Something about books

A year ago I identified the books on my bookshelves that I had not read and set myself the task of reading them. To help keep track of my reading I kept a list on my iPad. In total I read 31 books in 2015, which is pretty good going for me as I am a slow reader. However, the books already on the bookshelf awaiting reading accounted for only 8 of the books read over the year. 17 were books I had bought new during the year and a further 3 were from my son’s bookshelves. He has more books than I do and we share some common interests, specifically ancient history.

Only 7 books were fiction and of the 24 non-fiction books 17 were on historical subjects. 5 books were in French and 3 in Spanish.

When people kept diaries and journals in previous centuries, alongside comments about the weather and accounts of local events, it was not uncommon for them to also record what they were reading. Usually these would have been uplifting and educational material of a moral or religious nature. I have read books about the history of Castille, Magna Carta, Richard III, the Spartans, Ancient Egyptian religion, the English language and Australian history. Novels were generally crime fiction.

I have read two books on Kindle. This is quite a departure because I do love the feel of a book. The advantages of Kindle are that it is about the same size as a book, you do not have to carry heavy books around when you are travelling and you can make the print size larger. In the whole two months I was travelling around Australia and New Zealand I carried around physical books which I bought while I was there. I did buy one book on Kindle when I came back, but that was because it was too expensive and too heavy to buy in Australia.

Alongside the desire to read the unread books is a compulsion to thin out the shelves. Fiction I have managed to dispatch to the local charity shop without as much as a second glance, except for my collection of foreign language fiction. Some of my French novels have been on the shelves since the 80s or even the 70s. While I don’t think I will read them again, I don’t think anyone else will want them either. They are not worth anything but putting them in the recycling bin seems a bit like book burning, so I think they will have to go to the charity shop too.

In my copy of Bonjour Tristesse, dating from the early 80s, every page with a significant amount of white space was embellished with round pencil scribble, thanks to one of my children. Several questions come to mind. Which child? Why that book? Did I know? Who put the book back on the shelf? Did they notice? Have any other books been similarly defaced?

When I was young the idea of marking a book, even in pencil, was anathema. It was years before I came to the conclusion that some of the language learning books, and especially, work books, were going to be used by no-one other than me and therefore it was OK to write in them.

Many of my son’s books are marked with coloured stickers. Unless the coloured markers are annotated I am not entirely sure how they help. I have never been disciplined enough to do mark references this way and have always relied on the index at the back of the book. Nevertheless I have often wasted time searching for a reference that I thought was in a certain book.

My great grandfather was a printer’s reader for one of the national papers. He was an avid book collector and all his books were marked with his corrections, in small print, in indelible pencil. We only have a few of these books left but they are among my most treasured possessions.

Turning down the pages of a book, or bending the spine, were two habits that were disapproved of. I still have a bad habit of leaving a book face down, open at the page I was reading. While I have gave myself permission to turn down the pages of paperback fiction a niggling feeling of guilt is still there.

Nowadays I mostly use bookmarks. Bookshops often put a bookmark in the bag with your purchases but bookmarks can be anything: train and plane tickets are my personal favourites, along with business cards. It can be interesting to open an old book and discover a bus ticket, postcard, pressed flower or other memento. Such trivia could be the starting point for a novel. You can bookmark your Kindle book but you can’t leave a historical trace in the way a bus ticket from the 1950s can.

I was also in the habit of finishing one book before starting the next. This is one of the reasons for the build up of unread books. Last year for the first time I gave myself permission to read more than one book at a time; one on Kindle, one fiction and one non-fiction for example. I have also allowed myself to abandon a book without finishing it, or selecting chapters of interest. The only problem with this is that I cannot allow the book to go on the “read” list unless I have finished it, but I think this is an issue I am going to have to address.


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