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.