A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 28 December 2013

Reformation: reflections on a compulsive book hoarder

It is almost 2014 and, to mirror the tradition of the time of year, I’d just like to reflect a moment on the year that was 2013. 2013 will always, now, be known to me as the year I realised I’d become a compulsive book hoarder and decided to do something about it. Like many self-discoveries, this one has been a journey and a journey that has not ended and will not end until I do. I have hoarding compulsions. Compulsions are rarely defeated easily (and if they are it is more probable that they have simply been mis-described, exaggerated).

I have stopped buying books, or rather I have largely stopped buying books. I consider this a considerable improvement. I have given in, now and again. I am starting to recognise the key danger signs: a winsome look from my daughter (a future hoarder if you ever saw one, as the pile of unread ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ books is a testament to); days when I’m feeling stressed or harried and I wander into the bookshop for a moment’s respite amongst the shelves; the death of a favoured author (which is my key excuse...I mean reason...for buying The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing, which was really awfully good and a worthwhile buy). I will confess, now, to having bought several books in this past week. It was my birthday recently, and I was given some money with which to buy some books so I finally invested in The Story of the Stone, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. But that’s it. The money is spent. No more.  

I am starting to develop coping mechanisms, the most important of which was rediscovering the library which I remain ashamed to have forgotten. I must, at this point, take a moment to commend the absolute excellence of the Lancashire Library Service, which provides a brilliant service to the community. They have saved me several times from an impulsive purchase. Instead my first port of call is now always the library catalogue and I have been massively impressed at how quickly the Lancashire Library Service responds to a popular new book. Through them I have read most of the Booker nominated novels (those that I hadn’t already purchased before I stopped myself), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (marvellous) and the fantastic Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. The ability to reserve a book, even if I have to wait weeks for it, has been enough to assuage my urge. If there is one thing I have learned this year it is this: use your library. Even if only occasionally. They provide a magnificent service that helps so many people. At a time when they remain under threat, boots through the door will help to preserve them. They have books. They want you to take them.  

Re-reading is something I really want to work on next year. There are many books I would like to read again, and probably a small core of books that I would love to become a part of my being. Having whizzed through The Luminaries and The Goldfinch I would definitely like to read those two again (aided, I should add, by the kindness of a friend who gifted me with my own copies for my birthday). A Tale for The Time Being is another repeat I’d like to make, alongside other more established books in my collection: Lost Paradise and Rituals by Cees Nooteboom, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, Remainder by Tom McCarthy, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, Jane Eyre to name but a few. I could spend the whole year re-reading but I think I need to balance the re-reads against the unreads so my ‘to-read’ pile continues to shrink. And then there are the books yet to be. As always, my reading ambitions exceed my time and ability.

I haven’t read Proust. I read the first book of Proust and realised that if I stick to my pledge I may never buy another book again. I may simply be too young (not that I get to say that much anymore) or maybe I’m not of the right frame of mind, but I found his meanderingly pointless repetitiveness spectacularly unappealing. It doesn’t really matter now. I have learned so much about my book hoarding proclivities that I don’t think I need the barrier of Proust to prevent me. What I want to do instead is make sure that my buying matters, that it makes a difference. I am a proud subscriber to And Other Stories, a not for profit organisation that publish some amazing books on the back of individual subscriptions and I will continue to support this organisation (and encourage others to do the same) in spite of my commitment to hoard less. I would like to set aside a little money each month and allow myself a single purchase, but instead of buying from Amazon or The Book Depository or one of those other internet behemoths, instead I will head down to my local independent bookshop (Ebb & Flow in Chorley, which carries an excellent albeit small selection of books) and spend my money there. I feel much happier spending a little more but putting money into a local community business. There are so few these days, and my contribution will be small but hopefully valuable. Overall I intend to spend less on books, but make my purchases more considered and more carefully. I think that’s a reasonable goal, for the person who once bought 47 books in one go.

Sunday 15 December 2013

A touch of poetry: Mark Strand

You don’t hear of or see many people reading poetry these days; I guess it’s largely out of fashion. If you look hard enough you might catch the odd person admitting to reading some for school, or university, and then only sheepishly and rarely with an admission of enjoyment. ‘Oh, I read it because I had to,’ they’ll say. ‘It’s boring,’ or ‘I didn’t get it.’ They avoid eye contact, change the subject. I remember, once, telling someone I had an entire book of poetry and they looked at me, a quizzical uncertainty in their eye. ‘A book of poetry?’ they said. ‘Why would you read a whole book of poems?’ When I explained I owned many books of poems, it killed the conversation (thankfully, I should say).

Poetry, for me, occupies the same kind of space as music or art. It is something to be returned to, repeatedly, to be experienced as opposed to consumed. It is something that etches into me gradually, each reading bringing me something new and different. I am not too troubled by lack of understanding, which is not to say that I understand poetry naturally but rather I am willing to wait for understanding, in whatever form it takes, to seep into me gradually, over a course of weeks, months, years or decades. Or perhaps that understanding will remain forever out of my grasp, as is true of so many things. This does not trouble me. I do not need, or especially desire, understanding to enjoy or appreciate something. Perhaps understanding is a bonus, or not. Perhaps understanding kills the mystery. I do not find it strange that people read poetry, it only saddens me, a little, that so many do it so furtively and yet those same people might think nothing of listening to a song over and over until the beat of it sang in their veins and celebrating it.

It is perhaps because repetition, re-reading, is so much at the forefront of my mind these days that I got to thinking about poetry. Poetry, I find, benefits from multiple readings and often from readings that are separated by distances in time. Not just time, but also cognition. I am a different person now, have a different understanding and experience, to the me that read Boris Pasternak, so tentatively, at 18. I have mentioned this before, but there is something useful, marvellous even, in making that re-connection with the earlier versions of yourself. Through this we can learn how we have grown, yet remain the same. The me that reads poetry now is more confident than 18 year old me, but the gulf of understanding has not narrowed that greatly. This is both humbling and encouraging. It means that I still have space to grow, I must still seek and remain open. It means that in all my years of experience, I still have a way to go. I cannot assume that because I am older I know everything I need to know.

It was in this train of thought that I returned to the poetry of Mark Strand. Mark Strand, in case you have never encountered him, was once Poet Laureate of the United States, and writes poems which are landscapes or logical puzzles, which explore the connections between inner and outer self, our relationships with life and death. There is a lot of fun in his poetry, and much uncertainty. Some of his poems are extremely unsettling, and yet most are life-affirming, and over the course of the years (he has been writing for many, many years) there is a range of poetry such as it should suit just about anybody. For me, the focus has been on two collections: Darker and Selected Poems (Carcanet Press), largely because they are the two I own. If you want a taster of Strand’s poetry then the Carcanet Press book is a good place to start. Darker, however, is a collection you can seep yourself into and never have to come out. When I am feeling bleak, or uncertain, it is a collection I return to; I can lose myself in the tricky language, the linguistic puzzles and surprising precision. I can find myself again amongst the ‘Black Maps’, in the mysterious and surprising unravelling of truth within the questions he poses. I can laugh at his silliness, and the wit and wonder he displays in all of his work. My favourite poems, if it is possible to choose just a handful, are Black Maps, The Remains, The Prediction, My Life By Somebody Else. As a sampling, here is an extract of Black Maps:

Black Maps
Not the attendance of stones,
nor the applauding wind,
shall let you know
you have arrived,

nor the sea that celebrates
only departures,
nor the mountains,
nor the dying cities.

Nothing will tell you
where you are.
Each moment is a place
you’ve never been.

You can walk
believing you cast
a light around you.
But how will you know?

The present is always dark.
Its maps are black,
rising from nothing,

in their slow ascent
into themselves,
their own voyage,
its emptiness,

the bleak, temperate
necessity of its completion.
As they rise into being
they are like breath..”.  

A full version of the poem, and a little more info about Strand, are available over at the Poetry Foundation website, which includes a sampling of his poems.

Strand’s poems have a modern, present feel although some of them were written over 40 years ago. There is something comforting about that, something wonderful. Perhaps it is Mark’s own words, from Seven Poems (also in Darker), that explain, better than I ever can, why poems are something to be returned to, over again, regardless of how uncertain they make you feel, how unsettling. Why poems are something which we should allow to become etched into our very bones, reminding us of what we know, which is nothing. Read a poem today, and then tomorrow. And next year when you’ve forgotten it all, read it again.

“I have a key
so I open the door and walk in.
It is dark and I walk in.
It is darker and I walk in."

Mark Strand (Darker, 1976)

Sunday 8 December 2013

Great books to read over Christmas

‘It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas’ as the song goes. I have a few extra days off over Christmas and whenever I have a few extra days I like to spare a little extra thought to the extra reading I can do. Which is extra-good. Extra.

If, like me, you like to read something a bit Christmassy too, and you don’t really want to plough your way through the Bible, it’s good to have a few ideas for great Christmas reads up your sleeve. Here are my recommendations.  

The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens
Well it would be impossible to talk about great Christmas reads and not start here: the basis for many of our modern Christmas traditions. The most well known of Dickens’s Christmas stories is, of course, A Christmas Carol and if you don’t know the story, you must have been living in an alternate universe (and if so, can I swop and, hey, how are you reading this at all?). The Christmas Books, however, is much more than just A Christmas Carol. Why not read one of the other, less famous stories? The Chimes, sweetly paraphrased as ‘a Goblin story of some bells that rang an old year out and a new year in’ or The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Story, for what is Christmas without a good ghost story?     

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
I should admit, at this point, that this is the entire reason for this entry. EVERYONE should read The Dark is Rising, though I should point out that The Dark is Rising is for life, not just for Christmas. Spanning the twelve days of Christmas, The Dark is Rising is the story of a boy, Will, coming of age and discovering his powers. For Will is one of the ‘Old Ones’, a group of people charged with maintaining the ‘light’. But over Christmas, these twelve dark days the dark is rising and the world is in peril and Will must find the six signs that will forge a circle of light before the twelve days are over, or the dark will prevail. It is a story in which the snow is menacing, which is filled with darkness and light, drawing on ancient myths and legends and the long-standing traditions of the darkest time of year (in Western Europe, anyway). It is a truly magical, philosophical and thought provoking read. Go buy it now.

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder
This is a great advent calendar of a book which is based around the idea advent calendar. Each day a small boy opens his advent calendar and each day he is given a small piece of a story, the story of Elizabet who is chasing a lamb. Alongside Elizabet are a group of people all heading towards the birth of the Christ-child. It is a story of mystery, and one good to read over the advent period, a piece of the puzzle per day.  

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago
Not entirely Christmassy, but it makes its way here as it is an interesting story about Christ. In this tale, Saramago presents to us Christ the man. A controversial book of its time, if you are a staunch Christian I cannot promise it will not offend. In this story, Saramago imagines for us the idea of Christ the man struggling with his godhood, wanting to be just a man and not a symbol. It is an interesting read. Saramago himself is a bit of an acquired taste, he doesn’t believe in speech marks or making it easy to follow who is speaking or breaking up blocks of text or paragraphs. So it can be a little daunting, but definitely worth the effort.  

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Perhaps it is the ever-presence of snow, or the fact that it is always winter and never Christmas, or perhaps it is the clear parallel between the sacrifice of Aslan and the sacrifice of Jesus, but there is a definite Christmassy feel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And there is magic, and a lamppost, and fauns and talking badgers. And a wicked witch who will turn you to stone if you don’t do what she wants. As will I mwah-ha-ha!

What are your favourite Christmas reads? Share, please share (‘tis the season, as they say).