A blog for everything bookish

Monday, 30 September 2013

Confessions of a compulsive book hoarder...what I’ve learned: patience and willpower

It’s been six weeks since I bought a book. Six whole weeks. It is a long time since I’ve been able to make a statement as stark as that and it not be a lie; no hidden copies sneaked out of bags when no one was looking, no disguising new acquisitions as library books or borrowed copies. No books bought. Zero. Go me.

What’s been surprising about this whole process is quite how easy it has been. It seems that all I needed to do was make the decision and share it with the world and suddenly the appeal of Waterstones, The Book Depository, secondhand bookshops and Amazon instantly disappeared. Of course it is not quite that simple, but taking that first step has really been the boost that I needed. If I hadn’t posted it here, I would still probably be book buying like crazy.

I have been tempted, a few times. There have been books I have wanted to buy and I would have bought, certainly, if I hadn’t committed not to. I wanted, for example, a copy of the Shōbogenzo. I wanted to buy The Luminaries and The Lowland and finish my Booker shortlist reading. I wanted to buy, most recently, The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble after reading a glowing review about it on Twitter, but I didn’t and there was one day when I was feeling a bit knocked down and I could have bought any book at all just for the pleasure of its possession. I managed to stop myself, and in so doing I realised I didn’t need it.

That’s what I’ve been learning through this process. Oh, it’s not a true addiction, I can’t equate my experience to that of someone trying to kick smoking or drinking, trying to give up cannabis or heroin. My addiction is nothing like that, and perhaps it was wrong to call it an addiction at all. It was more of a compulsion, an impulse unfettered and subject to the vagaries of my whim. Silly really. Belittling as my issue is, I have learned the value of exercising a degree of self control and it has had some surprising effects on my attitude towards some other things. Because willpower involves taking a moment to stop and think, and asking myself: do I really need it? It is surprising how often the answer is no, how often I can achieve what I want to achieve by some other means.

I discovered this when I was trying to hold myself off buying The Luminaries which I really, really want to read (someone equated it to Twin Peaks meets David Mitchell and if that wasn’t dangling the carrot in front of my nose I don’t know what is). I even went into Waterstones and had a little read and it was so tempting just to walk up to the counter and buy it, it would have taken mere seconds. Then I stopped and thought about what I was doing. I realised I hadn’t explored all the possibilities. That night I fired up my computer and did a little searching and found it, easily, in the Lancashire library catalogue. They have three copies and against those three copies were thirteen reservations. I added another, and in clicking that little button all my desires, the oppressive need, evaporated. I knew I was going to read it eventually, and that was enough. That’s pretty much what happens anyway when I buy a book. Once acquired it goes onto the shelf and it can be days, weeks, months, years or in some cases decades (honestly) before I actually get around to reading it. So placing it on a waiting list and waiting until it turns up isn’t really so much different.

I was also really interested in a book called The Devotion of Suspect X, it was another staring balefully at me from my wishlist. Then someone at work bought it and offered to lend it to me. I waited patiently until they’d finished it and then I took it home and started to read it. 100 pages in, I gave up and gave it back. Had I bought it, it would have been wasted cash. Sure I could have swapped it, or given it away, but the expenditure would still have been made and I would be left holding a book that didn’t appeal to me. It got me wondering how many of the books currently sitting on my shelves, that I couldn’t wait to buy, will turn out to be the same thing: a disappointment. Hopefully not too many.

All this has made me realise a few things. The first is that patience is a good thing: it is worth waiting for something. In this instantaneous world in which we can satisfy our every whim at the click of a mouse, seemingly whether or not we actually have the money to pay for whatever it is, it is too easy to give in to temptation. The internet is, amongst many other things (some very valuable, don’t be mislead into thinking I think the internet is all terrible), a vehicle for facilitating impulse or reaction. I am not too sure this is a good thing. I think this ability to impulse buy, to push a button and have goods arrive in the post, disconnects us from the reality of what we’re doing. It’s all virtual. There is no shop, no shopkeeper. The buyer does not have to walk anywhere or carry anything. They look at pictures on a screen, select, click buy and the act of purchase is done but the reality of the thing only appears a few days later unless it’s an electronic copy of a book in which case it disappears seamlessly into your reading device. It’s like a game. Even the money is fictional, added to a credit card bill which may or may not ever be paid. They certainly don’t want you to. And who are ‘they’ anyway? They are virtual too. The virtual corporation, the virtual bank spinning their virtual money. What is not virtual is the person working in a factory somewhere churning out all this stuff, probably on the minimum wage or worse. But that person is so far removed from the process, you virtually do not have to think about them. It even extends towards criminal activity. Piracy is only virtual theft, and if you want a book or a movie or some music it’s okay to take it and forget about the person at the other end trying to make a living, because the corporation distributing it is virtually stealing too. And besides, it’s not even really worth anything. There is such abundance it all becomes meaningless, worthless, throw-away.

What worries me more about this culture of instant gratification is that it bleeds, in the worst way, into other things. The internet breeds disconnection, it can be terribly dehumanising. It is easy to forget that at the end of an angry or insulting tweet there is an actual person who can hurt and suffer. Underneath the mini-skirt is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling woman. The child in the photograph...well, let’s not go there. Indulging in anger, passion, righteousness, desire for that tiny millisecond can have such terrible consequences that a moment’s hesitation, a moment’s consideration, shouldn’t seems such a difficult thing to do. It should be natural, encouraged. Yet everything in this 24/7 world conspires to create the opposite; impulse becomes king, a tool to drive consuming. To hell with the consequences.  

Patience, waiting, is something that gives meaning to the things we have in our lives. Relationships are valuable because they are grown, with difficulty and effort, they withstand and grow stronger and become more important, essential, because of it. The same is true of material goods. A vegetable grown by your own hand is immeasurably better than that which has been mass produced, which you have merely had to part with a matter of pence to acquire. A cake made by your own hand may be less perfect than one bought from a shop, but the sense of achievement alone adds greater flavour. A trip of a lifetime is such because it happens only once in the length of a human existence, but if you took that same trip every week it would cease to mean anything, it would become like taking the train to work: routine, boring.

Then there is the creative power of working around your limits. Buying the book is the easy option, anyone can do it and books aren’t so expensive (collectible or academic works aside) that the average pocket can’t stretch to one. But not buying the book means I have to work around the problem if I still want to read it. I have to find another way. This process opens up a more creative way of thinking. I blogged about this before when bemoaning the changes to the MAN Booker Prize, but there is extraordinary value in limits. To surpass them requires effort, creative thinking, problem solving. Not buying a book is a tiny limitation, but the creative process it opens up has application in so many other aspects of daily life that it leaves me wondering how I could have allowed myself to slip, so easily, towards atrophy. How did I become so dull? Because it was easy, that’s the truth.   

Willpower, and the value of exercising it, is another thing I have learned to value. What is surprising about willpower is how applying it to one thing can affect your relationship towards others. Asking myself whether I really want to buy that book translates into whether I really want to buy that skirt or dress or DVD. It instantly makes me more conscious of where and how I spend my money and, more importantly, how I want to be in control of spending my money. If I really want something, I can wait and save up for it (except the fridge freezer, which broke last weekend and required an instant replacement. There are limits.). It made me realise how easy it is to fritter away cash on little impulse purchases: a coffee here, a CD there, a shop-bought lunch, a box of nice tea. Being able to stop myself from buying every book that passes my fancy has made me more confident about addressing other things that need willpower for me to succeed: a diet, perhaps, or exercising more, controlling family finances, walking to the supermarket rather than jumping in the car, knuckling down in my career, getting writing. When I commit to something, I want it to be valuable. I’m not entirely there yet, it’ll take work and more willpower and patience, but I’m working on it.

All because I stopped buying books.        

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Playing tennis with the net down

Robert Frost famously said that writing [poetry] without form is like playing tennis with the net down, or something to that effect, and this saying has been on my mind ever since hearing about the change in the MAN Booker Prize rules. For a while now I have been following the MAN Booker Prize, and I had been hoping to make an annual feature of the MAN Booker Prize listed books in this very blog. But the recent announcement has left me feeling quite disenfranchised with the prize. Which is weird, really. After all, it’s not my prize, I am not associated with it in any way and the odds that I’ll ever write anything that could be in the running for it are so astronomical that there probably isn’t a number you could write in your lifetime that would represent it. Still, I feel let down.

Many of the newspapers have focused on the fact that the change in rules means that American writers are now in the running for the prize, and there’s been a lot of emphasis of this point as though there is such a slim possibility that a British or Commonwealth writer could compete with the Americans that we might as well call it the Washington prize. Or the Philip Roth prize, perhaps (though Roth leaves me totally cold, I really don’t understand the almost gleeful excitement there. Now DeLillo...that’s a different story). I am not sure where this terrible sense of inadequacy comes from. There are, indeed, many great writers from America as there are equally many great writers from UK and France and Brazil and China and Japan and so on including the vast and varied nations of the Commonwealth. It is wonderful to be able to celebrate the amazing talent that is out there in this ever-shrinking world and the idea that a literature prize could seek out the best book written in a single year is quite an exciting prospect. But that’s not what they’re doing with the MAN Booker prize. They’re not interested in finding the best book written in the world (cue Jeremy Clarkson impression), only the best book written in the English speaking world.

This is where that little phrase sticks in my head. One of the things I liked about the MAN Booker prize was that it was limited. The value of having limits is often underestimated and yet limits can encourage innovation, creative thinking; limits are the stuff that make life challenging. It made it interesting that the prize only applied to British and Commonwealth writers, and this limitation has opened my eyes to some writers I might not otherwise have encountered. Of course it doesn’t really matter what the nationality of the writer is, nationality is only a story we tell ourselves anyway, but the limitation allowed the prize to be focused in a way which could make its listings surprising and innovative. In making this small change, to focus on the best writing in the English speaking world, the MAN Booker prize is letting the net down just a little, not enough that you could make it into a different and perhaps more exciting game, but enough to spoil it.  I understand, and to some measure support, the MAN Booker team’s attempt to make the prize more global, to position itself as the pinnacle prize in the literary world. But that’s not what they’ve done. In limiting their extension to books written in English it makes it look like a cynical attempt to open the doors to American writers only, as though there is something important and terrible about their omission as opposed to the omission of Chinese or Chilean writers, and it also leaves me asking the question: why? And I can’t help but think that there’s cash somewhere at the bottom of this decision, that it is a marketing strategy, and as a reader and lover of literature that feels somehow intrinsically wrong. Or perhaps I am just paranoid.

I love books. I love discovering new writers. Over the years, the MAN Booker prize has helped me to do that. I can’t help but wonder whether this new MAN Booker prize will continue to do that or merely promote the interests of already known names, that the list will become less surprising and less innovative, and infinitely more predictable. What I do know is this: the net is down, the game is spoiled, and I no longer feel inclined to play. I know this disappointment is both silly and pointless; I know that my views affect the MAN Booker prize not the tiniest bit. I still feel like something powerful has been lost, and that's a shame. From now on I will need to look elsewhere for my new and wondrous writers. Perhaps that is a good thing.  


Thursday, 19 September 2013

Harvest by Jim Crace

Continuing with the theme of Booker longlisted (now shortlisted) novels, I turned my attention to the bookies’ favourite: Harvest, by Jim Crace. Crace is a well established and widely lauded writer whom many think is overdue a Booker win (I might say the same about David Mitchell), but as the prize is awarded on the strength of the individual novel, does Harvest stand its ground or is its status as favourite largely influenced by Crace’s track record? As a virgin reader of Crace, I hoped to find out.

Harvest is an historical novel set in a small agrarian village, at an unidentified point in history.  The story is told from the point of view of Walter Thirsk, a widower who is, to all intents, an outsider who married in albeit some time ago. Although Walter counts himself amongst the villagers it soon becomes apparent that he is not as integrated as he wishes himself to be.

There is duplicity from the beginning. A fire destroys the master’s dovecote and part of the stable. Although Walter, and the villagers, know the fire to have been caused by three local lads high on hallucinogenic mushrooms the blame falls on a group of outsiders who have the misfortune to stake their own claim to a place in the village on the same night as the fire. Of the newcomers, the two men are punished with a week in the stocks and the woman, for whom all the men immediately harbour longings, has her head shorn. The verdict is considered lenient, and yet the villagers all know its severity being cognisant, as they are, of the newcomers innocence.

This is the beginning of their unravelling. They bring in the harvest and celebrate in the usual way, but something is amiss. One of the prisoners dies in the stocks, the master’s horse, Willowjack, is brutally killed in the night. The woman is missing. The field is not to be ploughed; instead, Master Kent confides in Walter that the land is no longer his, that his brother in law is coming to convert the village to sheep-keeping. A scribe, nicknamed ‘Mr Quill’, is brought in to accurately measure the shape of the village and reshape it to its new image. Walter is an outsider again. In the space of only a few days the town, as he knew it, and all his friends have disappeared.

Harvest is a short, terse and well constructed novel, verging on the claustrophobic. Crace is definitely an excellent writer, producing a technically fine novel which draws you quickly into this strange, yet strangely familiar seeming world. At the same time, it left me totally cold. I could see its technical skill, the artistry in its construction, but for me something critical was missing. It stirred no emotion in me. Considering the violence and decay present in the novel, there was something terribly muted about it all. The alleged passion for the new woman was empty. The connection to the village, also empty. The acts of violence against the townswomen, including the woman Walter Thirsk was secretly sleeping with, were presented as though through an obscuring veil which robbed it of its power. If Crace was aiming to produce a novel with a deadened sense of emotion to it, he certainly succeeded.

Overall, Harvest is a good novel, I can understand how it has come to be in the Booker shortlist and Crace is undoubtedly a masterful writer. But in the end it left me with the same feeling as a well constructed technical document. It was well written, well done, but without feeling. It didn’t really work for me.

Harvest receives a conflicted 7 out of 10 Biis.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Confessions of a compulsive book hoarder – rediscovering the library

Since I’ve not been buying books, I have been giving some thought to how I am going to satisfy my acquisitive nature without breaking my unbreakable vow. Since I have started Proust (yes, I have finally started) this thought has been rather more pressing as I am starting to realise that it will take me quite a long, long time to work my way through all 6 dense volumes. I am determined to stick to my plan, so I need alternatives and the most obvious alternative, the natural place for any book lover, is the library.

Glossop Library
I am very lucky, I know I am, because I have access to some very good libraries. It is shameful, really, that I haven’t been exploiting them to their full potential, particularly n the current climate where many libraries are under threat. The way to support your library is to use your library, I know this. And in the past I have been a big supporter of the library service. As a teenager I spent most of my Saturday mornings in the lovely library in Glossop, and I even did work experience there and it was marvellous. In fact I probably should have become a librarian and perhaps that would have prevented the bulging book shelves that I find myself lumbered with (as the most wonderful burden) now.  

When my children were old enough to hold a book, I took them to the library. I got them their own library card and we would go every 3 weeks or so, under the strict understanding that they didn’t get more than 12 books. It was always enormous fun flicking through the various boxes of books finding old favourites and new ones. Our local library is the one in Chorley, and often on a Saturday there would be organised activities like painting and colouring, and I remember how excited the children were the next time we visited and they found one of their creations on the wall. They loved self-scanning their books, or taking them to the counter and letting one of the library assistants scan and stamp them through, and they loved taking part in the summer reading challenges and collecting stickers and rewards, all complimentary and delivered with a real warmth and passion by the lovely librarians.

Chorley Library

Then we stopped going. I’m not really sure what happened, I’ve tried to pinpoint a particular reason but I can’t really figure what it is. I think, perhaps, that my children stopped wanting to go, they replaced their bookish adventures with more interactive ones: X-box, DS, the internet. Whilst I liked Chorley library, the only time I could really get there was a Saturday morning, and it was, at times, a bit of a pain with parking and such. All rubbish excuses, I know. For my own books, I started visiting Manchester Central Library, a glorious wonder-dome stacked with ramshackle shelves stuffed to bursting with a huge range of reading matter. Shelves and shelves of poetry, drama, literary fiction not easily locatable in the more provincial shelves at Chorley: Sartre, Saramago, Nooteboom. It was easier for me to visit, I could go in every day at lunchtime if I wanted and late returns were rare. My relationship with Central Library was something of a love affair. I would go there and scout the shelves, borrowing old favourites or maybe just browsing. Sometimes they would sell old stock, and I have a few treasures in my collection that came my way for a meagre 20p.

Manchester Central Library
Of course, as with so many love affairs, something went wrong. In this case, it was the renovation of Central Library. I honestly think that my buying habit stems back to the closure of that glorious building, all the way back in 2010. At the time the idea that the library could be closed for 3 years seemed inconceivable, it was so much a part of my daily existence. A new library opened on Deansgate, but it was so much smaller and a lot of the stock went into storage (or was pulped: the horror). Now those treasures were harder to find, the stock of poetry strimmed down to the bare minimum, the volumes on offer for 20p no more. There was something else missing from the new library. I am sure it is weird to call it a ‘soul’ but that’s what the old library had whereas this new one, nice as it was, was nothing much more really than a room with books in it. It wasn’t really a library, there was always something pop up about it, temporary. Now, on Monday, it is closing and the Manchester library is moving to an even smaller location, temporarily, until the renovated Central Library reopens in 2014. I am both excited and perturbed about the opening of the new library. I am hoping they do not strip the heart out of the building and turn it into one of those awful white marble operating theatres, all gleam and no substance (I am thinking of the horror post Manchester bombing when the developers turned the wonderfully warm and soulful Corn Exchange into that heartless hole that is the Triangle). I know it is just a building, but it is also much more than that. We stitch ourselves into these locations, they become a part of us and when they change, when what makes them special to us is gone, something is lost. It sounds silly, but that library meant a lot to me. It was a refuge, a sanctuary, an oasis of peace and calm to which I could retreat from the daily strains of my work. I am hoping that when it reopens it remains all of those things to me. I guess, in time, I will see.

In thinking about all of this I realised quite how much libraries have meant to me over the years, how in a world which is often so incomprehensible libraries have offered me meaning and understanding. Friendship, even. I have not often felt like I belonged, but I always felt that way in a library. No one watches over what you’re doing, no one judges your choices. You can spend however many hours there you want and you only get kicked out at closing time. It is quiet, but never oppressively so. People respect each other’s thinking time, their reading space, but no one complains if there’s a child squealing at something they’ve read or found, or running about with four books under their arms. It is a place where what they have to offer is knowledge, understanding, but it is never forced. You are, instead, allowed to discover it by yourself, in your own time and to your own agenda. If you want assistance, there is always a friendly librarian on hand to help and support you. Librarians are, on the whole, a friendly and warm bunch of people with a genuine love of books and reading. Their job is all about sharing, about helping people find and discover.

I think all of this makes me realise, too, how shameful it is that I allowed myself to lose that connection. Libraries have helped to bring meaning to my life and in return I turned my love of books and reading into an acquisitive greed, turning away from those places which had offered me so much without asking anything of me. But no longer. I am back to being a library-goer. I am taking my children too. They want to go (and that’s the best thing).

So, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself perusing the hallowed-halls of the Preston Harris Library, a lovely building with an adjoining museum which is surprisingly interesting and definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area. I took my daughter with me (my son was asleep, he was very grumpy when he found out we went without him). We were looking for a few things: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin which I wanted to read as part of my Booker cycle (and have done, and will review though I haven’t written that one yet) and some books of poetry by Seamus Heaney whose death leaves a gap in the world of poetry that cannot be filled. I found almost everything I wanted, excepting a copy of the Shobogenzo, which I had seen in the catalogue but turned out to be book 4 so not much use until I’d read books 1 to 3. But still, it satisfied a need in me, and it reminded me that whatever books I want to read I can probably find them, eventually, at the local library. It only needs a little patience. I can be patient.
My book haul
Book lovers: support your library. They are often the unappreciated heart of local communities. A gathering place in which people can share knowledge, can learn, can develop new skills and interests. But libraries are under threat, and only boots through the door will change that. It is not just for people like me, the book hoarders, that libraries are an essential service. Libraries provide support for people who are unemployed, they provide computer skills lessons for the elderly and cheap access to the internet for those who can’t afford a home computer or broadband. They provide shelves of books about coping with cancer or bereavement or depression which you hope you will never have to read but, inevitably, one day you will. Or not; the important thing is that it's there, a free service, available whenever you need. It is a safe place to be, a warm friendly spot on a cold day. There is so much more to the library than just books, but without the book borrowers they won’t exist. Borrow a book today. Go on. It won’t hurt you but it might, just might, help preserve something marvellous.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulaweyo

Continuing on the theme of Booker longlisted books, my next foray was to debut novelist NoViolet Bulaweyo’s We Need New Names. After the dense, multi-threaded, contemplative A Tale for the Time Being this book almost couldn’t be more different and it made for a refreshing change of pace. I can now understand what the Booker panel were talking about when they said the list was ‘diverse’.

We Need New Names follows the fortunes of Darling, a girl growing up in post independence Zimbabwe who aspires to live in America. The first half of the book follows Darling’s childhood in ‘Paradise’ a shanty town she shares with her friends Godknows, Chipo, Bastard, Sbho and Stina. It is called Paradise, but patently isn’t, the children are hungry and stealing fruit from a richer neighbourhood (named Budapest), their parents are scraping by or missing and there are hints of political persecution even from the very beginning. While the children are playing ‘country games’ their own country is coming apart around them, and everywhere the influence of the Western world is present from the visiting NGOs to Lady Gaga songs to games of Find Bin Laden.

The second half of the book follows Darling to America where she lives with her Aunt Fostalina, Uncle Kojo (who is not her uncle) and her cousin TJ who is like another country all in himself. This second half shows Darling coming to learn the truth of the ‘American Dream’ and what it means to be an immigrant desperate to stay in a country which doesn’t want you and to which you don’t belong, desperate to stay but wishing you could go back. The colours in the second half of the book are just that little bit paler, a more ghostly concrete grey compared to the sun-scorched vividity of the home she remembers.

In the course of this short novel of two disparate halves, Bulaweyo manages to cover a lot of ground including the impact of poverty, political persecution, the damaging effect of NGOs, the perception of the Western world from outside and the perception of ‘Africa’ by the Western world, AIDS, female genital mutilation, shamanism, illegal immigrants, poverty in America, war, the impact of being disconnected from your home nation. Using Darling as the ‘voice’ or observer of these issues enables the novel to remain apparently light whilst having a heavy impact, similar to the way that viewing events through Scout’s eyes brings weight to the terrible events in To Kill A Mockingbird. Whilst Bulaweyo isn’t any Harper Lee, this is a promising first novel which combines a lighthearted, youthful voice with a watchful eye, observing everything yet judging little.

 Where the novel really succeeds is in the sense of disconnection between a person, an immigrant, and their country. Bulaweyo portrays the difficulties  an immigrant faces in a country which is culturally alien and in which they are not wanted (but in which they are still openly exploited) but which they are desperate to stay if only to keep them from the jaws of hunger and political unrest. Juxtaposed against this is the yearning for the home country, where the heart belongs but in which they didn’t feel it either safe or possible to remain. The sense of disconnectedness, the loss of ‘belonging’ is quite stark and it’s refreshing to see this emotional impact from the immigrant’s point of view. Bulaweyo’s use of language is also refreshing, she has a sharp turn for simile and metaphor, though in places I did find myself suffering from simile exhaustion like in this passage here:

‘They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks and mauling whatever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.’

There were times in this novel where I wondered where it was going, where it seemed a little too disjointed and almost more like a series of interesting or disturbing anecdotes and observations rather than a cohesive story. I’m a little torn as to whether this is intended or not. In some respects the disjointedness mirrors the disconnection that Darling suffers when she uproots from Zimbabwe and replants in another country, but in others it comes across as unintended as though Bulaweyo didn’t quite manage to pull the threads of the novel together. That being said, it is an interesting, entertaining and in places disturbing read. What the story lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in freshness, and what Bulaweyo lacks in sure-footedness she makes up for in vibrancy and originality. I am not convinced that this particular novel will take the Booker, but I am convinced that Bulaweyo is a writer to watch, a woman of talent, ability and originality and whose future development I will be following with a keen interest.

We Need New Names receives a displaced 8 out of 10 Biis.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Why I read

As part of my withdrawal from book buying, and in a lulled moment during my recent holidays, I got to thinking about why it is that I read. I mean, think about it: it doesn't make a lot of sense. What I love to do, what I spend a ridiculous amount of time doing, is sitting quietly reading words that someone else, someone I'll likely never meet, has written about an imaginary world filled with imaginary people suffering imaginary trials or dramas or loves or triumphs. Looking at it baldly, reading novels as an activity teeters on the edge of ridiculous. And yet I can't live without it. To separate me from my books seems...well it would be like separating me from a foot. I could live without it, but my experience of life would be diminished by its loss.

Now it's not like reading is the only thing I do. I have many interests in diverse and sometimes obscure subjects, and in many of these interests I am nothing more than a wide-eyed enthusiastic amateur, but reading is different, it has a special place. It is the one thing which has been with me throughout my life and which I cannot remember ever not doing. Now I know, logically, of course there was a time when I didn’t read, no one is born with their home language etched ready into their brain although it is doubtless that the ability to decipher it is already hard-coded, but when I think about my life there has always been me and always a book. Different books, perhaps, but a book all the same.

I even remember exactly when it was that I became a 'reader'. That is someone who compulsively reads as opposed to those who read as one of their many activities and hobbies. In this respect I mean a reader, when reading becomes a part of that person’s identity. As it is a part of mine. I am not entirely sure what age I was, though I must have been either six or seven years old. I was in Miss Crowshaw’s class and I had progressed well enough with my reading to move from the ‘Village With Three Corners’ series to books of my own choosing. I went to the book shelf and chose a book, an abridged (most heavily, I am sure) version of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur and I read it and a magical, entrancing world opened up to me. I remember walking from my seat and putting it back on the shelf and rifling through the bookcase for more stories from the Greek myths. I even asked the teacher. I was hooked.

From that point onwards, I have always been a reader. It is part of who I am. Where I am, there are books. Often they are in my hand, or in my bag, or somewhere in close proximity. My house is groaning with them (but there is room for more). During my lunch hour, I like to go into the library. Or Waterstones. I don’t often buy anything, but it is soothing walking past the rows of books, rifling my fingers across the spines, reading titles, picking one up and putting it down. I glory in secondhand bookshops. There is a secondhand bookshop close to where I live, I am not often home early enough to visit it. It is a small shop, a converted terraced house and every space is cluttered with books. They are on every wall, piled up on the floor and on tabletops and under table tops and on the stairs and everywhere. It has that marvellous musty, dusty-slightly-mildewed smell that old books have. The air is always near damp and the pages, when I turn them, are cold. There are old volumes behind glass. A stack of the original Penguin paperbacks in their traditional faded orange and off-white covers. One of the best things, aside from finding a book you want to buy (which is always the best part) is that whenever you buy more than one book the owner always gives a discount. As though paying £1.00 or £1.99 or even £2.50 for a book were not cheap enough. The owner, too, is a book lover. You can tell. Whenever I visit the shop he is always reading. He is always pleased when someone turns up at the counter with a handful of books. Book lovers, I find, are also book sharers.

All this is very interesting, but it doesn’t solve the mystery of why I read. This was the question that puzzled me when I was lying in bed at 2am thinking about all the things that spark my interest. That I am a reader, a book lover, is undeniable. The evidence is everywhere about me, I can’t help but read, I must read every day. But why? What is it about reading that draws me in?

If you read around you'll find a myriad of reasons why people read, and there's a wide extremity of reason (though I wonder if this isn't just a common side effect of doing research on the internet - inevitably you will find rationales from one extreme to another and everything in between, which basically means that internet research is useless) from 'I just do, get over it' to 'I read because reading is the most noble activity in the world and anyone who doesn't read is mentally inferior to me, so there'. In between those there are a few common themes which tend to crop up. From my hours of research, these are the common ones:

Perhaps a little obvious, but many people cite learning as being their reason for reading. It is true, certainly, that the printed word has extended our ability as a species to collect, record and disseminate knowledge. Reading enables us to learn new skills, to develop our understanding of the world and how we fit within it, to share ideas. Through books we can learn to unpick the universe from the atom to the galaxy, we can learn about different species, about things that threaten our safety and how to protect ourselves from them. We can learn about different kinds of people, different places, different cultures. We can learn different ways of thinking. Most importantly, we can do these things in an environment in which we are safe. We do not have to go on an aeroplane to learn about Japan. We do not have to visit the Arctic to learn how cold and inhospitable it is there (though I am sure that you would learn it much more quickly in the flesh) or how necessary and fragile it is. We do not have to expose ourselves to radiation to learn its effects and we do not have to travel back in time to understand and avoid the mistakes of our ancestors, or appreciate pivotal moments in our history. Thanks to books we do not have to remake the wheel with each passing generation. The danger in this, of course. is that each generation loses skills which the passing generation takes for granted. This is the nature of progress. Thanks to books, those skills can be relearned (though not if you have an e-reader. e-readers are about as useful as an electric toothbrush, come the zombie apocalypse), returned to as and when we need.

I get a little internal shudder every time anyone mentions reading for 'escapism'. I suspect this is a matter of defective thinking on my part, but I can't help but wonder what it is that everyone needs to escape from? The torturer in their basement? The horror of endless episodes of Eastenders (well, maybe I understand that one)? Those pesky dinosaurs making the streets perilous at night? In the absence of abuse or real peril, the idea that we in the benign Western world need to 'escape' from our perilously safe lives in which we have almost limitless scope to fulfil ourselves with activities and interaction, in which food is plentiful and nutritious and labour is, in the main, not really that laborious seems a little weird. And are so many people so unimaginative that they require someone else's vision, like a kind of directed daydream, to open up the possibilities of the world, or an imagined world, to open their minds? 

Of course I know that this is wrong thinking on my part, as someone who regards reading as an essential activity anything that encourages the lifting of a book to the eyes is as good thing (I am sure that is also an act of defective thinking: surely I'd draw the line at violence, or some other similarly unlikely extreme). I am also drawn to the idea that perhaps I largely balk at the idea that my reading, in its copious volume, is directed by a need for escapism (which it is not, I assure you. I find life endlessly interesting and, in my pedantic literalism which is often directed quite penetratingly inward, I consider my moments of 'boredom' an abject failure in imagination on my part. The world is a fascinating place, if I can't see it then it's me that is stupid. Imagine being in my head all the time: it's not a pretty place.) and also influenced by my pedantic literalism in which I interpret a statement that someone reads for 'escapism' as meaning 'a desire to escape' when in all probability that's not exactly what they mean. A desire to be entertained, perhaps, to fill an otherwise bland moment, but actual 'escapism'? Probably not.     

In my total rejection of the idea of reading for escapism, I shamefully recall once upon a time when I was young and naïve and applying for a place at Oxford University (oh, silly me) to study literature and I had an interview in which I was talking about reading and the interviewer asked me what books I liked to read and I told him ‘David Eddings, Katherine Kerr, fantasy novels and those kinds of things’ and he asked me why I read those books and the answer was, resoundingly, ‘escapism’. Arguably at that point in my life I meant escapism in its literal sense, but I post this here to illustrate that even I am not immune. Needless to say I didn’t get a place at Oxford (thankfully, I’d say, with the benefit of hindsight), but I cannot say that I have never read for escapism so in turn I must accept that it is a reason and has a purpose. Damn. I hate it when I argue myself into a corner. Moving swiftly on... 

Extended thinking
This is an extension, I think, of the category of ‘learning’ but centres more around the idea that reading enables different kinds of thinking. This is one area which spans both fiction and non-fiction; it is not about learning a specific skill, but more about learning to see things differently. Literature allows us insight into other people’s minds, most specifically the mind of the writer but also the imagined mind of the character protagonist. Whether the mind is real (as in philosophical writings) or imagined (as in philosophical fiction...or general fiction) becomes secondary to the believability of the character and the dramas that they face. I think, in many ways, that reading about the challenges and trials of a particular character can help us to prepare ourselves for trials and challenges in our own lives. It is true that literature has changed the very face of humanity. Think about the Bible and how its teachings have changed, or perhaps reflected, the philosophy of the Western world. Think about the Koran. Many of the most successful religious philosophies have been transmitted through stories.

This success is not limited to religion either. Think about the impact that a story like To Kill a Mockingbird had, and continues to have, on people’s perception of prejudice against people of colour (or lack of colour, in the case of Boo Radley). Think about the impact of stories like The Golden Notebook or The Woman Destroyed on the rise of feminism. These stories reflected their times, and did so with such success that passing on these stories, through the study of literature, has become a standard activity for our children. Science fiction writers have literally written science: think of the three laws of robotics or the idea of geosynchronous orbit. Both of these started life in science fiction novels. In these cases reading has imagined a different future, and changed people’s thinking.

I think this is the most critical function of reading. Call me an inveterate pleasure-seeker, I read for pleasure consistently. I think many avid readers do. Some people watch TV. Some people play sports. Some people sit on a nice comfy sofa with a cup of tea within easy reach and transport themselves into a different world. I see this as a different activity to escapism, though they are undoubtedly linked, perhaps because I see escapism as a form of leaving behind whereas reading for pleasure involves actively walking towards that different world. People read because they love it. I think this is true for me too.

The idea of reading for necessity first came to my notice on reading Italo Calvino’s excellent if on a winter’s night a traveller. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it (though I have a particular fondness for Calvino’s Mr Palomar, which is the most wonderful series of short little stories that pack a powerful punch). In amongst the disparate thread of ‘a winter’s night’ appears a character called Irnerio, and his view on reading is revealed by this conversation:

“Me? I don’t read books!” Irnerio says.

“What do you read then?”

“Nothing. I’ve become so accustomed to not reading that I don’t even read what appears before my eyes. It’s not easy: they teach us to read as children and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear.”

I realised then that Irnerio has a point: once you have learned to read you are subject to the tyranny of the written word. You can’t help yourself, you have to read. It is why people read other people’s newspapers over their shoulder on the train. Why billboards appear at roadsides and on the curved, white interior of a tube train. It is why the internet succeeds and why dyslexia, and poor reading skills, are considered such a disability. And yet I can see Irnerio’s point: if you could unlearn to read a certain type of freedom may be achieved. Reading can be of benefit or of detriment. In the right hands (think 1984) words can be used to control, to bend minds to the will of another. Of course it is not just the written word, but one only has to follow a daily newspaper to learn how easily the mind can be turned to a particular path, and that, I think, is true of all of us. Reading can give you the skills to guard yourself against this, but at the same time it is reading that puts you under the threat. We are all slaves to the written word. Especially you, reading this right now.

And then on to me. After all this thinking and musing and reflecting I am not sure how much this exercise has really helped me to understand why I read. In this situation I am the mouse in the experiment, I can see the path of the maze but never truly understand the purpose of the experiment. I could say that any of the above is the reason that I read, but in truth I think it is a blend of all of the things I’ve mentioned but, perhaps, most driven by necessity. To me, reading feels like a huge part of who I am, that without books I simply cease to be me. It is a necessity and a pleasure. It enables me to escape, and to discover. It frees and enslaves me. I am Bii. Bii of the books. They own me.