birthday. How amazing would that be? There is something comforting about reading how much somebody else loves something that you love. Funnily enough, coming from a long line of readers I was surprised and amused to discover the Fadiman family make my family almost look like book-haters so passionate are they, and the way Anne talks about her word loving father losing his eyesight is heartbreaking.

All in all this book is nothing short of a little bit of magic, and when I read the last page I was so tempted to go back to the beginning and start again. Wonderful. Go, find a copy, read it and come back and tell me all about your odd shelf.

"Beware Of Words"

'Beware of words. Be careful what you write. Leave no trails.
This is what the Gardeners taught us, when I was a child among them. They told us to depend on memory, because nothing written down could be relied on. The Spirit travels from mouth to mouth, not from thing to thing: books could be burnt, paper crumble away, computers could be destroyed. Only the Spirit lives forever, and the Spirit isn’t a thing.'

'Then all of them had left, once the trouble hit. They'd gone home to be with their families, believing love could save them. "You go ahead, I'll lock up," Toby had told them. And she had locked up, but with herself inside'

'Love’s never a fair trade. So Jimmy’s tired of you, so what, there’s guys all over the place like germs, and you can pick them like flowers and toss them away when they’re wilted. But you have to act like you’re having a spectacular time and every day’s a party.'

I’ve been meaning to read The Year Of The Flood since I attended a launch event at the Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years ago, I can’t believe it’s actually taken me this long to get round to - It’s Margaret Atwood, who I love. It’s dystopian future, which I like reading about if it’s written well. It’s Margaret Atwood writing about a dystopian future, which I’ve always enjoyed. I guess it was pretty much a given that I was going to love ‘The Year Of The Flood’, especially as I enjoyed it’s predecessor ‘Oryx and Crake’ as much as I did.

Set around the same time as Oryx and Crake, The Year Of The Flood has all the vital dystopian future ingredients: climate change; genetic manipulation of all living things, humans included; a massive corporate elite that rule over everything, and the poor living in disease ridden ghettos, and whilst I imagine it would work as a standalone, it also ties in seamlessly with Oryx and Crake: it’s Jimmy’s world from another angle. Whilst Jimmy and Crake were ‘safe’ in the compounds, the characters we encounter here are from Pleeblands – the rough side of town so to speak and the two books are so cleverly interwoven that it’s almost hard to believe they were written so far apart. The two main characters are seemingly the sole survivors of a ‘waterless flood’ and the novel tells their story, moving from one point of view to another telling the story both as it unfolds and via flashbacks.

It might be prudent to point out here that Margaret Atwood does not write happy stories. Often. That doesn’t mean her work isn’t amazing; it is. Her novels just aren’t generally happy happy hearts and flowers and happy endings. They’re thought provoking, and intelligent and inspiring and sometimes quite frightening, the language is sharp and the detail is breathtaking. She is also excellent at writing about relationships – not romantic relationships, but relationships generally. Atwood doesn’t try to create characters that you like, I don’t think, but ones that you want to understand and oftentimes, ones that on some level (albeit a level you’d rather not acknowledge) you can relate to and that’s what she does here. You want to know more about Toby and you can’t help rooting for her, you remember the girl like Amanda at your school and you are practically eaten up remembering when you were in a Ren/Beatrice/Amanda triangle. You want to put Ren in your pocket as much as you want to shake her. She picks out the flaws not only of her characters but of her readers and she makes you think. She does relationships, female relationships so, so, so well.

The Year Of The Flood is an example of all that is good about Margaret Atwood, and I think the reason it works so well is that it is so believable. Frighteningly so (although I think it would be worse if you read YOTF having not first read Oryx and Crake, the edge is taken off somewhat, the prior knowledge means you aren’t quite as horrified as you might have been otherwise.) Atwood never actually tells you when the book is set and so you never know just how far into the future you’re looking. You can imagine that climate change could lead to extreme weather conditions and that we could easily end up with a genetically modified lamb and lion splice or cosmetic surgery that’s gone as far as scalp transplants. It seems crazy yet not beyond the realms of possibility and that’s what makes it work. It isn’t a safe easy book. You don’t read it and feel comforted or content or certain of anything. Atwood doesn’t pander to her readers; she scares them. She goes out of her way to blind you with things when you least expect them, to leave you almost cold which is why it’s so hard to write about exactly what it is about her and her work that you like. I mean, there you are reading away, getting lost in the story, riding the wave when suddenly there’s a human finger in a burger and whilst you’re horrified you don’t quite question it because despite the fact it goes against everything you know it somehow makes sense….it’s uneasy and it’s uncomfortable and it’s really really good.

It’s not my favourite of hers – that accolade will always belong I think to The Blind Assassin – it’s probably not even in the top three but I did really enjoy it, and I do and will recommend it. Go forth, and read.

To Kindle or Not To Kindle.

That, my friends, is the question.

I used to be proudly anti-kindle-or-any-kind-of-e-reader. I used to be disgusted by the very notion. I am a book girl, to the death. I like pretty covers and I like the way books look all lined up on my shelf and I like how I can buy lots of pretty editions of my favourites (hence my numerous copies of Alice) I like the feel and the look and the smell and the whole experience that you get from a book and I couldn’t see how you could even begin to get that from an e-reader. To be honest, I still can’t. I didn’t like what I thought e-readers would do the already fragile publishing industry, or how struggling writers would earn even less of a crust if everybody started buying heavily price slashed e-books. To put it simply, E-Readers always felt wrong to me. I was totally against them on principle. I just didn’t like them.

& then I went on holiday and I had to leave half my clothes behind so that I could take ten books with me and not get penalised for my case being overweight. & then I realised that all the bookshelves in my house were full and that actually there isn’t really room to squeeze in another one. & then I realised that if I kept on buying books and piling them up all over my house like some kind of crazy book lady I would find myself having to choose between said books, and my boyfriend.

& then my Granny got a Kindle. I shouldn't have been surprised, she's the Queen of gadgets after all, but somehow I felt betrayed. My love of books comes from her. It comes from the books she's bought me and the books she's read to me, from her floor to ceiling bookshelves where I'd find books handed down to her through generations and here she is with a Kindle and a big grin. & yes, I did tell her that I thought she had gone over to the dark side, but then she made me look at it and as I sat and played with hers on Christmas Day, I began to be able to see the appeal.

She told me how she can download all the classics for free, how there's hundreds, maybe thousands of out of print books that she's never been able to get hold of, that she can get for the Kindle, for free and how there was a book she'd won in Sunday School when she was a girl and had loved and lost and never found anywhere that she's downloaded to her Kindle & then my Mum got one, and I played a little more and I imagined a world where I could buy all the books I wanted and never run out of space; a world where I could take as many pairs of flip-flops on holiday as I wanted because my 10 books, hell my 100 books if that’s what I wanted, would weigh nothing; I imagined a world where I had the choice – to snuggle up with an old favourite, a book I knew and loved in paper form or whether to explore something new on the Kindle.

And you know what else? The screen is really nice. It's not like a computer screen at all. There's no glare, no light and the type is nice and it's clear and easy to read and there's not much delay when you turn a page and as much as it pains me to say it, I think I might be converted. I like the idea of lightweight travelling, and I like the idea of taking one to work and being able to read without my book getting creased in my bag. Like my Granny says, having a Kindle doesn't mean she doesn't love books anymore, or that she'll never again read a paperback but it's nice to have a choice......

I now have a Kindle fund and everything, but still the key word is might. I might be converted. I’m not sure. A big part of me feels like I’m being disloyal to the paper books I love so much, and maybe a little disloyal to myself. I wonder whether I’d use it once the novelty wore off, and whether reading off a screen is really as enjoyable as the e-reader devotees say it is. I wonder whether I’m just buying into the gadget craze. I wonder whether it’s ever going to be as enjoyable reading the Kindle as it is reading a book, is the experience ever going to match up? & if it’s not, then what’s the point?

To Kindle, or Not To Kindle.

in which you meet Daisy

Meet Daisy. You've probably met her already, actually, since I've been sticking her cute little face under the nose of every person I know since she was born in December, but never mind. She's adorable, and I love her so so much. She likes it when I cover her face in kisses and she giggles when I sing 'The Grand Old Duke Of York,' she has more hair than any other baby I ever saw before and she has the most amazing big brown eyes. I am so so proud to be able to say that I'm her Auntie. (She also makes me incredibly broody, but that's a whole other story!)
This is her last night, having a little snooze whilst we were all out for a meal for Ian's Mum's birthday. Mmmm. Pork in apple gravy, yes please.

I also had a lovely chat with my nephew, I bought him Dahl's 'The Twit's' for his birthday back in February and he's just finished it so we spent a happy ten minutes talking about the horrible Mr & Mrs Twit and Mugglewump and the Dreaded Shrinks. It was a nice time, and for that bried period I was 7 again myself. There's something rather satisfying about a child you love, loving a book that you loved <3 I've just picked up 'James and the Giant Peach' and 'George's Marvellous Medicine' on the way into the office, so shall throw those in his direction I think.

in which i wonder if i should snap some spines

I've been asking myself this weekend whether I need to relax. I'm a tightly wound coil, ready to spring at any given moment, a failing that I am well aware of. Ian says I am, at times, one of the most tense people he knows. This makes me sad - I don't want to be tense, but I find it so hard to switch off. Perhaps I'll take up yoga, but that's another story for another day. My point today is that I wonder if my inability to relax has spread itself to my books. They have to be shelved in alphabetical order; I have a pile at work that I can't take home because I don't have space on my bookshelves to put them and having them in the 'wrong' place makes me uneasy. I never fold over the corner of a page to use it as a bookmark. & I try my hardest not to snap the spines of my books. Sometimes this bothers me so much that I barely open the book to read it. I'd much rather tip the book from side to side than snap the spine and open it fully. Sometimes books look worn, sometimes spines get snapped or a little creased, sometimes corners get folded over and books that are carried in my bag or in a suitcase get a little worn. It's a fact of life, and I can deal with it, I'd just rather not have too. I don't know quite why this bothers me so much - I love old books, pretty, old, worn and bent and creased books with that musty smell and yellowing pages make me very happy, and some of my favourite books are ones that are falling apart. My bookshelf is a mixture of amazing old books that I'm almost afraid to touch in case they die and pretty new books that look like they've not been opened. I like old books to be worn so why do I try so hard to stop my boosk fro mbeing the old worn books of r the future? If I can keep a book in pristine condition then I will, and I always thought I was looking after my books.
I lent a book to a friend a couple of weeks ago. She returned it to me at weekend with a little note saying that she was so scared of breaking the spine that she'd ordered it from the library and this made me feel bad: I don't want to be like the book police, I don't want people to be afraid of reading my books. I want to share them, and it hit me suddenly, that what I saw as just taking care of my books might actually come across as my being a little obsessive....I thought about grabbing a few books off my shelf and snapping the spines just to prove that I could, that I wasn't some meany pants who strikes fear into the hearts of those she lends to. I couldn't do it.