Too many books

2013 September 022-002

There are far more books in the world than anyone could possibly read in their lifetime. There are far more films than anyone could possibly watch, far more songs than anyone could possibly listen to.

I don’t know how old I was when I understood that. I feel that it might have been university, when all my horizons expanded in all directions at once, and I realised that:

  1. I didn’t know everything
  2. I was never going to know everything
  3. I didn’t have to know everything

Before that, the books I knew about were at home, or in the school library, or in the local library. And yes, that was a lot of books, but I always felt that if I really applied myself I could work my way through the whole lot in a logical fashion.

Maybe it was seeing the university library that did it. Who knows? I wish I had one neat moment of epiphany to trot out, but I don’t.

Anyway, once you’ve had that epiphany, what do you do with it?

There are a variety of approaches.

You can read/watch/listen to as many of the books/films/songs as you humanly can. Read every book that your hand touches. My godmother told me once that John Cage said that one should only ever listen to each piece of music once, because there simply isn’t time to do more.

But I know that if I only listen to a piece of music once, I can do little more than nod and smile. In order to really appreciate it, I need to listen to it over and over again, to get right into it. If possible, to perform it, even.

(Probably if I were a better musician, this would be a quicker process for me. A degree in English Literature and a decade plus of creative writing trial and error have enabled me to see how a text is put together without having to think much about it.)

So that suggests an opposite approach: consume very few pieces of art, but really get into them. Re-read, listen over and over, watch again and see what you didn’t pick up the first time, or the second time, or the third time.

The temptation then is to ensure that the art that one does examine is somehow worthy of all these hours that one’s putting into it – but, without putting the hours in, how does one know what’s worthy? One ends up deferring to others’ judgement. Let us watch the films that won the Oscars, or read the books that are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, or whatever it might be.

(Personally, I find that any attempt to tell me that I must read anything results in instant resentment and a resolution not to read the thing if humanly possible. As it happens, I’ve read a decent number of those books, but not because they’re on that list, and I feel no compunction to read all of them.)

There are two main dangers that I can see to concentrating on the good stuff.

Firstly, you might miss things. But that’s inevitable, however you go about this. That’s the whole point of this post. You will miss things.

Secondly, you might never read anything because you actually want to read it. You might end up trapped in a book you hate, never finishing it, and never starting anything else, either.

In fact, that’s the main drawback to both of those approaches, and I’ve tried them both. ‘Read everything, no matter what it is’ – and you’ll end up slogging through a whole load of ill-written drivel, pompous litfic, formulaic genre and spectacularly biased unclassifiable screeds, and hating all of it. ‘Concentrate on what is known to be good’ – and it’ll be like having to get  through plateful after plateful of worthy vegetables before you’re allowed pudding. Pudding might never come. You might never get round to reading anything fun.

And if reading isn’t fun, then why on earth are you doing it? (Well, actually… to be discussed in a subsequent post.) These days, you know, I mostly read what I feel like reading, and I stop if I’m not enjoying it. And that’s good enough for me.

E-books versus tree books: a false dichotomy

Books

Tree books are dead. No, wait, e-books are dead. E-books are e-books and tree books are tree books and never the twain shall meet. Loyal paper book readers will never read an e-book. Converts to e-readers will never pick up a physical book again. People fight to the death over this. TO THE DEATH!

Really, if you believe the press, it all sounds like an even pettier version of the Montagues and Capulets biting their thumbs at each other. But, while I know several diehards who wouldn’t know how to turn the page on a Kindle, and I’m sure there are a few e-book zealots who have pulped all the paper books they’ve ever owned, most of the serious readers of my acquaintance flick between paper books and e-books without a second thought. Why argue about formats when you could be, you know, reading?

As a reader

For me, it comes down to practicalities. On the most obvious level, if a book was printed in 1995 and nobody’s thought of releasing it in e-book format, then of course I’m going to read the hard copy. Or if it only exists in electronic format, then it goes on the e-reader.

In fact, the format in which I choose to read a book often depends on where I am when I decide I want to read it. At work? I’ll probably pick up a paperback in one of the station bookshops on my way home. At home? I’ll download it to my Kobo. If I’m standing in a charity shop, slightly bored and wondering what to read next? I’ll get the most interesting looking thing on the shelf.

Still on the theme of convenience: these days, most of my reading time is on the train, so the question of size becomes important. If I can’t fit it in my handbag, it’s probably not going to get read. And yet… I read War and Peace this year. I’d attempted it a couple of times before, but the physical copy is so big and so bulky, and it’s so easy to lose track one’s track among the various plot themes, that I never managed it. Having it on the Kobo (free from Project Gutenberg, I might add) I was able to just keep plugging away, a couple of chapters every day, until I got to the end.

On the other hand, if I’m going somewhere damp (the bath, for example, or northern Spain), I have no desire to risk an expensive piece of electronic equipment. As it happened, all the books I took to Spain with me came back in the state in which they left, and I’ve never dropped a book in the bath, but there’s always a first time.

In short, I tend to read books in whatever format I have them, and to obtain them in whatever format suits me at the time. Whatever makes it easiest for me to read, in fact.

When you dig into the debate, it often comes down to nebulous feelings about what the experience of reading should be like, and an aesthetic appreciation of the book as an object. Which affects my choices some of the time, but not always.

I’ve finished 45 books so far this year. 11 were e-books. 7 were hardbacks. Of those hardbacks, two were the family copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and three were John Buchan thrillers in the Nelson edition, which I’ve been collecting. I had no particular connection to any of the other hardbacks, or to any of the paperbacks, as objects. Indeed, some of them I read specifically to see if I really wanted them taking up space on my shelves, and now they aren’t on my shelves any more.

People talk about the smell of books. I’ve never quite got this. In my experience, old books smell of dust and possibly damp, and new books smell of solvent or nothing. But then I don’t have a very good sense of smell, so this argument doesn’t do much for me.

Books can be lovely things. They can also be hideous. (My photo above doesn’t do justice to quite how hideous the cover of Mulligan is.) To be honest, so long as the loveliness or the hideousness doesn’t get in the way of my reading the story, I don’t care.

As a writer

Similarly, I really don’t mind which format somebody chooses to read my book.

In pure financial terms, e-books make me more money. I can charge half the price for an e-book and still make twice as much as I would from the sale of a paperback. (Which is why the high price of a lot of mainstream publishers’ e-books is annoying, because I know what the mark-up is. I’m unlikely to spend more than about a fiver on an e-book, unless I’m really desperate.)

On the other hand, I miss out on the phenomenon where one of my readers says to one of their friends, ‘You might like this one,’ and lends them their copy. And the one where the friend of one of my readers, having a sneaky nose along their bookshelves, sees my book, thinks, ‘oh, that looks interesting,’ picks it up and starts reading.

Why should I care about that? you might well ask. Or, indeed, why am I not up in arms about it? I don’t make any money off that.

No, not immediately – but it means that another person has heard of me, has had the opportunity to see if they like my writing. My book doesn’t get into libraries or bookshops, so I’m reliant on this sort of interaction to spread the word. And anyway, since that’s the main way that I’ve discovered authors whose work I love, it feels a bit off to whinge about it. I very rarely buy a book by an unknown author at full price, and I don’t believe that many other readers do.

Anyway, maybe they then buy their own copy. Or maybe they nick the copy from their original owner, who buys a replacement.

You never know.

Save

Some weekend reading

Happy Saturday! I hope those who are now embarked on summer holidays are enjoying them, and that the weather cooperates with any long-planned activities. Personally, I’m just getting to the end of a week off work, and I’m very slightly less tired than I was when it began, so I’m counting that as a tentative plus.

This week I have a guest post up over at I Heart Lesfic where I talk about the difficulty of finding the book I wanted to read and my consequent decision to write it myself.

There’s also a giveaway of Speak Its Name, which still has a couple of days left to run. You might be lucky!

And I talked to fellow self-published author Helena Fairfax about my favourite places, my least favourite job, and what I’d say to Jenny Lind.

Enjoy!

The hoopiness of this frood is in doubt

DSCF2120

In two weeks’ time I shall be on the ferry to Spain, and I have to confess that I still don’t know where my towel is. I’ve taken everything out of the airing cupboard, the hall cupboard, the various boxes of cycling impedimenta, the suitcases and holdalls under the bed… And put it all back again, obviously. But no towel. At least, not the towel I was looking for. The airing cupboard was, of course, full of the things, but they were all the gigantic cotton bath sheet version, which won’t do at all. I did find two other microfibre camping towels. Neither of them are mine, but I’ve been offered a loan of one of them. I weighed them both on the kitchen scales to see which to take.

I also thought I’d lost my very lightweight fleece, but it turned up at the very back of the top shelf of my wardrobe. (It’s that shapeless brown object in the photograph.)

I found my hat and my waterproof (hmm, well, but it’ll do) and my Swiss Army knife and the bandana I bought in the cathedral shop in Santiago de Compostela the last time around. (This was easy. I knew where they all were.)

Also, I tried on all the walking trousers I’ve accumulated over the years. I have one pair that fits perfectly. Everything else is either too small (the ones I wore last time I did the Camino) or too big (the ones I’ve bought since). I’m going to take the ones that fit perfectly and the ones that are too big but don’t actually fall off.

And yes, one of the objects in that photograph is not like the others. Yes, that shoe box does contain shoes. No, I’m not planning on walking 110km in kitten heels from Hobbs. But I am setting off straight after a wedding, and I thought I might as well get everything down off the top shelf of the wardrobe at once.

Stationery Love at Jera’s Jamboree

I talked to Shaz over at Jera’s Jamboree about my finicky taste in exercise books, my abiding preference for paper diaries, and my unashamedly fannish choice of ink colour. In short, stationery love.

There’s a picture of a page of the first draft of A Spoke in the Wheel, too, if you’re really desperate to know more about that. Although I should warn you that it’s pretty much illegible, and I deliberately chose a page that doesn’t give away much of the plot.

Cherry trees again

IMG_20170405_124113_377

From a practice walk on Tuesday – this is what Cambridge looks like in the spring.

(Twelve miles, carrying 8.5kg. Nothing to speak of in the way of hills, unless you count the Castle Mound. I’ve obtained the items of kit that I wished I had last time – waterproof trousers, a silk sleeping bag liner – and have come to a decision about the rucksack question.)

Giving up, and giving up on giving up

This year I’ve been doing Lent differently; by which I mean that I’ve not been doing very much differently at all. I haven’t given up anything, partly in an attempt to disconnect the idea of virtue from that of self-deprivation, and partly to see if there’s any correlation between Lenten discipline and the seasonal depression that tends to land early in March and lift around Easter.

It turns out that not giving up meat, not giving up alcohol, not giving up coffee, not giving up tea, not giving up biscuits, and not giving up anything else, has made precisely zero difference, and March has been as much of a slog as it always is. This has, oddly enough, made me feel rather optimistic. It would have been annoying to discover that I’d brought all my misery on myself by trying too hard to be ‘good’. Next year I can do what I feel like doing and not worry about it. And I also know for next year not to schedule any social events during March, because I’ll either flake out and disappoint people, or turn up and then cry and embarrass them.

I keep meaning to write about the structure of the Church year, and how useful I find it. Firstly, there’s the way that it keeps turning on and on with or without my involvement. I can fail to get out of bed three Sundays running, work a weekend away, and then go on holiday, and when I come back I can still reorient myself by the colour of the altar frontal, the readings, and the anthem. And then there’s the fact that there is actually an officially sanctioned time for feeling dreadful, followed by a time of feeling a huge amount better and being thankful for that. That bit’s coming up soon. I’m looking forward to it.