Tag: Books

Why books are like romantic encounters

This is a weird thought I had on the way to Wolverhampton today.

I am currently reading this book. I can’t put it down. It is easy, quick, fun, moving, light and fast.

My book – 100 pages to go.

Every spare minute, I pick it up and a read a few pages. I read it while walking. I read it at the traffic lights. I read it on the toilet. When I have finished it, I will miss it. I am currently addicted to it. But ask me in a months time whether I miss it? I will probably say no. I might even say ‘what book?’ Why? Because I will have moved onto something else.

My weird thought runs thus: books are like lovers. How you feel about the book you are reading mirrors how you might have felt about various lovers in your life.

This book, Never Greener, a rather good book (I recommend it), is by Ruth Jones (of Gavin and Stacey fame). She’s very talented. It isn’t meant to be literary. And as a result, it isn’t. So to me it is like an intense romantic encounter with someone who doesn’t have a huge amount of depth hiding below the attractive exterior. It’s message is clear – the grass isn’t greener. That’s it. I bet many of you reading this have had lovers that mirror this book: short, sweet, addictive but mono-layered. The relationship I’m talking about, short though it is, is all based on fancy. You fancy the pants off this person. They make you smile, tingle and long for more at the start and this tingle might actually last until near the end. But there isn’t a huge amount under the surface. The relationship ends as quickly as it started, once you realise you need more, especially if you race through it. You feel initially quite sad at the end. But then, you realise, it wouldn’t have lasted anyway.

I am also listening to this in my car. Now this book is a slow burner compared to Never Greener. It isn’t funny, light and fast. It is complicated, dense and intense. It wasn’t immediately lovable. I fancied it at first, but it took a while for it to grow on me, due to its complexity. Now, I feel a real, deep love as well as a fancy. It is a love that grows. It is the love that builds on that initial fancy. Ian McEwan is like your soul mate.

This book had me hooked, eventually.

Then, there is everything in between and further away. There are the sorts of books (lovers) you know you should read because they have a lot to offer but they just don’t do it for you (Ulysses by James Joyce). There are the dull and boring ones you are forced to read to please others (A Man for All Seasons) that you give away as soon as you can. There are those you buy on a whim at train stations, last the journey, and then are gone. Those are the one-night stands of the literary world.

A lover that is hard work.

So books are like lovers. I admit I haven’t had that many in my time but I read a lot so what I know about different types I have learnt in books. Ironic? Maybe.

I wish I could drop Shakespeare into everyday conversation

Last night I was watching Downton Abbey, as one does on a Sunday night. I am very fond of Downton Abbey. It is my Sunday night luxury, along with a bowl of pasta and a BGORW (Big Glass of Red Wine). Sunday is complete only with these three elements.

This lady knows how to quote with her ice-cold tongue

This lady knows how to quote with her ice-cold tongue

There are a few niggles I have about Downton Abbey and I’ve blogged about these before. However, there is one attribute of the characters in the programme I envy greatly. Namely, their ability to throw literary quotes into everyday conversation. Last night, the Dowager said ‘Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war’. She was referring to the suggestion of inviting the Minister for Health (Neville Chamberlain) over for dinner. If we were to invite Jeremy Hunt for dinner this weekend, I’d like to be able to respond similarly. But sadly, I wouldn’t be able to due to my ignorance.

There is an article on wikipedia about the meaning of the Dowager’s phrase. I’m not so interested in the meaning of this particular phrase here, I’m interested in her talent to drop a Shakespearean quote in general chit chat and for it to have a strong resonance to everyone present (and of course the viewers). I want to be able to do that. It doesn’t have to be exclusive to Shakespeare’s great works, I want to be able to do that with any book. I’m quite a well-read member of the human race. I’ve read 78 of the 100 BBC ‘top reads’. Most people, the page states, have only read around 6 of them. Yet I can’t quote from any of them.  I’ve even read 93 of the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge list of 339 books referenced in the Gilmore Girls. However, can I quote from Charles Dickens? No.

I bet she's read a lot

I bet she’s read a lot

I’m not sure whether this is a skill I can cultivate. Could I practice on my children and husband perhaps? Then move on to friends? And eventually use some choice, witty quotes in school governor meetings and work conference calls?

I could use this one from Jayne Eyre during a phone meeting about things going wrong: ‘It is a pity that doing one’s best does not always the answer.’

To my children as they leave their mess in the kitchen, I’d like to use this quote by Balzac: ‘Such is life. It is no cleaner than a kitchen; it reeks like a kitchen; and if you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again, and therein lies the whole morality of our epoch.’

And another one for the children, when they moan about their homework: ‘I dare you to work harder than your dream demands.’

Some advice from Oscar Wilde for all those people on Facebook who talk about betrayal and enemies: ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’

And finally, this one, another Oscar Wildeism, for anyone suffering from paranoia: ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’

I think I need to keep a literary quote journal so I can pull on these out as and when needed. So again I ask: are there really people, beyond the fictional world of Downton Abbey, who can drop quotes with ease? I’d like to meet them and eventually, be one of them. Perhaps it’ll only come to me when I’m as old as Maggie Smith.

A very eloquent man

A very eloquent man

The Big Book of…

There are two books that I wished existed in real life.

The first is, The Big Book of What People Say and What People Mean.

I get quite confused by the things people say when they actually mean something different. Why do people do this? Do they do it just to challenge me? What I mean by this is that I need a book which lists those coded messages that the Japanese are so good at and the English are just as good at, along with their actual meanings. My favourite Japanese phrase that belongs in this book is Tabun chotto muri da to omoimasu which means ‘I think that might be a little bit impossible’. Actual meaning = no. Often I wish people would just say what they mean and not say it in code. I think that many other people automatically ‘get’ the code but I don’t. I’m always telling my husband off for speaking to me in this ‘code’ that I don’t get.

This book would be my constant companion if it existed

This book would be my constant companion if it existed

The second is, The Big Book of What We Should Never Do. This relates to the weird thought I had the other night as I went to bed before nightfall. It was only 10pm but it was still light. So I said to my husband ‘I’m sure it says in The Big Book of What We Should Never Do that we should never go to bed before nightfall, at least not after the age of 10 years’. He laughed at me and informed me that such a book doesn’t exist.

I wish I has this book on my book shelf

I wish I has this book on my book shelf

Other entries in this invaluable reference work would be:

  • Get up before 7am on a Sunday No Matter What.
  • Say no thanks to More Wine when offered.
  • Drink wine out of a mug, that is never, ever acceptable.
  • Wear yellow. I don’t care if you think it suits you, it doesn’t.
  • Anger a cat.
  • Go clothes shopping after a lunchtime tipple (never, ever do this).
  • Gatecrash a funeral (although a wedding reception is perfectly acceptable, I’ve only done this once).
  • Say ‘that’s ok, I can make you cheese on toast instead’ to your child who won’t eat vegetables.
  • Go to the toilet before leaving the house in a hurry on a day when you are wearing a skirt or dress (yep, done this a few times).

As, sadly, such books do not yet exist, perhaps I should write to my good friends at Oxford University Press and suggest they commission these titles. I, for one, would definitely purchase.


It’s grounbreaking, it’s path-breaking, it’s going to change the course of history…no it isn’t

It’s just a book. It’s just paper and ink (or pixels and light). It’s just a book which has been published for a very selective readership of academics. It might have an impact on the field of tribology, experimental philosophy or cognitive neuropsychology but it isn’t about to break concrete up or change the world.

This is a thought that came to me while reading an article on the BBC website today about a ‘groundbreaking’ exhibition. The thought doesn’t relate specifically to the contents of the article, it is about my job. Part of my job entails me reading a lot of book blurbs. I have to transform book blurbs into book abstracts for Oxford Scholarship Online. Book abstracts should be descriptive rather than persuasive so I have to do a lot of ‘toning down’ and aggressive adjective removal. I don’t want the text to tell readers that the book is ‘the most outstanding study of it’s kind on the encounter between the common law legal system and the tribal peoples of North America and Australasia’. I want it to tell them that it ‘examines the encounter between the common law legal system and the tribal peoples of North America and Australasia’.

I used to write book blurbs myself during my full-time working days so I know that the task of the book blurber is to sell the book. I know all the theory. Grab them in the first sentence and they will be yours for £9.99. I appreciate that the back cover is the only chance a publisher has to persuade a reader not to put the book back on the pile in Waterstones. The Amazon blurb can swing the decision between add to basket or back button. I know all about strap lines and the value of a quote from Stephen Fry or The Sunday Times (or Professor Famous-in-his Field from Harvard University).

If you are tasked with selling a book with a title such as Law, Power, and Imperial Ideology in the Iconoclast Era then you need to think of some really outstanding selling points to get potential readers interested. I understand that. Many years ago, I had to write the blurb for this book Britain’s Historical Railway Buildings: An Oxford Gazetteer of Structures and Sites (which incidentally I think is a fantastic book – I think the blurb on Amazon is mine).

This book really was groundbreaking

This book really was groundbreaking

However, there are two oft-chosen words to describe a book that send shivers down my spine. These are groundbreaking, path-breaking. Not once during my career as a book blurber did I describe a book as groundbreaking or path-breaking. I cannot describe any book, however amazing and however revolutionary ‘in its field’ as likely to break a bath. It is a metaphor that I cannot bring myself to use (or allow to appear on Oxford Scholarship Online).

That is, unless the book in question was about concrete crushers. This book might indeed be path breaking.

A book about concrete crushers is definitely groundbreaking

A book about concrete crushers is definitely groundbreaking


My children read a lot and it’s not my fault

This is a thought that has been mulling around in my head for a few days. The other day, I was having a conversation with my one of my son’s teaching assistants about children and reading. We were talking about the influence of nurture versus nature on children’s reading and enthusiasm for books. We are both avid readers and both have children who have ‘inherited’ a love of books. She was telling me how it amazed her that some children just don’t pick up the love for books. For whatever reason, they don’t get struck by the bug.

I posed the question to her of whether the fact my boys love reading was down to my ‘genetic’ love of reading (nature), clearly inherited from both my parents, or whether it was down to the extent to which they’ve absorbed my love of reading through seeing me read (nurture). Have they been surrounded by books since birth and picked up on my enthusiasm for books and stories? Or would they have grown up to love reading irrespective of the amount of books in the house?

Oldest son reading in bed

Oldest son reading in bed

I’ve been considering this, and I think that in our case at least nature must be a stronger influence than nurture. Certainty, I love books and I love reading. I own a lot of books. I work in the publishing industry. I have a book on the go (sometimes two) at all times. However, I am so busy most of the time that I rarely read during their waking hours. So, to what degree does nurture influence them? They hardly ever see me read. I do it mostly when they are asleep. Their father also likes reading. He reads a kindle, and also only when everyone else is asleep.

The evidence is clear, they love to read. Here are a few photos taken from near and in their bedrooms.

Middle son's bedside table

Middle son’s bedside table

Under oldest son's bed

Under oldest son’s bed

First son's bedside table

Oldest son’s bedside table

These were in the toilet for 'weird thoughts' time reading

Abandoned on the landing

These were found in the toilet for those 'weird thought' moments

These were found in the toilet for those ‘weird thought’ moments

This house is overflowing with books. I moan about the books. I trip over the books. I am constantly picking up the books and piling them up. Books make them late for school. Books keep them in bed in the morning and keep them awake beyond lights out (the carefully positioned curtain to allow street light into the room in my middle son’s room is evidence of that).

Although I frequently moan about the amount of books in our house, the lateness of our children, and the amount of books and spare books they insist on taking on car journeys that last 10 minutes, I’m really quite pleased that they love books. Whoever said that boys don’t read hasn’t spent any time in my house. My boys love their books, perhaps too much sometimes. They drive me mad with their damn books! Books make them curious about the world. Books feed their thirst for knowledge and this makes me happy. Whether it be nature or nurture, my children are mini-mes.

Middle son reading on the landing

Middle son reading on the landing

If nothing else, this means I can leave my thousands of books to them when I trot off to the library in the sky.

I need to be about to start a new book by the time we go on holiday and I’m failing

I have a problem that is causing me a lot of stress. It is related to an impending holiday by the sea. We’re going on holiday on Saturday and I have already selected my holiday reading (purchased at a very good price from Tesco this week). My problem is that I need to be ready to start my holiday reading on Saturday.

Light reading for my holiday

Light reading for my holiday

On Monday, I finished the book I was reading (Platform by Michel Houellebecq) and so needed to find a book that would last me exactly four days so that I could start my holiday reading on time. I have a shelf of ‘to read’ books.

My ever-growing 'to read' shelf

My ever-growing ‘to read’ shelf

I scanned this shelf for a suitably short book. I selected a play to read thinking it would be the perfect length. I bought this book about six months ago having always wanted to read it. This was my chance to do so.

Be afraid, very afraid

Be afraid, very afraid

However, I finished reading this most excellent play on Wednesday evening (a beautifully crafted satire on married life set in 1960s America – not a happy read). So now I had another dilemma. That is, should I start my holiday books, with the risk of actually finishing one of the books before I go on holiday or should I try to find another short-ish book? I didn’t want to pick a ‘normal’ sized book as there would be little chance that I could finish a ‘normal’ book in two days. So I chose a really short book, purchased about a year ago for 50 pence in a charity shop.

A fabulous little book - just a bit too short for my needs

A fabulous little book – just a bit too short for my needs

However, I finished reading this fabulous anthology of short stories by Magnus Mills this morning (simple, elegant, poetic and imaginative – he touches so gently and so cleverly on human relationships). So again I was faced with the same dilemma,  but this time with a greater intensity. What to read? So after some thought I plumped for this (I’ve read about two pages as I write this blog). I suspect I’ll still be reading this on Saturday but I have a two-hour car journey  during which to have a good solid read.

I love a bit of George Perec

I love a bit of Georges Perec

Oh the stress of it all! I need a holiday.

Books sound nice, kindles don’t

I own a kindle (given to me by my brother) but I don’t actually use it. I have tried to use it. I think I’ve downloaded two books onto it in the 18 months I’ve had it in my possession. I keep reverting to the quaint style of reading that involves something made from paper and wood. The excuse I’ve always given is that ‘I have loads of books I haven’t read yet so I can’t use the kindle yet’. But I keep buying more books so there must be more to it than that. My lack of willingness to embrace the kindle bothers me. Lots of people have kindles. Most of my family and friends own kindles. I think all of the kindle owners I know love their kindles. As far as I know they all have turned their backs, permanently, on paper-and-wood books. So why have I not joined the kindle generation? I read a lot. I think technology is great stuff. I should be using a kindle. I’m the ideal consumer of a kindle.

All the world's books in one - sounds perfect

All the world’s books in one – sounds perfect

As i see it (when I’m trying to be objective) kindles have many advantages over books:

  • They don’t go brown with age
  • They don’t go wrinkly if you drop them in the bath
  • They are portable
  • Their weight remains the same irrespective of whether you are reading War and Peace or not
  • They don’t take up shelf space
  • They allow you to read rude books on trains without embarrassment
  • They looks nice

Somehow these advantages haven’t won me over. So, in the toilet of course, yesterday I asked myself: why do I still prefer wood-and-paper books? I came up with a number of reasons.

  • They have covers which are nice to look at
  • They feel nice in your hands
  • They can be used for interior decoration (I simply love bookshelves bursting with books)
  • They are solid
  • They have history (I love the smell and feel of second-hand books)
  • If I used a kindle I would find no pleasure in looking in second-hand bookshops
  • You can read them in the bath
  • If you drop a book in the bath, what have you lost? A few pounds at the most
  • Everyone on the train can see what you are reading and therefor they will realise how amazing and intellectual you are
  • I get more pleasure from buying a book than I would from ‘downloading’ a book
  • They smell nice (I like the smell of paper and wood)
  • They sound nice

It is this last advantage that I probably need to explain . I like the sound that books make when you open and close them (this mostly applies to new books). What I am referring to is that creeeek noise that the paper makes upon opening a new book. I love that noise. I also like the hollow clunk sound hardbacks make when you hit them. Oooh I do love that sound. Kindles don’t have that quality. I imagine that they’d sound metallic (if you were to thump one). So to me on the sound stakes alone the kindle cannot compete with the wood-and-paper book.  Please may books never die.

Wood-and-paper books

Wood-and-paper books – just a taste of my book shelves

My preferences for books are very personal and I appreciate that. I’m not a Luddite about the books vs kindle debate. I know that kindles are here to stay. I don’t resist them. I just choose to walk to my bookshelf and pick a nice yellow paperback to open and shut just to listen to the lovely creeky noise. Oohhhh.

You can't do this with a kindle

You can’t do this with a kindle