The case of the disappearing bookshelves

Can you love books too much? For me, a large part of the pleasure when reading a book is deciding where it will go on my bookcase when it is finished. I love blogs or twitter chats about book shelves and how they are arranged, pictures of libraries are pure book porn for me and I often fall asleep at night imagining redesigning the entire house around books.

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From the number of posts I’ve seen along these lines I am obviously not alone, but of course I’m a reader and a writer and the people I follow are too; or they are editors, agents, publishers – book lovers. But what about other people in our lives? Even if they don’t introduce themselves with; “Hello, I’m a reader,” don’t  they like books too? I started wondering this a few weeks ago when I was writing about how I read and I realised that in almost all the houses I have visited for the first time in the last 6 years, I haven’t seen a single book in a living room.

There could be many reasons for this. For a start I’m talking about less than a dozen houses – I’m not a madly sociable person. The people I have visited have often been because of children’s parties or looking after a neighbours pets, it may well be that many of my friends have houses bursting with books. But it has still struck me each time I see a room with not a single book, either laid aside mid-read, or proudly on display.

I know ebooks are replacing the need for books on shelves, and de-cluttering is very much in fashion now. But even if people are reading on tablets and pads, where are all their books from just a few years ago before ereaders? I had friends years ago who gave many books away to charity shops after reading due to a lack of space, but they always replaced them at the same time with more second hand books to read. Are books considered old fashioned? Ugly? Bragging? I cannot imagine not having my collections all around me, but as I have said before, I am a slow reader for whom each book represent a microcosm of the person I was when I read it, where I was, how the book made me feel – I am bombarded with memories when I pick up a loved read, and the story itself isn’t often the first thing I think of when I feel the physical book in my hands again.

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I would never judge anyone on the books they have on display – well I would try not to. But these days it’s more the utter lack of books that surprises me (and which I also try not to judge). Maybe it is to do with the age I now am and that the homes I visit are all of busy working families. When I was a student or single (ok, I lived in Oxford but I refuse to believe only University towns have people happy to display books so prominently – having said that, I did used to love walking home and peering into lit rooms, so many were lined with books in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere in the countryside, but I think a lot of that is architecture as much as the occupier’s choice. The classic town houses of Oxford and other cities and towns are designed with nooks and alcoves for book shelves, even if you don’t put books on them. The countryside homes built with agriculture or industry in mind tend to have more utilitarian features (I’m aware this is a sweeping generalisation but so many homes have been made in converted barns and former farm or industrial buildings and they are huge or neatly uniform places, no recesses or niches and any book shelves often seem dwarfed by the size of the rooms.) Plasma screens are the dominant features and dvds or games are the only purchases on display, books are only to be found in children’s’ bedrooms it seems.

Were books on display a part of showing off in the 70s and 80s when I grew up and all the houses of my parent’s friend’s were full of books? Are they no longer seen as essential? Were they for show, or art back then? Or am I basing all this on a very small selection or homes (yes, this cannot be a statistically significant finding.)

I do unashamedly love books though, browsing shelves whether in a library, a book shop or someone’s house – and I almost always ask permission before approaching someone’s shelves (or waited till they had left in the days when I babysat in other people’s homes.) Having just written that as if it were normal I think I have answered my initial question – it is possible for me to love, or revere, books too much.

However, even now, when I finish a book I take a lot of pleasure in working out where on my shelves it will go. My bookcases are roughly arranged with absolute favourites at top left and on around the room in decreasing satisfaction. If I read a book by an already admired author and it disappoints, it can mean the author’s entire oeuvre gets moved down – or up of course if an author surprises me.

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The pictures I have posted here are all from my flat in Oxford. It was a bare concrete place when I moved in and along with a budget for a washing machine, fridge-freezer, bed, sofa, carpet (yes, I did choose that very dark green one in the photos, I loved it, everyone else who ever visited commented on it and at least two people offered to mow it for me) I also had money put aside for bookcases to create the effect in the first picture. It gave the room a focus and features, yes the tv was prominent, and the hi fi, but for me it was all about the books. I loved the fact I had enough space to break up the shelves so some just had ornaments on them. That last post is the bookcase I had in my bedroom where I could lie back on a lazy weekend morning as I drank a pot of tea and wondered if the book I was currently reading would make it into that room with my absolute favourite books (although I had forgotten until I looked at the picture just how many of the shelves contained pony books!) I feel as if I haven’t read nearly as much as I would like to in the 6 years since I took these photos just before the flat was sold, but comparing them with todays shelves my top selections have indeed been added to. I’m resolved to take photos of my collections at least once a year to monitor their change, and I shall never apologise for loving books too much.

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How do you read?

Does the film of the book run through your mind? Is it a serious of snapshots? Or is it all about the words? Can you dip in and out of multiple books at once or do you fully immerse yourself in one and rarely come up for air?

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My 5 favorite books, their relative batteredness depends on how many people I have lent them to, and how new they were when I got them

Every book I have read since the age of eighteen has been kept, some have been read more than once and will be again and again. Each time I take them down I can see and feel and remember where I last read them. Listing favourite books is almost impossible – I did it in my Q&A post below after years of mulling it over – but what exactly is a favourite? Is it because of the writing? The plot? How it made me feel? How it affected my life? The person I was when I read it – or the person I was when I finished it? Especially if I didn’t actually enjoy the book. There are ones that are important because of when or where I was reading them, or because of who gave them to me, or recommended them – subsection disappointing recommendations by adored people. Those whose importance is that I found them myself – or they chose me by being irresistible on a book shop table, those that led me to even greater book, those I still dream about.

One of the things I plan to do on this blog is talk about favourite books, but I’ve realised I need to talk about how I read first. Since about the age of seven or eight I have read constantly, but slowly. Friends who would say they aren’t really readers finish more books a year than I do. I can partly blame small children and family life for that these days but even when I lived alone and my time was my own – oh for some of that time back now – I didn’t finish many books a year simply because of how slowly I read.

Being positive I would say I read thoroughly – but does that sound too dismissive of fast readers? I don’t mean it to. I guess I read cinematically, I visualise everything in the scene as I read it to the point that if something is mentioned in a scene that I haven’t registered before, I sometimes go back and re read the scene to “picture” it correctly. The most common instance of this is when someone is driving a car in a US set book and one of them turns their head to the left to look at the driver and I remember that we drive on the opposite side of the car here and I have to go back and re read the scene with each character in their proper place. Why? I’m not sure, I’ve just always done this, the words create moving pictures in my head and it’s why as soon as a book is mentioned , no matter how long ago I read it, a scene is instantly there in my mind.

It is possibly because I read like this that I never need book marks. I am baffled by people who scream if their place in a book is lost (never mind my rage for those who bend over the corners of pages to keep their place.) How can they not just pick up the book and find where they were? Don’t they remember? If you open the book at random and read half a line don’t you know if you have already read it or not? Because I either see the scene instantly, or don’t (having not yet read it), I can work my way backwards or forwards until I find where I was, although I usually open the book within three pages to either side as my hands seem to know as soon as I pick up the book how far into the book I was.

This also gives me the ability to find any given scene in a book many years after I read it. I thought all people had this knack until my best friend said that in her book club she is always asked to find the pages they are discussing because no one else can find the place as surely or swiftly.

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2 books, both over 900 pages long and both read on beach holidays. One was also borrowed by someone else (and ok, I’ve read it far more than once)

As for how you do this with electronic books, well that would be a whole new post. Is it wrong to love the physical feel and look of books so much? This brings me back to the dog-earing of pages I mentioned before. Oh the horror. For a while none of my family would ever borrow books from me because of the rage or anguish I exhibited (or worse, tried to hide) when they returned the book in anything less than a pristine condition. I’ve managed to read paperback books of over five hundred pages and not left a mark on the spine. But I have mellowed (presumably now I show more than a few marks of wear and tear myself) and I value the dents on a book’s cover that tell as much a story to me as the printed words (the sand stuck in the pages of Tom Jones from a very windy Cretan beach, the water damaged pages in Vanity Fair due to an exploding bottle of fizzy water on a Cuban balcony.)

One other reason for being a slow reader is that I usually have three to four books on the go at once. The main book that is my first choice, a romance and a classic text, either ancient Greek or Arthurian. The reason for this is that no matter how much I am loving a book, I can rarely read more than 50 pages in one sitting. One of the most exciting parts of going away for a two week holiday was always planning my reading; going through my stacks of to-be-read books, getting a long list, or pile of around 15 books, usually still popping into Waterstones when I was supposed to be in Boots buying sun cream and mosquito repellent and buying 2 or 3 new books, getting the list down to 8 and trying to never take more than 6 (even on a fortnight away with nothing to do but enjoy myself – which would mean reading from dawn till dusk if I was lucky – I knew I wouldn’t read more than 6 books because I would be taking books I had been longing to read and savouring them even more than my usual slow cinematic style.) So I would read 50 pages of one, then dip into another, onto a third, then back to book 2 again and so on all day all holiday. Maybe it’s a delayed gratification thing, making as many books as possible last as long as possible, rather than racing through one to rush onto another? The bittersweet finishing of a book you have loved reading is hard to beat and this way I could postpone the parting, or have several giddy goodbyes close together.

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The 4 that wouldn’t let me put them down

My inability to read more than 50 pages has only been over ruled by book passion on a handful of occasions which saw me staying up till 3 in the morning before having to go to work the next day – John Le Carré’s Honourable Schoolboy and Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death (this was a book I had discovered just days earlier after almost giving up on Diana Norman ever writing another book and I tried to make it last but failed.) Two years ago when I was laid up with a damaged ankle and read voraciously for two weeks, I devoured the last 150 pages of Ian Rankin’s The Falls and the last 200 of Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I on almost consecutive nights (I was sleeping a lot during the day due to pain.) I put those two binges down to the fact that for the first time ever I thought I had guessed a Rebus villain – and I was right! And because Gillespie and I had the most unreliable narrator I had ever read and I was desperate to find out their final comeuppance.

In the last few years, when my reading time has been reduced, I have still managed to read books that fill all my various criteria above – writing and plotting that has blown me away, ones that make me look at the world and myself differently as I close the final page, ones that have made me cry, ones that I have instantly recommended to friends and family, ones that I want to re-read as soon as possible. No matter how much I love a book while I am reading it, I know there are more treasures out there to be found and savoured. Reading truly is the gift that keeps giving. Which books have made you stay up all night, or keep you returning for just one more re-read? Can you narrow your favourites down to five?

Q&A

I’m not sure how much you can ever get to know a writer through their blog, website or other social media – or indeed, how much you should want to (writers who have put me off their work, or captivated me with their online persona is a whole other blog post). But I have always enjoyed reading the Q&As that Mills & Boon and Harlequin have asked new authors to complete and I’ve also often pondered my answers to those questions in preparation for when I get published… However it’s taken me so long that Harlequin now have a completely different Q&A that they use on their SOLD blog at their So You Think You Can Write site.

Here are my answers to their old Q&A as far as I can remember them, I do hope I’m not infringing anyone’s rights in using them.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?

Creating complex character in perfect places – and then messing them all up as much as possible.

And being able to work from bed.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE LOCALE OR SETTING FOR YOUR NOVELS? WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT YOUR FAVOURITE ?

As a reader my first “autobuy” books were those set in Greece and I still long to set one there. The countryside always featured strongly in my manuscripts, I love describing nature, sometimes too much (does a love scene need three paragraphs on the colours in the autumn trees?) Then my enjoyment of small town American books with cowboy heroes was combined with frequent trips to the mountains and castles of Wales. It fired a desire to create stories set against breath taking mountains, hidden valleys and secret ruins with close-knit communities of men and women as rugged, resourceful and romantic as the landscape.

WHAT ARE YOUR FIVE ALL-TIME FAVOURITE BOOKS?

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • The Magus by John Fowles
  • These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
  • A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré, or maybe The Honourable Schoolboy
  • The Morning Gift by Diana Norman

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DESCRIBE THE ULTIMATE ROMANTIC MEAL.

The most romantic “meal” was with a friend in Cuba. We arrived in Havana after a troublesome internal flight, my friend was poorly, the hotel wasn’t quite as we had hoped – and then we stepped out into Havana and found a tiny restaurant serving the most basic meal of the entire holiday. We sat in an historic square by the light of a full moon, beautiful architecture and history all around us, cheap rough local wine, black beans and rice, and lobster. My friend had to ask me to tone it down as I was moaning in ecstasy after every mouthful and gesturing around me at the perfect setting, lighting and food. Basically I made Meg Ryan look restrained in the restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally.

But the most “romantic” meal was cold roast chicken and salad sandwiches eaten inside a plastic orange bothy during a hailstorm in the Black Mountains in Wales. The sandwiches tasted amazing, as does pretty much anything when you’ve just climbed a 2,500 ft. high mountain, so did the thermos of warm coffee and the Green and Black chocolate. What made it so perfect was partly the location and the exertion, but mostly the person I was with whom I had loved on and off for years and never expected to be climbing a mountain with again. But there I was. And we’re still climbing mountains together, and occasionally building snowmen.

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Looking down on the hailstorm we had to shelter from

One day I hope to combine the two and go back to Cuba, such a romantic place, with my partner. Although as he’s allergic to shell fish I guess a different menu wold be a good idea.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE ROMANTIC MOVIE?

Bride and Prejudice, or The Philadelphia Story. And Romancing The Stone. Oh and Persuasion.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE ROMANTIC SONG OR COMPOSITION?

Fantasy by Earth Wind and Fire or Could It Be Magic by Barry Manilow, or even the Take That Version as it takes me back to a time when I was falling in love for the first time without even realising it.

Or Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations in a lush, over the top, tears to your eyes romantic sense.

WHAT IS THE MOST ROMANTIC GESTURE OR GIFT YOU HAVE RECEIVED?

My partner giving up his dream house so that together we could buy the countryside one I’d fallen in love with.

WHERE IS THE MOST ROMANTIC PLACE YOU’VE EVER TRAVELLED?

See the meal answer – Cuba was amazing, but my spirit soars whenever I see Welsh mountains in the distance (as long as I’m travelling towards them!) And Greece, it’s impossible not to fall in love there

WHAT IS THE SECRET OF ROMANCE

Lust, trust and respect. And keeping those alive by knowing when to give each other space and when to be there for them whilst never taking them for granted.

When my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary we asked them the secret and my mum said it was having separate interests or hobbies so that you always have something to talk about in the evening. They’ve just celebrated 56 years of marriage so something is working.

BESIDE WRITING, WHAT OTHER TALENT WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HAVE?

Anything musical, I seem to have dated many talented musicians and have no skill myself at all

WHO IS SOMEONE YOU ADMIRE AND WHY?

Sir David Attenborough for so many years of educating and entertaining the world.

I wrote that instinctively a couple of weeks ago, and then recently the comedian, writer, actress, songwriter and all round genius Victoria Wood died. I’m still processing the fact she was taken too young and so suddenly, grief for her and her family is combined with the selfish feeling of having been robbed of all the work she had yet to share. Her ability to make you laugh and cry, often at the same time in comic sketches, dramas and brilliant songs was peerless.

SHARE ONE OF YOUR FAVOURTIE INDULGENCES WITH US.

Just one? After years of living happily alone I do sometimes find family life overwhelming so any alone time is precious and I love every minute of it – and it does make me appreciate the family when they return, mostly… Long baths with a good book and an occasional glass of chilled wine are heaven too.

Oh, and theatre trips to London to see my best friend are indulgent and expensive but essential at least twice a year.

WHAT QUALITY DO YOU MOST ADMIRE IN A MAN?

Broad shoulders and a sexy back are hard to beat.

But more seriously  –  honesty, integrity and knowing you can trust him with your heart. And a similar sense of humour is essential.

WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO, BUT NEVER HAD THE COURAGE TO TRY?

I’d love to have the nerve and talent to sing in public. But would prefer to try hang gliding or parachuting, less scary.

IF YOU WERENT A WRITER WHAT WOULD YOU BE?

Even more frustrated than I am now.

I guess in reality I’d be what I was, a University Administrator. Ideally I’d be an archive conservationist or a dry stone waller.

WHAT QUOTE DO YOU LIVE BY? WHO SAID IT?

A day without laughter is a day wasted.

Charlie Chaplin gets the credit a lot, and occasionally Groucho Marx, but an 18th Century French Writer Nicolas Chamfort expressed it first (& possibly better, my French isn’t that great) La plus perdue de toutes les journées est celle où l’on n’a pas ri.

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The tiny snowman we made out of hailstones and Green & Black’s chocolate