Give me books made of paper

Today is World Book Day. I am fortunate to have parents who brought me up in a house full of books, who instilled in me a love of reading and introduced me to the stories that shaped my life. A book is the closest thing I know to a Tardis; a simple object that can go unnoticed by so many, which contains entire worlds, transports the reader through time and space, enables them to experience previously unimagined lives and places.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” (Jorge Luis Borges) 

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I fulfilled an ambition when I created a library in my home last year. This is where I write, surrounded by my books, cocooned and comforted by their presence.

“In a good book room you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” (Mark Twain)

Libraries and book shops are my oasis in the stressful battlefields of town centres, places of peace and security away from the busy shoppers who jostle and intimidate. Buying a book that I have not yet read excites me as I contemplate the possibilities that it offers. A book is an undemanding friend, there when desired but willing to wait until the reader is ready to offer the time it deserves.

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

All of my books are of the old fashioned kind; I do not own an eReader. When the Kindle started to gain in popularity a few of the ladies in my book group purchased one; it just didn’t appeal to me.

I heard tales of them inexplicably freezing on a page, never to come back to life; or frying in the sun whilst on holiday. I even read of one reader whose electronic copy of a book vanished overnight when a dispute over a seller’s right to provide the work ended with all those sold being remotely removed from the devices that had received the download. I had never envisaged these problems; my concern had been how I could lend this type of book to a friend.

I like physical books. I like to hold them, carry them around, leave them on tables inviting me to dip in. I feel an affinity with books that I cannot explain but is akin to love. When I sit in my library at home I feel at peace.

“Picking five favourite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” (Neil Gaiman)

There are times, however, when I question my decision not to purchase an electronic device. These times are increasing in regularity as I get to know, on line, authors who have poured their heart and soul into a work of fiction that will not be physically printed. I could download the fruits of their labours at very little cost, sometimes even for free.

So why do I not just go out and buy myself an eReader, even if I only use it for works that are not available in any other way?

Just before Christmas I offered to be a beta reader for an aspiring author that I knew only via Twitter. His novel was described as ‘ideal for anyone who enjoys Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones!.’  This sounded like good reading for the Christmas period, and I enjoy reviewing books so looked forward to providing feedback. I received my download and sat myself down, ready and willing to immerse myself in his world. I discovered that my reading habits do not suit the electronic medium.

The story was compelling, full of characters that I wished to get to know. My problem was that, as I progressed, I could not see how far I had read, how far I still had to go. I could not nurse the book lovingly as I paused to consider the plot, or idly flick through the pages as I answered a query when disturbed. I realised that this was how I enjoyed reading, that I engaged with the physical form of my reading matter. Sure, I could check electronic numbers, bookmark, even make notes as I went along, but it wasn’t the same. Reading on a screen was computer time, not my means of escape to another world.

I failed as a beta reader, which is a useful lesson for me to learn. It is unfortunate that, in acquiring this knowledge, I let the writer down. I know that he found other beta readers, but I felt bad for making an offer that I could not fulfil.

Yesterday evening I was excited to read that he has completed his work and today, World Book Day, he becomes a published author. You can buy his book here Salvation eBook: AMC: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store, go check it out. I hope that many people choose to download his book and enjoy what he has created.

He is not the first author that I have taken an interest in only to find that I cannot read the results of their labours in the form of my choosing. One did offer paperback copies to order but at a price that I was unwilling to pay, and therin lies the rub. Physical books cost so much more to produce and distribute. They require a significant volume of sales if they are to be economically viable.

If ebooks encourage others to read more then, in my view, they are a good thing. I can see the attraction of being able to carry a library of books around in such a small device, particularly when travelling. I realise that I tested my ability to read a book on a screen using a computer, albeit a portable one that fits in my handbag, rather than a dedicated reader. Nevertheless, for me, I desire a book made of paper.

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On World Book Day let us enjoy and celebrate books, in whatever form we choose to read them. I will be finding time for Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’. What will you be reading?

“I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” (J.K. Rowling) 

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Poem by Bo Burnham 

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A year of blogging

Today is my blogging anniversary, a year to the day since I pressed publish on my first post. I am still very much a small time blogger. I have never been Freshly Pressed, never had a post published outside of WordPress. I have built up a following of just over 200 people and am grateful to each and every one of my readers for taking the time to peruse what I write. I am particularly grateful to those who like or comment on my posts, but just knowing that I am being read gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. The positive and personal interaction that I have discovered in the blogging community has been a welcome surprise.

This will be the 266th post that I have published on neverimitate. I have also published 13 short stories on my fiction blog Dreams and Demons, which I created just over a month ago and has a mere 20 followers to date. I tend to pick up more readers for my short stories on ReadWave (zeudytigre) and Wattpad (zeudytigre), which makes me think that keeping my fiction separate to my personal blog was the right thing to do.

When I started blogging I put a link to each post on my personal Facebook page. I have since set up a separate page, Zeudytigre, that anyone interested in reading my posts can like and thereby get the links on their timeline. Although I also put links to posts on my Twitter feed (followthehens) I find self promotion tough. I want to be read but feel awkward putting myself out there.

Over the course of the year my blog has been viewed just short of 10,000 times. The most views I have ever had in a day is 222, normally this figure is a lot lower. My husband laughs at my stats. I point out that whilst it would obviously be pleasing if they were higher, they are not why I write.

My readers have come from 73 different countries and have found me via 63 different referrers, mainly search engines and links on other blogs. The most popular tags and categories have been Home and Family, no surprises there.

The biggest surprise has been how much I have enjoyed this exercise. I have written far more than I expected to and am deriving a great deal of pleasure from the creative process. Although I still tend to write whatever comes into my head on a given day, I have learned that some topics are covered much more succinctly by others. There are some very talented writers out there and I have enjoyed following their trajectory as their skills are recognised and their work published more widely.

From my own little corner of WordPress though, I will continue to write about whatever comes to mind, to join in the Blog Hops and Prompts, and to try to grow as a writer, even if I am still uncomfortable calling myself that.

My main message for today, on my first blogoversary, is thank you for reading.

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“And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.”
—Ray Bradbury 

So I said I wouldn’t talk about this

I’m on a diet. I wrote about this earlier in the week and promised that I wouldn’t go on about it too much. Day 5 and here I am going back on my word. Oh well.

The cutting back on food has actually been going fine. Not so the exercise. I have only managed to get to the gym on one day this week. A mixture of me trying to be an awesome mom and my kids conspiring to prove what a waste of time this is has resulted in much of my week being wasted. Plus I have been trying to succeed in one of my other determinations for this year, to keep my house in better order. I have had a little more success with this.

That one day at the gym though? The muscles in my arms have yet to forgive me for making them push, pull and lift those weights. Funny how I can feel so good after a workout and then suffer for days afterwards. Not funny at all really. When I mention it to the family they smirk and tell me it is because I am old. Thanks guys.

Yesterday was not a good day. Yesterday I woke up feeling ill, really ill. Sweats, shakes, nausea and dizzy ill. And all I could think was, is this because I have been eating too little and trying to do too much? I’m trying to improve my health here, not get ill.

So I gave myself an easy day to rest up and allowed myself to eat a normal dinner. I also eschewed the wine, almost unheard of for a Friday night. I still feel a bit ropey this morning and have no idea if my change of diet was anything to do with how I felt. And my arms still ache.

With a bit more free time than expected yesterday I inevitably went on line and, thanks to a friend, came across this http://100happydays.com/. Wavering between ‘Is this really cheesey?’ and ‘What a fun idea’ I decided to sign up. Assuming that I manage to stick with it my twitter feed is going to contain some random photos over the next few months as I find something that makes me happy each day. Today I am happy because I have time to write.

Living with three teenagers my weekend mornings do tend to be quiet. Given the chance my not so little darlings sleep until close to midday. Even when they wake earlier they stay sequestered in their rooms. It is the perfect opportunity for me to retire to my writing space. I tell myself that I am doing them a favour by choosing such a quiet pastime. I suspect that my motives are less altruistic.

I should also make some time for reading. When I was away last weekend I started a book that my daughter bought me for Christmas, ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace. So far I am enjoying it but it takes a lot of concentration. It is not a book that I can just pick up and set down quickly, or read large chunks of at a time. I am hopeful that, if I can persevere, it will be worth the effort. It is taking some effort to read though.

I like having a mix of books, some easy and some more challenging. I want to stretch my mind and explore new styles. Sometimes, however, I just want to curl up and escape. Perhaps I should try reading two books at a time so that I can pick up whichever I feel able to cope with. I wonder if I would be able to make this work.

I had hoped to watch a film with my little family yesterday evening but my elder son was out at the gym. He is much more disciplined about working out regularly than I seem to manage these days, he tells me off for not managing my time better which I find quite ironic given how he is with other aspects of his life. He and I often have great discussions about the films we watch so I did not want him to miss out. Perhaps tonight we will all manage to keep the evening free.

Meanwhile it has finally stopped raining here in soggy England. As news of the polar vortex has drifted across the pond I have felt rather guilty about mentioning our weather. There are always others having a harder time.

Today looks like being a good day. The sun is out, I am feeling much improved and husband is in the kitchen preparing what will be our dinner later. I will have to allow myself to eat that. Well, it would be ungrateful not to.

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Influences

Yesterday I started to read a new book. I put this book on my Amazon wishlist after I came across a glowing review of it on a Facebook friend’s ‘Books I’ve enjoyed’ Pinterest board. There it sat for more that half a year. The synopsis and general reviews were encouraging, the price was not off putting, yet I never seemed to move it across to my basket when other books or DVDs were being purchased. It was the cover that put me off.

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I like my books to be challenging or, at the very least, thought provoking. This cover made me think it was a romance. Not just that, but a televised romance; appealing to a mass audience. How snobbish does that make me sound? I hate myself for that thought.

And then I spent a highly entertaining evening following a Twitter question and answer session between Tom Hiddleston and his fans. He was asked to name his favourite book of all time and came back with two:

.@inceptioning Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. And “Any Human Heart”, by William Boyd. #TomQandA

— Tom Hiddleston (@twhiddleston) September 12, 2013

That weekend I ordered the book.

I am not a Hiddlestoner, but my daughter is. Through her I have started to take notice of the various television dramas and films that this actor has been in, and I have enjoyed what I have seen. To my untrained eye he appears to be a talented thespian, classically trained, intelligent and fun loving, who does not take himself too seriously. Who knows what he is like in private, but his public persona is eminently appealing. His answers to interview questions are riddled with quotes from Shakespeare, well known and lesser known poets, and his own mantras, which are full of self deprecation and encouragement. From what I have seen, I like the guy.

When such a well educated, seemingly smart person names a book, alongside another that I have read and been challenged by, as an all time favourite, I take note. It was on my wish list anyway, but am I making excuses for being influenced by a celebrity?

This got me thinking about who and what influences me. I already know that I admire academic achievement. I have a number of Facebook friends who I have known for many years and who have opinions that are at variance to my own. I am forever trying to work out why they think as they do. They could not have obtained the qualifications that they possess without having the ability to question and reason, so I am perplexed as to why they are so vocal in their support of certain points of view. However much I may disagree, I will always listen to what they have to say because I admire their intellect and wish to understand where their arguments are coming from.

Book recommendations are, of course, harder to value. People look for different things in the books that they read. If a working day is spent being challenged in a demanding environment then it may be that a light hearted, easy read is desired. Books are an adventure and an escape; some people wish to indulge in romance, or to engage in trying to solve a murder/mystery. There are those who enjoy travelling to an imagined other world, and those who prefer something closer to realism, even if extreme or sugar coated. Of those who choose to read fiction, a variety of genres are often chosen with a few, oft returned to favourites. Some people prefer non fiction or historical fiction based on real events. Knowing a person’s preferences helps when deciding whether their views are likely to correlate with my own.

I wish to read a variety of books and genres. By limiting the recommendations that I will take notice of I risk allowing my reading list to lack breadth; I risk missing out on new authors whose work I may love. I do not enjoy fluffy, shallow books, but can see from the best seller lists that these sort of books appeal to many others. There are so many books out there. I will never be able to read them all so must action some sort of selection process. My imperfect and unattractive literary snobbishness is the best I have come up with so far.

Based on my reaction to my latest tome, I will judge a book by it’s cover. The original recommendation came from someone whose opinions interest me, but whose reading history was largely unknown. I am perturbed that I should be swayed by a celebrity when I abhor the cult of celebrity, but the book is turning out to be highly enjoyable. Perhaps the lesson I should take from this is that I need to be more open and less judgemental of all.

Over the weekend my elder son accused me of coming out with the sort of sweeping generalisation of a group that I berate others for voicing (I made a derogatory comment about Daily Mail newspaper readers and those who commented on newspaper articles). We discussed this and I was saddened to come away with the knowledge that I am still far too judgemental.

Being aware of my shortcomings and influences can help me to improve, as can reading a greater variety of books. Let me know of any work of fiction that has challenged your thinking in the comments below. I have been blown away by Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and Edmund de Waal’s ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ this year. I would love to be pointed towards my next great read.

Sunday Read

It rained on Sunday. I could hear the pitter patter on the window as I woke up. Although we have finally succumbed to the cold and turned the heating on, the boiler had not yet fired when I first became aware that my sleep was concluded. My bedroom was cold but I was snuggly warm under my duvet. The pitter patter of the rain on the window was comforting.

When my need for coffee became greater than my need to rest I wandered downstairs. A great advantage of parenting teenagers is the peace and quiet of the early mornings at weekends. I had time to appreciate the contents of a freshly set coffee pot, and to browse the news sites, before I was required to act with any sort of coherency.

The rain looked to have set in for the day. I decided to leave the family to cope as they so often claim they can. I retreated to my library with my coffee, selected a book that I have been saving for just such an occasion, settled in my armchair and gave myself up to the pleasures of another world.

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. I admire the way that she can write historical, contemporary and futuristic fiction with such depth and believability. On Sunday I read a book that had been favourably reviewed on the sites that I turn to when considering purchasing a book. ‘Cat’s Eye’ did not disappoint.

The book tells the story of the life of a painter. From the perspective of middle age, she looks back and tries to make sense of the moments and memories. From the first chapter I was gripped: ‘Time is not a line but a dimension… like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.’

The narrator reminisces about a life that is so different to mine, yet I could empathise with many of her thoughts. From the third chapter: ‘… everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.’

The plot covers the narrator’s relationships with her childhood peers and the adults who took care of them. The author manages to convey so many thoughts and feelings that I recognised from my own nine year old or thirteen year old self. She captures the insular fear and the impotence of youth, but also the irrelevance of adults. They exist but are not understood or considered. They are an alien species to be wary of.

I gain pleasure from thinking back over my life. If I am lucky and can maintain my good health then I will now be a mere half way through the time that I can reasonably ask to spend on this earth. I hope that there are many more memories to be made, but the one’s that have gone are precious to me. My own childhood and that of my children are my treasure, that I take out and polish with some regularity.

A book such as ‘Cat’s Eye’ reminds me that these memories have a tendency to be rose tinted. I remember a happy childhood, and I consider that I had one, but there were also times when I felt belittled or sidelined by my peers. There were times of rejection and loneliness, when I did not act the part required of me. Children are, too often, power hungry and ruthless in their play. I was never a leader; never cool.

Yet still, it is the friends from my youth that I seek out at every opportunity. I enjoy and value their company for the shared life we have led, that I look back on with fondness. In this book the narrator returned to her home town a success and was preoccupied with the thought of encountering a frenemy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the damage that the early acquaintance had inflicted she was constantly distracted by this possible rencounter. She recognised her flaws and sought answers from her history.

I enjoy many different genres but feel particularly satisfied with a book when I feel that I have got inside the head of a character and gained an understanding. People fascinate me.

On Sunday I spent much of my day avoiding social interaction. I put out food, prepared dinner, but did not seek out company. I was immersed in the world that I held between the pages of my book. Such escapism can be satisfying and enlightening but, for me, should be rationed. I find books so hard to put down. I need to know what happens to the new friends I have encountered between the pages; I feel bereft when I have read their story and must consign them to memory.

‘Cat’s Eye’ is not one of the books that I will rave about to those who will listen, but I would still recommend it. I will not start another book until I have had time to digest the many thoughts and feelings that it evoked. Reading it filled a day, and it was a day well spent.

Cover of "Cat's Eye"

Tired but happy

For a few days at the end of last week and the beginning of this week I have had a carpenter in the house doing the structural work in my remodelled book room. I knew that he had done some good work for a few friends in the village and came recommended. He turned out to be a quiet, tidy and competent worker so no problem to have around. I still found that I couldn’t relax.

My days tend to vary depending on what I need to do that day and what I feel like doing when I wake up. I realise that I am incredibly lucky to have this flexibility. With someone around I started to fall into more of a routine. I would try to get out each day to walk or swim, but when I was at home I would shut myself away for much of the time he was around. A lot of dust was being generated by the work, which was a good enough excuse to limit my attempts at housework. I found myself spending even more time than usual on line.

And then this stage of the work was completed. I am delighted with the result, and suddenly find myself with a vast amount of tasks that need doing all at once. Not only does the entire house need to be cleared of a thick layer of dust, but all the displaced furniture needs to be sorted and moved. The bookshelves that had been in the room that is being worked on were to go in my elder son’s room; my daughter was to get his bookshelf along with their younger brother’s. We are redoing my daughter’s room so space needed to be made for her new bed by dismantling her old one and moving her desk. As each piece of furniture is moved, the dust and cobwebs that lurk behind need to be cleared and cleaned.

I spent yesterday afternoon cleaning the book room and moving furniture back into it. My children have instructed me to start calling this the library, which I find rather pretentious but will acquiesce as it is quite amusing given it’s size. It now contains two comfy armchairs with a cushioned footstool between them and two little tables at the side of each for my coffee or wine glass. The room also contains my desk and our piano, thus providing my perfect environment: books, writing, music. As no shelves have yet been fitted in the structure built to support them it does not yet actually contain any books. Hopefully this will be rectified later this week when the carpenter hopes to deliver the shelves he is currently making to fit.

I have been hassling my daughter to clear out her room so that I can get it sorted ready for the new bed to be delivered at the end of the week. Last night she completed this task so, today, I started to take things apart and move things around. The shifting and cleaning was hard work; no need to visit the gym today. In between pulling large items of furniture around and apart I was carrying armload after armload of books downstairs ready to be sorted and placed on our new shelves when they are delivered. I nearly ran out of rags wiping down walls and skirting boards that had been unseen for years.

Having got my daughter’s room looking pleasingly clean and tidy I moved into my elder son’s room. All I needed to do here was move one tall bookshelf out and two in; these were very heavy to shift. He will need to sort through his own things before the room can be properly cleaned. It would be nice to think that he will do this quickly but we shall see.

My younger son’s room did not take long to sort out as it is small and never seems to get into the same mess as his brother’s, probably because he spends so much of his time on his computer. I was able to move everything out, clean and replace in just over an hour. By then though, I was feeling the effects of my busy day.

I still have the study to sort and the rest of the house to clear of dust. I dislike having jobs hanging over me but realise that there is only so much that can be achieved in one day. When I was younger I would just go at a list of tasks until they were complete, sometimes working into the night. These days my mind is willing but my body cannot cope. I need to prioritise and delegate; the latter is no bad thing.

I can understand that the children do not relish the task of sorting and tidying their rooms, but they do like the finished result. If I can get them to act before things get too out of hand then the results are more likely to be pleasing for all. They know where they have put their belongings so can find them again; I can get in to clean without having to step over random piles of stuff.

I am writing this from my desk in my (a’hem) library. I am going to enjoy having this space. I suspect that it will take me some time to get the books in place once the shelves are in, but what a fabulous room it will be. I must make sure not to become too antisocial. Perhaps I should allow a family member to sit on that second armchair rather than the pleasing collection of old teddy bears who already look so at home.

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Writing to be read

I have quite a number of friends who are writers. I admire their ability to think clearly as well as their humour and wit. Even when I disagree with a point of view, their cogent arguments will encourage me to consider what they say. They can be forthright and self assured to the point of arrogance yet are amongst the most accepting of others rights. However opinionated they may be, they know how to listen and counter in a manner that comes across as fair.

A number of these friends are professional journalists, which these days appears to be such a precarious career. With so many amateurs throwing their words into the public void, and fewer people being willing to pay for the news and comment that is freely available on the internet, earning a living from such writing can be tough. Quality has been forsaken for cheap and easily available quantity.

I follow a few of the blogs that are written by journalists. These tend to be well crafted and researched, full of interesting ideas but with less of a personal feel than is typical of much of the genre. As with any writing, it can be satisfying to agree with the points being made as this offers reassurance, but when feedback is given it can feel more academic; rather like losing or gaining marks in a school essay.

In contrast, blogs written by amateurs come across as more friendly. Shared feedback allows a reader to feel they are getting to know the writer as a person. Agreement offers a virtual hug, like being wrapped in a warm blanket. The quality of the writing varies widely but professional offerings can be just as diverse in construction.

Most bloggers, whether amateur or professional, wish to see their words being read and published beyond their personal sphere. Few would turn down payment, but it is being read that matters to a writer. In much the same way, authors of books will self publish when they cannot find a publisher willing to take them on. Whilst they may dream of being able to earn a living from book sales, having produced the work they seek readers.

In times gone by, books were written by gentlemen of independent means or who pursued other professions. When women entered the fray they used pseudonyms in order to be accepted. A level playing field, where anyone with a good idea may write a book, is all but impossible due to the effort required to produce a publishable work. Time and financial support are needed as well as skill and luck.

Those who truly wish to write will find the time to do so, but their words may not find an audience. The strength of the internet as a means to provide a platform for all opinions, not just the officially sanctioned ideas, also means that anyone can publish on this medium. So many good stories and ideas are lost in the swamp of resulting words.

The plethora of writing makes it difficult for both new writers to be noticed and for experienced writers to garner payment. As an avid reader and opinion seeker I believe that we will all be the poorer over time if the writers skills are never honed. A talented author can still benefit from having their work polished by an experienced editor. If it becomes impossible to earn from the endeavour then fewer will be able to afford the investment. Words will be published raw and quality will suffer.

It feels as though we are reverting to a time where story telling has become a hobby rather than a profession. The publishing houses stifle innovation in their desire to promote blockbusters above literature. Our news is propoganda provided by government and corporations rather than investigative propagation of key facts.

Independent thinkers are needed by any society that wishes to progress. As readers we need to seek them out and support them when we can. Buy books by an author you have not read before rather than the latest in a string of formulaic tales by a best seller; click on news items that inform rather than on shock tactic headlines or fluffy gossip about media darlings; support writers by sending a message to those who hold the purse strings that we want variety and quality rather than a rehash of what worked before.

Good writing offers the pleasure and satisfaction of a Michelin starred meal. Support the chef or we will all end up at McDonalds.

Writer Wordart

Book snob

A few days before his latest book was published, I came across this newspaper article which made me laugh: Don’t make fun of renowned Dan Brown. I read The Da Vinci Code a number of years ago, when everyone was praising it as a ‘must read’, but found it glib and shallow. Sure, it was easy and entertaining enough but, in my view, the story had been told so much better in Foucault’s Pendulum. I was not impressed with the way Dan Browne wrote and felt that this journalist (Michael Deacon) captured why. I shared the newspaper article with my friends on Facebook and thought little more of it.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read this: 30 things to tell a book snob. It made me think about my attitude to books, what I read, why I read what I do, and how I judge others based on what they read. I have written many times about how I hate being judged and try not to judge others so this made me uncomfortable. I was concerned that I was being shown to be a book snob and I didn’t like the way this made me feel.

I love books. I love the excitement and anticipation of holding an unread book; of turning the pages for the first time before immersing myself into a new and exciting, unknown world; getting to know the characters as I learn about their lives and adventures, their trials and pleasures. For me, there are few more enjoyable ways to spend time than curled up on a comfy sofa with a good book.

When I reach the end of a work of fiction that I have enjoyed I feel a sense of loss. As I process the tale in my head and consider what I have just read, there is a feeling that people I knew well have moved away and I am unlikely to ever see them again. They have been a part of my life for a short time and now I must move on. I usually need a few days to get over a book. Their stories touch me and change my way of thinking, even if only slightly.

It is not just the words that I love but also the physical books. Shelves full of books make a room look so comforting and inviting. I look at pictures of rooms full of bookshelves such as this one book lovers staircase  or this one book lovers room and I want to get to know the people who live in these houses. With all of those books read or to read I think the residents must be so interesting. I want to look through their books and discuss the ones that I have enjoyed, to share what I think of the stories and the authors.

I guess I think that if I read the same books as someone then we may have views and opinions in common; I am interested in what they enjoyed or disliked about a book that I would rate highly, or what they thought of a book that disappointed me. When I lend out a book I want to know what the reader thought of the gift that I shared with them. Perhaps I can gain further insight into a tale or a character from a new reader’s perceptions. I want to improve my mind through reading, to challenge my preconceptions through literary characters, to gain knowledge from research done by diligent authors, to enjoy reading a well written piece of literature.

Am I a book snob? I much prefer it when I see people reading even trash novels than not reading at all, but I do consider so many books that others seem to enjoy to be little more than mildly entertaining fluff. I rarely enjoy reading books by ‘best selling’ authors as I find them predictable and repetitive. Obviously there are plenty of people who choose to read these books and therefore, presumably, enjoy them.

I was annoyed when I discovered that some of these authors think up their plot lines and then get ghost writers to produce a manuscript written in the required style. There are so many talented writers out there with original ideas, yet the publishing houses prefer to churn out repetitious books by authors they know will sell. I can understand the economics but rail at the lost chances to improve the depth of our literary experience.

I always have a pile of books that I am eager to read if I could only find the time. It takes effort to stop myself buying more and more books, there are so many out there that sound interesting and worth investing in. I value recommendations from friends and love to receive books as a gift. I have no wish to own an ereader. I want to hold a book in my hands, to smell and feel it as I turn the pages.

I guess I do form views of others based on the books they read, in much the same way as I am influenced by the television programmes they watch, the films they enjoy, or the effort they put into how they look. These interests and preoccupations are a part of who they are and offer insights into their psyches. I am able to empathise more with someone who reads because books are such an important part of my life. I may not be able to understand how they can enjoy certain types of books, but will not condemn them for this. A variety of tastes and interests in any area of life is a good thing.

A story that I find shallow, weak and predictable may be the escape that someone needs from difficulties they face in their life. Just as I look for challenge and stimulation in my literature so others may seek rest and recuperation. Books provide a door to another world. Most readers will try many different types of books, enjoying some but not others. Whatever books they read and for whatever reason, if they derive pleasure from the experience then their book has served it’s purpose and is, therefore, a good one for them.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...

So many books, so little time

Reading a good book can be such a satisfying experience in so many ways. It offers physical rest, escapism, food for the imagination; it raises questions to consider and issues to mull over afterwards. I read an eclectic mix of genres, generally eschewing the most popular best sellers. I like my books to be meaty or amusing and not too predictable. I do not need to like the characters, but I do like to be able to empathise with the situations they experience. I wish to immerse myself in their world; sometimes I do not wish to leave.

I have loved books from as far back as I can remember. As a child I would spend many hours enjoying the worlds created by Enid Btlyton, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Forester, Arthur Conan Doyle and J.R.R. Tolkien. As a teenager I was made to study the classics at school, an experience which put me off these wonderful books until I was well into my twenties. I then I gave Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters another chance and found that, when I could read the books purely for pleasure, I enjoyed them very much. I still dislike Dickens and find Shakespeare only works for me when played rather than read. As a lover of literature this shameful admission makes me wonder if I am lacking in some intellectual ability. Sorry guys, but Shakespeare just doesn’t do it for me.

In my late teens I discovered the bookshelves in local charity shops and went through a phase of reading cheap, romantic novels. I would buy them for next to nothing, read them like comics and leave them wherever I happened to be for someone else to find and, hopefully, enjoy. On a back packing trip around the Greek islands I filled the bottom of my rucksack with a dozen or more of these tacky tales and abandoned those completed in the Gideon Bible drawer of whatever accommodation I happened to be in. They seemed appropriate, sunny holiday reading at the time. After the pressure of exams, they allowed me to switch off.

I have always been influenced by the books being read by my friends. I moved from my romantic trash period to reading Jeffrey Archer, Ellis Peters, Ben Elton and Douglas Adams; only the latter has stood the test of time. I still seek out recommendations but have learnt to listen most carefully to those who know my tastes and are therefore likely to recommend a book that I will consider worth reading. Whilst I do not wish to limit my choices unnecessarily and thereby miss the next book that I will adore, there are too many popular, formulaic, easy reads out there that I have no wish to spend my valuable time on.

I do try to find new, contemporary authors to read and have very much enjoyed books by Sebastian Faulks, Maragaret Atwood, Iain Banks. Lionel Shriver,  Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami. My shelves are overflowing with other books, some of which I have rated highly but represent my only experience of that author. There are so many good books out there and so little time to enjoy them.

Of course, there are also the many books that I have read and been disappointed with. Some have been almost good, others easy reads but weak. If I truly dislike a book then it is consigned to the charity shop as I never seem to have adequate space on my shelves for all the books I buy. I have also lost more books than I can count because I have leant them out to friends. There is joy in sharing a good book even if this does risk never seeing it again. I like the feel of a physical book in my hands and have no wish to move to an electronic reader.

I am fortunate in having a few friends who are writers. Their quick wit and erudite conversation makes me want to bask in their company; my mental abilities are sloth like compared to theirs. I am always interested to read their work but find it hard to then give an unbiased critique. There are so many preconceptions to get through; it can be difficult to read the story for what it is.

In many ways the same is true of any reading experience. When I pick up a new book by an author I have not tried before, I judge only the contents of the pages I am reading. If I have read and enjoyed another book by that author then I cannot help but compare them. From time to time I will read up on authors that I admire and I then find that I am adding that knowledge to my judgement of their books. An extreme example of author bias spoiling my potential enjoyment of a book would be ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey. This was written as a work of fictional but was marketed as a memoir (a genre I dislike). Many authors base their first book on their own experiences and, if James Frey had sold this as originally intended, then it may well have been considered an insightful if ultimately unrealistic exploration of the mind of an addict. By trying to pass it off as truth both he and his book were discredited.

As a lover of books I am always interested to find out the types of books enjoyed by my friends and acquaintances. Although I believe that the books we enjoy give an insight into our character, I am wary of any attempt to prove any sort of  intellectual superiority. If we did not enjoy different books then the variety available would not be published and we would all be the losers.

Who is to judge what makes a book good? It is my view that a good book is one that may be read and enjoyed. Whether it educates, stimulates, amuses or merely entertains it serves a purpose. If it is beautifully written, atmospheric, evokes emotion, admiration or empathy then all the better, but if an author can write a book that others wish to read then they have succeeded, whatever the highbrow literary world may make of their work. In these days of competition, profit and self publication it is harder than ever for an author to get their work under the radar of the reading public. I will not judge those who succeed any more harshly just because I, personally, do not choose to read their work.

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Social history

Over the years I have enjoyed reading an eclectic mix of fictional stories. The time period varies: from Margaret Atwood’s futuristic ‘Oryx and Crake’ all the way back to Anita Diamant’s biblical setting for ‘The Red Tent’. The place varies: Iain Banks’s ‘Dead Air’ is set in contemporary London whereas Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is set in a pre war Japan that, to my modern, western conscience, sounds horrific. A well researched and well told tale of believable characters can fascinate and educate whatever it’s setting.

Historical novels can be a difficult genre to choose a book from. I do not enjoy the bodice bursting romps or even the rewritings of power struggles between royals and their ilk but rather the tales of imagined, ordinary lives. From the comfort of my modern, heated home where varied and plentiful food is readily available all year round it can be hard to imagine the conditions in which the majority of the population of every country once lived. When I look at the modern day problems that we struggle to cope with I wonder how our ancestors felt about living their day to day lives. Did they suffer from depression or the many other mental illnesses that are prevalent in our modern, western society? Did the poor in early Victorian society ever suffer from an attack of the vapours, so seemingly common amongst their rich contemporaries?

I come from an Irish, working class background. My mother was one of nine children whose father was a manual worker. The children left school as soon as they could go out to work as the family needed the money. They started in the factories and shipyard near the family home, trained as apprentices and at night school, and worked their way to a better life. I have seen the type of house they lived in growing up and wonder how they  fitted in. All worked hard and ended up with a comfortable retirement. My mother is still frugal though. Old habits die hard.

I am always interested to hear details of my family history but the social history that truly fascinates me is from generations before. If it can be hard to imagine a family of eleven people fitting into an inner city terraced house it is even harder to imagine how those who lived a century or two before coped. The lack of sanitation and medical attention alongside the overcrowded homes and lack of basic needs such as food and warm shelter made life precarious. How must the people living in these conditions have felt?

Despite my interest in the social history of the wider population I am not a fan of Charles Dickens. I have read quite a number of his books but do not enjoy the way he creates caricatures rather than believable, well rounded people to populate his stories. His baddies are so very, very bad and his goodies unbelievably perfect. I prefer varied, unpredictable characters that more truly resemble real people. Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ has flaws in it’s later character development but paints a much more believable and dreadful picture of life in early nineteenth century London early on.

I enjoy visiting museums with artifacts from the previous few centuries. There are excellent displays of typical household objects through the ages in London’s Science Museum. I have also enjoyed visiting large reconstructions of dwellings, shops and schools at St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff in Wales and at The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum near Belfast in Northern Ireland. On a recent visit to the latter my children were highly amused at the inclusion of a bus such as the one I used to travel to school in.

These social histories are of interest because I can relate to them personally. My grandparents or their parents could have experienced these things as children. I also enjoy reading about the social histories of other cultures as I know so little about them. The history I learnt at school concentrated on power struggles between the rich and ruling classes; the effects of religion and war; the stereotypes of a mass of people rather than individual lives and their day to day existence. I have recently enjoyed reading Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ which painted a picture of life in  China. Although set in more recent times I also enjoyed Louis de Berniere’s ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. Both of these books put the reader in the place described and created characters that became real. I felt immersed in these tales, in the time and the place. Finishing the books felt like the end of a trip abroad where friends have been made who may never be seen again. Just as we can learn so much from getting to know new people, so we can learn from what we read.

Books do not need to be enjoyable to be satisfying. Many of the historical novels that I read describe tales of suffering and loss, of hardship, grief and stoicism. There is rarely a happy ever after. What draws me to them is the chance to learn about a life I cannot imagine for myself, to get to know characters who have had to live through the hardships that were normal in that time frame. It makes me feel humble and grateful for the comforts that I enjoy. It helps to put the problems that I face in perspective.

One of my favourite quotes from Hegel is: ‘What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.’ Whilst I believe this to be depressingly true for the rich and powerful, on a more personal level I would try to be less cynical. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I enjoy reading about the imagined lives of the ordinary. Not only can I learn from them, but in trying to emulate their ability to survive whatever life throws at them, I can be happier and more satisfied with my own situation.

[Albert Memorial. Belfast. County Antrim, Irel...