If you’re like me and author Tom Mole, the first thing you do in any new acquaintance’s house is to scrutinize their bookshelves, whether openly or surreptitiously. You can learn all kinds of surprising things about what someone is interested in, and holds dear, from the books on display. (And if they don’t have any books around, should you really be friends?)
Mole runs the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a professor of English Literature and Book History. His specialist discipline and this book’s subtitle – “Why They Mean More than Words” – are clues that here he’s concerned with books more as physical and cultural objects than as containers of knowledge and stories:
“reading them is only one of the things we do with books, and not always the most significant. For a book to signal something about you, you don’t necessarily need to have read it.”
From the papyrus scroll to the early codex, from a leather-bound first edition to a mass-market paperback, and from the Kindle to the smartphone reading app, Mole asks how what we think of as a “book” has changed and what our different ways of accessing and possessing books say about us. He examines the book as a basis of personal identity and relationships with other people. His learned and digressive history of the book contains many pleasing pieces of trivia about authors, libraries and bookshops, making it a perfect gift for bibliophiles. I also enjoyed the three “interludes,” in which he explores three paintings that feature books.
There are a lot of talking points here for book lovers. Here are a few:
- Are you a true collector, or merely an “accumulator” of books? (Mole is the latter, as am I. “I have a few modest antiquarian volumes, but most of my books are paperbacks … I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, and I suspect the books on my shelves reassure me that I really have learned something along the way.”)
- In Anne Fadiman’s scheme, are you a “courtly” or a “carnal” reader? The former keeps a book pristine, while the latter has no qualms about cracking spines or dog-earing pages. (I’m a courtly reader, with the exception that I correct all errors in pencil.)
- Is a book a commercial product or a creative artifact? (“This is why authors quite often cross out the printed version of their name when they sign. Their action negates the book’s existence as a product of industry or commerce and reclaims it as the product of their own artistic effort.”)
- How is the experience of reading an e-book, or listening to an audiobook, different from reading a print book? (There is evidence that we remember less when we read on a screen, because we don’t have the physical cues of a book in our hand, plus “most people could in theory fit a lifetime’s reading on a single e-reader.”)
I would particularly recommend this to readers who have enjoyed Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Alberto Manguel’s various books on libraries, and Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From.
A personal note: I was delighted to come across a mention of one of the visiting professors on my Master’s course in Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds, Matthew Rubery. In the autumn term of 2005, he taught one of my seminars, “The Reading Revolution in the Victorian Period,” which had a Book History slant and included topics like serial publication, anonymity and the rise of the media. A few years ago Rubery published an academic study of audiobooks, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, which Mole draws on for his discussion.
Two more favorite passages:
“when I’m reading, I’m not just spending time with a book, but investing time in cultivating a more learned version of myself.”
“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”
The Secret Life of Books will be published by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday 19th September. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
Ella Berthoud is one of the bibliotherapists at the School of Life in London and co-author of The Novel Cure. (I wrote about my bibliotherapy session with her in this post.) For her contribution to a Leaping Hare Press series on mindfulness – whose titles range from The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming to Mindfulness and the Journey of Bereavement – she’s thought deeply about how reading can be an active, deliberate practice rather than a time of passive receiving or entertainment. Through handy exercises and quirky tips she encourages readers to take stock of how they read and to become more aware of each word on the page.
To start with, a close reading exercise using a passage from Alice in Wonderland invites you to find out whether you’re an auditory, visual or kinesthetic reader. I learned that I’m a cross between auditory and visual: I hear every word aloud in my head, but I also picture the scenes, usually unfolding in black and white in settings that are familiar to me (my childhood best friend’s home used to be a common backdrop, for instance). The book then discusses ways to incorporate reading into daily life, from breakfast to bedtime and from a favorite chair to the crook of a tree, and how to combine it with other activities. I will certainly be trying out the reading yoga poses!
As I discovered at my bibliotherapy appointment, Ella is passionate about getting people reading in as many different ways as possible. That can include listening to audiobooks, reading aloud with a partner, or reading silently but in company with other people. She also surveys the many ways there are of sharing an enthusiasm for books nowadays, such as Book Crossing, book clubs and Little Free Libraries.
Although she acknowledges the place of e-readers and smartphones, Ella generally describes reading as a tactile experience, and insists on the importance of keeping a print reading journal as well as a ‘Golden Treasury’ of favorite passages, two strategies that will combat the tendency to forget a book as soon as you’ve finished it.
Some of her suggestions of what to do with physical books are beyond the pale for me – such as using a knife to slice a daunting doorstopper into more manageable chunks, or beating up a much-hyped book to “rob [it] of its glamour and gloss, and bring it down from its pedestal to a more humble state, a place where you can read it in comfort” – but there are ideas here to suit every kind of reader. Take a quick break between novels and use this book to think about how you read and in what ways you could improve or intensify the experience.
“As a bibliotherapist, I believe that every novel you read shapes the person that you are, speaking to you on a deep, unconscious level, and altering your very nature with the ideas that it shows you.”
“I often find that people imagine reading fiction is a self-indulgent thing to do, and that they ought to be doing something else. Much research has been conducted into the benefits of reading fiction, which deepens your empathy and emotional intelligence, helps with making important life decisions and allows your brain to rest. Research has shown that reading provides as much relaxation as meditation”
With thanks to Leaping Hare Press for the free copy for review.
Susan Hill has published dozens of books in multiple genres, but is probably best known for her perennially popular ghost story, The Woman in Black (1983). Apart from that and two suspense novellas, the only book I’d read by her before is Howards End Is on the Landing (2009), a sort of prequel to this work. Both are bookish memoirs animated by the specific challenge to spend more time reading from her shelves and revisiting the books that have meant the most to her in the past. Though not quite a journal, this is set up chronologically and also incorporates notes on the weather, family events and travels, and natural phenomena encountered near her home in Norfolk.
The Virginia Woolf reference in the title is fitting, as Hill realizes she has four shelves’ worth of books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury set. It’s just one of many mini-collections she discovers in her library on regular “de-stocking” drives when she tries to be realistic about what, at age 75, she’s likely to reread or reference in the future. “A book that cannot be returned to again and again, and still yield fresh entertainment and insights, is only half a book,” Hill contends. Some authors who merit frequent rereading for her are Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, W. Somerset Maugham and Olivia Manning, while other passions had a time limit: she’s gone off E.F. Benson, and no longer reads about Antarctica or medieval theology.
Hill is unashamedly opinionated, though she at least has the humility to ask what individual taste matters. Her substantial list of no-nos includes fairy tales, science fiction, Ethan Frome, Patricia Highsmith and e-readers, and she seems strangely proud of never having read Jane Eyre. She’s ambivalent about literary festivals and especially about literary prizes: they were a boon to her as a young author, but she was also on the infamous 2011 Booker Prize judging panel, and disapproves of that prize being opened up to American entries.
As well as grumpy pronouncements, this book is full of what seems like name-dropping: encounters with Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Susan Sontag and the like. (To be fair, the stories about Murdoch and Sontag are rather lovely.) Although aspects of this book rubbed me the wrong way, I appreciated it as a meditation on how books are woven into our lives. I took note of quite a few books I want to look up, and Hill ponders intriguing questions that book clubs might like to think about: Can we ever enjoy books as purely as adults as we did as children, now that we have to “do something” with our reading (e.g. discussing or reviewing)? Is it a lesser achievement to turn one’s own life experiences into fiction than to imagine incidents out of thin air? Will an author unconsciously “catch the style” of any writer they are reading at the time of their own compositions? Is it better to come to a book blind, without having read the blurb or anything else about it?
You’ll applaud; you’ll be tempted to throw the book at the wall (this was me with the early page disparaging May Sarton). Perhaps on consecutive pages. But you certainly won’t be indifferent. And a book that provokes a reaction is a fine thing.
Some favorite lines:
“Cold room, warm bed, good book.”
“I have had fifty-five years of experience but still every book is like walking a tightrope. I might fall off.”
“People say they can never part with a book. I can. As fast as I get one out of the back door, two new ones come in through the front anyway.”
“How many people are there living in the books here? Only take the complete novels of Dickens and add up all the characters in each one and then multiply by … and I already need to lie down. Overall, there must be thousands of imaginary people sharing this house with us.”
“One of the best presents anyone can give you is the name of a writer whose books they believe will be ‘you’ – and they are. Someone you would almost certainly never have found for yourself.”
Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books was released in the UK on October 5th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
As an inveterate book sniffer and hoarder of musty paperbacks, I was always skeptical about e-readers—that is, until I got my first one three years ago. A birthday present from my husband, my Nook soon became an essential tool in my working life. A year and a bit later, I was sent a Kindle on “permanent loan” through one of my reviewing gigs, and it has quickly become one of my most prized possessions. I know some of my blog readers don’t read e-books at all, and I can sympathize with certain of your feelings. But here are five reasons I love my e-readers, followed by why they will never replace print books for me.
- A portable library. I often have between 250 and 300 books on my Kindle. Hundreds of books right at my fingertips, all in a slim 4 x 6 ″ rectangle! If I’m ever stuck somewhere due to delayed or broken-down transport, I’ll never be without ample choices of reading material. E-readers are perfect for cutting down on luggage when traveling (I had to cull 14 books from my suitcase on my last trip to America to stay under the weight limit) and are my usual choice for reading in the car. The Nook’s built-in light is especially useful on nighttime drives. As much as I love my print library, moving house frequently—as we have done over the past decade—always reminds you just how much weight and space books represent.
- Digital review copies. Being willing and able to read PDF and ePUB books is the only thing that has allowed me to work for lots of American companies, which is where the reviewing money seems to be. I can also request advance access to books through NetGalley and Edelweiss, particularly titles not yet published in the UK; and any Kindle downloads do not expire. When traveling I have occasionally found it useful to put other kinds of documents on my Kindle as PDFs, too, like maps and confirmation e-mails. Since I’ve never had a smartphone, this is a kind of compromise between all print and all online.
- Searching and fact-checking. My e-readers’ search function has been invaluable when writing reviews. Often I’ll need to check facts like a character’s last name, the exact city in California, when someone makes their first appearance, or how often a particular word or phrase appears. For instance, I felt that a certain quotation was overused in a memoir, so did a search for it and, indeed, found 12 occurrences!
- Moving between books. I generally have 3 or 4 Kindle books of different genres on the go at any one time, and it couldn’t be easier to move between them with a few finger taps. I’ll often switch books after every couple of chapters, or when I reach a milestone percentage.
- Perfect for certain situations. An e-reader is less obtrusive for reading in public, especially now that etiquette doesn’t seem to preclude phone and tablet use in company. It’s also easier to get one out when you’re going just a few stops on a crowded subway system. I turn to my Kindle for reading over solitary meals/snacks or any other activity that requires my hands, like using a hairdryer. When I think about the lengths I once went to in my former life as a library assistant to read print books—holding pages open with a precariously balanced apple or the edge of a plate during meal breaks; hiding books under the service desk for surreptitious reading at a quiet moment—I think how silly I was not to get an e-reader sooner!
Yet there are definitely things I don’t like about using an e-reader:
- E-books don’t feel like “real” books; I treat them as temporary and disposable and don’t do any nostalgic rebrowsing.
- Battery life can be an issue, though not as often as you might think. (During a period of average use my Kindle probably lasts two weeks, and you can charge it either via a USB cable or at a wall plug.)
- My Nook has a pretty small capacity.
- There are no page numbers on Kindle, just percentages and numerical locations.
- (A pathetic admission) I still haven’t figured out how to highlight passages on my e-readers!
- Because I’m fine with e-copies I don’t get free print books out of most of my review gigs.
- I can’t easily browse the covers/blurbs/first few pages of books to remind myself what they are and decide what I’m in the mood for—as a result, there are dozens of books on my Kindle whose titles I barely recognize.
- I sometimes wonder whether my concentration on and retention of words read on a screen are inevitably lower.
I still love books as physical objects: beautiful covers, delicious smells, the heft of them in your hand and the chance to flick through pages. I like having big stacks of them around as visible signs of progress made and challenges still to come. Arranging and rearranging my library on bookshelves is a periodic treat. So although my e-readers are extremely useful tools, using them is not an unadulterated joy; they will only ever supplement paper books for me, not replace them. I think it’s telling that when given a choice between print and electronic formats—like if I come across an available public library copy of a book I know I have on my Kindle—I’ll choose the print book every time.