Not another post about books…

Gift from the Sea Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Buying books is an optimistic thing to do, isn’t it?

It means you believe there is someone out there who can say what you’re feeling better than you can say it yourself… because the best moment in a book is a moment of recognition.

Or is it? Maybe the best moment in a book is discovering something right at the edge of your vision, a little beyond what you know. Something that makes you stop and say, “Oh wow. Yes. That.”

I seem to be writing a lot about books at the moment. I think it’s partly because I am reading a lot of new ones for the first time and feeling inspired, but also because I am missing our old ones.

There are somewhere between fifty and a hundred boxes of our books in a storage centre, somewhere near Dartford, and those books tell the life stories of both me and DorkyDad.

I am reminded of a time several years ago, when DorkyDad and I first started to go for drinks, and dinners, and we were questioning whether this fun, crazy thing we were doing was going to become more serious. He had only been living in Scotland for a few months, and told me that his books were all still in boxes in his spare room. That was fine, I told him. We could keep doing dinners and drinks, but I would not be visiting the flat until his books were unpacked. Until he made that commitment, I couldn’t be sure that he was staying.

He stayed. He unpacked. We combined our book collections, and for several happy years they sat on shelves together… but now they are back in boxes.

Boy, do we have a lot of books. There are books about fishing, and philanthropy, and the South Beach diet. There is Brautigan, Bukowski and Bronte. There is Henry Miller and Harry Potter, Molly Bloom and Marian Keyes, Naipaul, Nafisi, Neruda and Nabokov. There are classic novels from when I was at university, with essay notes scribbled in the margins. There are trashy celeb biographies that I read in the middle of the night while I was up feeding DorkySon. There are plays, and poetry, Scottish fiction and American fable. There is a copy of Trainspotting – the only book that I was ever forbidden from reading as a teenager – but I bought it anyway, and read it under the sheets with a torch.

The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.

We have lived without our books for a year now, and the one thing I have noticed is that I am much more reliant on looking things up online. A line of a Billy Collins poem will come into my head, and I’ll want to go and browse the shelves so I can read the rest of it, but I have to look it up on the computer instead. DorkySon will ask to see where we are going on holiday, and instead of reaching for the atlas, I have to get the iPad. The information is all out there, but seeing it on a screen is so much less satisfying, somehow.

Books take on a life that reaches far beyond the writer’s words on the pages. You slip things inside them – photographs, recipes, letters, business cards – and then forget about them. How lovely it is to pull a book off a shelf and have something flutter out of it that brings some unexpected memory rushing back.

You associate books with particular times in your life, and you look to books fulfill certain needs. I have a few comfort books, which I have to read at least once a year. They are easy reads, that I know well and love dearly, but even on the ninth or tenth reading I’ll find something new in them that I haven’t noticed before. The Catcher in the Rye is one. Pride and Prejudice is another. If I’m travelling I’ll take Breakfast at Tiffany’s because it’s slim and fits in a pocket.

You inscribe books, if you are giving them to people you love. I find it so sad to pick up a book second hand and discover that it has something scribbled on the inside cover. It feels as intrusive as picking up a stranger’s diary and reading the entries. You get a glimpse into someone else’s life – who was Rowan? What made someone choose this book for her? Why did she give it away?

Sometimes – and this is coming back to where I started – if you don’t know what to say to someone, then the best thing to do is give them a book. Let them read words that are written by someone more eloquent than you. My Mum is the most effective giver of books that I know. When I was going through a tough patch at university, away from home with a hurting heart, a copy of The Soul Bird arrived in the post. When I was struggling to redefine my identity after becoming a mother myself, she bought Gift from the Sea for my birthday. The day we left Edinburgh last year, she packed Molly Moves and Maisy Goes to the City into DorkySon’s backpack.

The thing I find most astonishing about this town where we live now is that there’s no bookshop. There is a WH Smiths, which sells current bestsellers and a few recipe and gardening books, but that’s it. How I long to browse the shelves of a proper bookshop. There is a strong and worrying possibility that next time I’m let loose in Foyles I’ll turn into one of those people you see creeping a quiet corner, picking up a paperback to stroke the spine and sniff the pages.

We need to get our boxes back.

I am proud to be a book lover, but I don’t want to be a weirdo.

16 responses

  1. NO BOOKSHOP??????? Haurmph! And is there anything wrong with stroking books and sniffing the pages? 😉

    I loved this, it’s just how I feel. I worked in a bookshop for the first couple of years after I moved to London and I loved it when people came in the shop, a bit confused, looking for ‘a book’ as a present. That was my moment. I would quiz them about the person, then come up with a few suggestions. Often those people would come back for more and tell me how much that book was loved–it was great! I loved matching people to books. But it’s easy when you have access to so many, or when you read a lot. After I had my daughter I stopped reading so much (I know, gasp!), it just seemed like such a luxury. But then when she had to start reading for school and the teacher said ‘you should read your own book with her–both of you sitting down to read together will help her value it. I was suddenly given permission to read again and it was wonderful!!

    I love how your mum knows just what book to give, that’s really cool. And I love that you love books so much! I’m just sorry to hear about the bookshop shortage.

    • Oh I love this comment – I can absolutely imagine you working in a bookshop, and it must be incredibly satisfying to match people up with the right thing.

      I got Y a Daunt Books subscription for his birthday – you give them a vague idea of what genres and writers you like, then they pick you a book every month for a year. It’s brilliant.

      Love the sound of sitting reading alongside your daughter. T has definitely inherited our love of books, but we’re a long way from independent reading. Am looking forward to it.

      Thanks for commenting, fellow page sniffer 😉 xx

  2. Lovely post. We have a house heaving with books- we are always thinking of imaginative ways to create a bit more storage! As an avid reader myself it was quite difficult to discover my son wasn’t keen on reading. He loved to be read to but not to read himself. Now suddenly at the age of 10 he is getting enthusiastic which is lovely. Agree there are far too few bookshops around. Our local book barge is pretty much closed now. 😦

  3. Loved this post – I love books too – but I just haven’t read much in the way of fiction over the last few years – its been mainly baby books and psychology books – and now I am chomping at the bit to get stuck into some good stories again. I really like how your mum sent you books at poignant moments in your life. WH Smith just doesn’t quite cut it does it?

    • Nah, it’s not got any soul. I read some dreadful books when T was very young – didn’t seem to have the brainpower for anything very challenging – but getting back into it now. Hope you can too!

  4. How very true. I feel slightly on edge when I haven’t got a good book on the go, something is missing from my life! I really relate to the bit about things fluttering out that bring back unexpected memories – love that.

  5. I love books, too. And we have a fair few on our bookshelves. But the sad truth is I rarely get to the end of a book these days. Lack of time and energy I suppose. It’s nice to read such a lovely post, which has immediately made me want to go and plunder my shelves and make a start on an undiscovered title…. 🙂

  6. I adore books. I worked in a bookshop until I had Syd. The pay was crap but I loved it, and I hope to go back. But unfortunately it is hard for shops to compete with prices of online retailers, I was often in the situation where I would be thanked for great advice, then told they would buy it from amazon tho, as it would be cheaper- at least keep that to yourself!! I love browsing book shops- both new, chain, independent and secondhand- and I hope they never cease existing! I hope you get your mitts back on your books soon x

    • Do you follow @aeroplanegirl on Twitter? She works in a bookshop & has written a blog/book about the odd things customers say. Can’t believe the people who ask for advice & then don’t buy. I’ve never worked in a bookshop, but did spend 2 summers working at Edinburgh Book Festival. Best job ever, except for spending all my wages on books!

  7. Spot on. And I feel slightly more justified in having several books that I look at guiltily for never having read. Even they speak of something, sometime, somewhere to me in ways that most objects wouldn’t.

  8. Love books here too, and loved your post. I too am a ‘page sniffer’ lol I love the smell of bookshops too, old and new.
    We packed up all our books over 3 years ago now to move house and they are still waiting to be unpacked. But we have a room waiting on them, just need the shelves.
    Oh and your mum just sounds brilliant!

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