Category Archives: Other Thoughts…Okay, Rants.

In Which the Author Confesses her Crime

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Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make: I am guilty of a small crime. I only hope you find it charming and that you don’t abandon your well-meaning but overly-zealous book-hunting correspondent.

Last week I walked into a large second hand bookshop in the south-west. I’m afraid I can’t be more specific than that lest my confession is whispered into the wrong ears. I roamed through aisles of bookshelves, looking for the good and interesting secondhand books in the sea of mass market paperbacks. The hidden gems are always there and I welcome the challenge.

I picked up a tattered old hardcover book (which I shouldn’t name) and was turning the the thick, yellowing pages when a small piece of paper fluttered out. I knelt down to pick it up and read the little note that had lovingly been tucked into this book.

Some time ago, judging from the name ‘Neville’ and the fragility of the paper, a sister used this funny little book as a means of transporting a feeling, a thought, to a loved one.

The note reads, ‘Neville, Dad’s copy of S.C.C.C. Handbook, thought you might enjoy it,’ followed by a swooping signature I can’t quite make out but for some reason am supposing is female.

Now, I know this note wasn’t meant for me. But it was meant for someone who would know what it meant. Someone who would understand that within the brittle, yellowing pages of an old book, a human life can be deposited, memories can sit and collect, waiting to be opened up and brought back to life with startling force. Maybe Neville wasn’t that person, and when he was clearing out his cluttered house he didn’t keep a piece of his family history. I prefer to think that he did understand, and kept the book in a place of honour, even if he never read it himself, because it meant something. I don’t know how old this note is, so maybe Neville is long dead and it’s the original owner’s grandchildren who sent it to its new home here in this bookshop.

The truth doesn’t really matter. What means most to me is the way this simple note, tucked into this little book, opens up infinite possibilities for stories happy and sad. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I believe that human lives are bound up with books. We move through chapters in our lives, turn over new leaves, impose narrative structure on random events and aspire to happy endings. I know this note wasn’t meant for me. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to be part of the story. So, selfishly leaving the book itself to wait for the next browser, who, I know, will now get less out of it, I tucked the note into my pocket and took it home with me.

I just can’t help it; I love a good story. I hope you won’t judge me too harshly.

 

Independent Booksellers’ Week

Dear Readers,

I hope you have all had a lovely Independent Booksellers’ Week. I celebrated by buying books at the London Review Bookshop (including a beautiful edition of Teffi’s short stories published by the independent Pushkin Press) and attending The Big Bookshop Debate at Foyles. I hope you did something equally enjoyable!

Last year I wrote about one independent bookshop every day this week. This year, well, I have a full-time job that involves listening to screaming children all day every day, so I’ve been a bit too tired! However, lots of bookish treats are coming your way in the next little while, including:

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A cult favourite: the beloved Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, England;

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trendy little Ocelot, in Berlin;

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and the massive booklovers’ paradise Dussman Das Kulturkaufhaus, also in beautiful Berlin.

You’ll be meeting them all soon. In the meantime, use this week as a chance to visit your regular or explore a new indie. Find a new book you would never know to look for. It will certainly make your day and it might just change your life.

Small Business Saturday

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Today is Small Business Saturday in the UK, where we are all encouraged to pry ourselves away from the computer, stop being so apathetic and support local businesses.  They keep the high street vibrant, they bring a bit of variety to our all-too-generic world and they stick up for us, loyally taking care of their customers and going out of their way to make sure we get exactly what we need. It’s only fair that in the midst of all the Christmas craziness, we stick up for them too.  Naturally, for me, this is an excuse to go shopping for books.

I had Christmas presents to buy for my family and, like every year, opted for books.  At this time of year they’ve learned to expect the small rectangular packages wrapped in newspaper under the tree.  Although none of my brothers read, they get books every year and I’m convinced that each of them has a pile of unread books from me stacked up somewhere that remains untouched.

I popped into Skoob, Judd Books and Persephone Books and bought books for mum, dad and each of my three brothers.  The most expensive (but also the classiest) was £12 from Persephone books, whereas the cheapest was a £3 book of poetry from Skoob. I’ve now tucked bookmarks into each book from the bookshop where I got it, lovingly inscribed the front inside leaf with the date and a personal message and wrapped them up to be posted off.  Hunting around for these books forced me to think really hard about the personality and interests of each member of my family and encouraged me to spend the time it took to get them something unique, something just right for each of them, rather than the first thing that caught my eye online.

As you do your Christmas shopping for your loved ones, remember that books are the gift that never gets old. Buy books for the people you care about and, if you can manage it, do it in a small business where your money will go toward making sure that the dusty basements and cranky booksellers who yield those completely perfect gifts stay exactly where they are.

If you need a bit of help figuring out where your nearest independent bookshop is, have a look at the Matilda Project Map.  If your city is not one of the few represented on the map, send me a comment to let me know which local business you’ll be supporting and where I should go next time I’m in your corner of the world.

Here We Go Again…

Over the past couple of weeks, those of us who live in the UK have been subjected to this advert for the Amazon Kindle:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghYDpDaK5ds

In it, young children sit in parks and other lovely outdoor places that children who actually have Kindles probably don’t actually visit any more.  The kids talk about how much they love reading (on their Kindles) and how they love to lose themselves in the book, get to know the characters and all those other lovely things that reading has been for so many children for centuries before Amazon came along.

So, why, I asked myself, did this advert make me so angry?  I love books, I love children and I think that getting young people to feel those very feelings is nothing short of heroic.  So why was I so irrationally angry to see it happening? Sure, I hate that they’re reading Kindles instead of books, and I suspect that in ten years when they see that kids who did it another way can still revisit their childhood memories through yellowed and dog-eared books, the children in the advert might too.  But at the end of the day, if children are reading, even on a Kindle, it’s better than not reading at all.

So I spent weeks trying to figure out exactly why this advert promoted such rage in me.  Then I realised.  It reminded me of a scene from Mad Men when Don Draper tells the executives from Hershey’s Chocolate that he can’t create a cheesy ad for the chocolate bar that signified what it was to be a child.  Don says ‘if it were up to me you wouldn’t advertise.   You shouldn’t have someone like me telling a boy what a Hershey bar is.  He already knows.’

And that’s my problem with this advert.  Though they claim that it is the Kindle that creates the magic feeling of joy and adventure when a child reads, what they’re describing is a story.  And you don’t have to advertise stories because those of us who love them already know.  We get it.

Sure, books are products which are marketed, publishers compete for attention and authors make themselves into brands, but at the end of the day, every author, editor, publisher, literary agent and every reader knows that none of it matters as much as the story itself.

I used to think that there were some things that couldn’t be given a price tag.  Some things that were so precious and unique and intangible that no matter how pervasive capitalism got, no one could ever bottle and brand and market and peddle.  And that feeling the advert describes, that wonderful feeling that we already know was one of them. It’s not the Kindle that creates magic.  It’s the story.  And no one owns stories.

Amazon can sell books.  They can produce books.  They can even control the way we find, access and even read books.  But what you can’t do, what no advertising campaign and no brand can ever capture, is the storytelling. Stories are the antithesis of the giant international conglomerate, the uniform and universal, stale and impersonal company.  Stories are deeply personal.  They are tied to places and things and families and memories.  In my opinion, books and the very impulse to write them are just an attempt to extend the feeling of gathering around the fire to hear the news or snuggling up in bed with a parent to read one more chapter before the lights go out.  That feeling should be sacred.  It doesn’t belong to anyone and no matter how much money you spend on advertising, it’s nobody’s to package and sell and profit from.

I’m posting an abridged version of this as a comment on the video, so if you agree, consider liking it and getting it up to the top for others to read.  Then consider boycotting Amazon if, like me, you don’t want to think about a world that can commoditize the unique and magical feeling of being swept away by a story.

Just Sayin’.

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After visiting 7 independent bookshops in 7 days for Independent Booksellers’ Week, I’ve decided to take a little break.  This is mainly to give my bank balance time to recover.  But I thought I’d share this little story with you.

Like many of you, I make a point of always having at least one book with me at all times, so that I’m never left without something to do.  But today, I did something a bit dumb.  In addition to the book I’m reading, I put a water bottle in my bag and forgot to make sure the cap was closed tightly.  Ten minutes later I realised I was dripping.  The cap had fallen off and my water bottle had soaked half of my bag, including my book.

This led to a deliciously smug moment.  The spill was a blessing in disguise; my book, of course, was fine after a few hours of drying out and by the time I was reading on the bus later, I realised that the crumpled pages now give off that beautiful used book smell, long before their time.  The pages swell out like the faces on the front cover, as if their stories can barely be contained inside the book.

I’m grateful for the spill because now, I have a perfectly good book whose pages are a little more crinkled and a little more yellowed and which looks, if anything, more loved than it did before.

If I’d been a Kindle user, I’d have no entertainment for the rest of the day and be £199 out of pocket.

Books are tough; they can not only survive, but gain charm, character and stories from their time with even the most adventurous, wanderlusting, absent-minded or accident-prone readers.

Just some food for thought.

That’s What I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout.

I just hate it when The New Yorker steals my ideas…

 

In Which I Petition My Lovely Followers to Do Me a Favour

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Today, in my lunch break, I decided to forsake food and go in search of books.

I have a couple of Christmas presents left to buy and never forfeit the chance to browse.  As I didn’t want to stray too far, I was limited to Bloomsbury.  But let me tell you, if you’re going to be limited to one area for book-hunting, let it be Bloomsbury, because there’s nowhere like it in the world. I visited three old favourites, Judd Books, Skoob and the London Review Bookshop.  All three are wonderful.

IMG_1654I bought two books, The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson for £3 and Sula by Toni Morrison; two complex and powerful American women.

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Sula had a really lovely inscription on the front page from Christmas 1998, when an Alex gave it to a Tara.

In Skoob, I picked up a really cool bookmark, the one at the top of this post, designed by IndieBound UK (I love them!) that articulated brilliantly what I’m always fumbling to say on this blog. It gave “11 reasons to Buy Books in Your Local Bookshop”:

1. You love books and so does your bookseller

2. You’ll find a world of discovery

3. You’ll be supporting your local High Street

4. You’re helping create local jobs in our community

5. You’ll find great customer service

6. You’ll be among friends

7. You can browse properly, not virtually

8. Your bookseller can help you find the perfect gift

9. You can talk to real people about real people in a real bookshop

10. Your booksellers will always be pleased to see you

11. We pay our taxes!

So friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears and let me beseech you to do me a favour.  If you have a couple of Christmas gifts left to buy, please please consider buying books for your loved ones; they’re the present that never goes out of style!  And please, if you would, make the effort to do it in a bricks and mortar bookshop.  If it’s a nice and friendly local independent one, well then all the better.

Et tu, Brutus?

As of October, Waterstone’s will also be selling Kindles.  I have no words.

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/pages/preorder-kindle-waterstones/200001795/