We owe it to each other to tell stories - Neil Gaiman

Friday, 10 January 2014

An Ode to Books

“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it is probably because at some level you find ‘reality’ a bit of a disappointment” Joe Queenan – ONE FOR THE BOOKS

One of the greatest things invented is the book. Gutenberg is one of those great people for inventing the printing press, making books accessible to the masses and not just the elite. The invention of the printing press is without doubt one of those iconic moments in history that has changed our lives for the better, much like the discovery of penicillin. The development of the digital book is one of those monumental things too; an e-reader can without doubt be put in the same class of revolutionary status as the printing press. It has more people reading as many seem to prefer having a mobile library as opposed to a stationary one. 

Here I’ll be focusing on the book – in its many forms,  as well as my thoughts on books and what they mean to me. Be warned this is going to be a long one.

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents Emilie Buchwald

I cannot say when exactly the spark that ignited my love for books and reading turned into a burning flame, but it was undeniably during my early childhood. A rather precocious child, I was never terribly fond of playing and whilst I tried to have an imaginary friend, it didn’t work because I couldn’t see anyone. Early on my mother bought me numerous books – from those fold open ones with puppies and kittens to the Childcraft set of books (which I still have). Books have been present in my life for as long as I can remember, they certainly have been one of the few constants in my life. I recall many hours spent with my mother going through these books, especially the first one in the Childcraft series with all its nursery rhymes, fairy tales and folk stories. I reminisce as I write this about how scared I was of the troll in the tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. It was the most terrifying thing ever; I was afraid of crossing bridges like the one in the story for the longest time. I also recall quite fondly spending many hours with my favourite aunt reading Winnie the Pooh books and The Adventures of Alice in Bible Land.
One of the books that I can still vividly remember arriving in the post is the Childcraft Encyclopaedia, it was an instant favourite, and I still adore it today. It’s like having a piece of history because it still has East and West Germany and the USSR.  The pictures in the encyclopaedia still have the power to transport me to all the countries I so long to see one day. 

When we visited my grandparents, they had this shelf of story books – we were only ever interested in one of them though – the green one, which not surprisingly is the only one that has fallen apart. This green one has many iconic stories in it – The Tale of Peter Rabbit, And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street, Tom Sawyer and the white washed fence, Goldilocks and the three bears. There wasn’t always someone to read the stories to my cousins and me, but we made the stories come alive by looking at the pictures and remembering what the stories were about. My grandparents have since given me the series of books, and that green one is still my favourite. I do look forward to the day I have time to read them all. I should also mention that many of my cousins are readers too!

“A library is infinity under a roofGail Carson Levine

I became a member of the Somerset East Library quite young – I was 2 or 3 years old. The Langenhoven Library has been one of the main sources of my reading material for over 20 years. I got my first Dr Seuss, Dahl, Blyton, Salinger and Grisham exposure there; I met magical realism there in the form of Chocolat. I frequently borrowed the Library’s copy of Charlotte’s Web. It was actually the first book I read when veering away from the younger children’s section at the tender age of 7. My mother encouraged me to take books out on important and influential people; I recall reading about Galileo, Einstein and Marie Curie when my classmates were barely reading at all. I remember when I was 14 I found the Flambards Trilogy by K.M. Peyton – I devoured those books in a day. It was the first time I fell in love with a boy in a book. Whilst limited, the teenage section entertained me for many hours. I found my first (and so far only) Terry Pratchett book there. I found some of the Dawson’s Creek books there. I got The Lord of the Rings there.

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

 I was quite sad when I realised that I had outgrown much of the content of Langenhoven Library. Whilst there are still several excellent books in the shelves which I have yet to read, there was no Eugenides, only the one Salinger, not any of the autobiographies or memoirs that I wanted to read, my tastes had evolved so much whilst being at university that I had to start started my own library.
Starting your own library is one of the best and worst things you can do. All readers have a dormant virus within them that can turn them from perfectly sane borrowers and occasional purchasers of books, but when that dormant virus is activated and the inner bibliophile comes out… Well then all rationality and sanity go out the window in the quest to own all the books. Within the space of a year, I went from owning about 20 books to owning well over a hundred. Since the awakening of the crazy bibliophile within me in 2009 I have acquired more than 400 physical books. It is quite astounding how easily and quickly I got to that number. There are books all over my room at home in the Eastern Cape, there are books all over my personal office there too and in our lounge, and the passage... even in my wardrobe.  Don’t get me started on the books that are in my room in the Western Cape and the ones that are on my desk at work. I have a problem, an addiction; an affliction for which I desire to seek no professional help, because quite frankly there are more dangerous addictions to have. The only danger there is in collecting books is the possibility of perishing beneath an avalanche of books you were meaning to read. After all, there is that quote that says books are the only thing that you buy that makes you richer. I won’t even contemplate doing the math and working out how much I have spent on books, as I may just die when realising the small fortune I have spent, but that is beside the point.

“Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind” Jeanette Winterson.

Having my own library means that I am constantly surrounded by friends, which exist only in my head, on the pages and in the minds of their authors as well as other readers. Somehow a room just feels more pleasant with a stack or shelves of books in it. As Cicero said “A room without books is like a body without a soul” – I have to agree. You can tell a great deal about someone by glancing at their shelves. What a pleasure it is to find a kindred bookish spirit – it is not all that frequently that I come across someone who has Gone with the Wind on their shelves, or Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier or even anyone with anything by Jeffrey Eugenides on it. When I do find someone and can reminisce about how incredible those books are – evoking our favourite scenes– there is a bond that is formed between us that a non-reader would simply not understand. Also, you get to be all inter-textual and clever by making jokes that reference these books, and there are few things as fun as saying to someone who has read ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ “Can you See more Glass?” or asking someone who has read The Virgin Suicides why they thought the Lisbon girls could stand living no longer than they did? Heck even asking anyone who has read The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex what they think of Eugenides giving away the end of his stories at the beginning? How he writes in a way to get you so caught up in his stories that you forget about the fact that you already know the ending but are just enjoying the telling?

On the other hand, having my own library allows me to physically take stock of the books that I have read. I can look to the one shelf in my bedroom and see all the YA I have devoured, the biographies I have adored and the classics I have learned so much from. I can also leisurely pick my next read, and read at a sloth like pace if I want to without a two week loan deadline looming over my head.  Please note that I am not anti-library. I still love my local library, I have a stack of books from them that I do mean to read, and truly hope to get round to soon, like White Oleander by Janet Fitch and Possession by A.S. Byatt.

Books come into your life when you need them most. Whether it is that the universe happens to drop the book into your lap in one way or another, or you happen to have bought it before and that book just calls out to you and when you listen to it, it provides you with the comfort you require.
Books are the most constant of friends; they are always there- no matter what. They provide you with insights you would not otherwise have gained. They show you the world.  They make you more empathetic. They enable you to live a thousand lives. They give you hope, and they provide you with the comfort that few other things can. Reading a book is like having a movie play in your head – except you have the perfect cast because your brain is the director.

When I was battling the darkest part of my depression, books helped me to recover. For days I would do nothing but read. I got to leave behind my melancholy and see life through someone else’s eyes. I went to Hogwarts and got rid of my Dementors – books were my Patronus – opening a book was me saying ‘Expecto Petronum’. I went to Bon Temps and battled the supernatural with Sookie Stackhouse. I was there with Scarlet O’Hara. I went to Manderley and saw the devastation that was Rebecca de Winter. I experienced the hunger for stories in The Reader. I visited Macondo. And I saw those ‘Two households both alike in dignity’. I went outside of myself by being in myself in my mind in those stories to fix my spirit. I got to be someone who was not depressed and that helped me lift myself out of the recesses of depression. Books are a cure for all sorts of maladies. Whether it is a broken heart, loneliness, disappointment or loss books can comfort you.

Studies have shown that reading fiction makes you more empathetic. Reading uses and activates more parts of your brain than watching movies. I won’t go into it, because if you are a reader you already know it. You feel what your character is feeling, and unless they are as awful as Heathcliff you can sympathise with them and people who find themselves in similar situations.
Whilst the above had to be said, I have digressed from the purpose of this piece…

Real vs. Digital

These days there is still great debate between the book loyalists and those who have embraced digital reading. I own an e-reader, but I remain staunchly loyal to the physical book and the printed word. A book is my respite from the world, I spend 8-9 hours a day behind a screen and as such I gain very little pleasure reading from a screen when I go home and want to relax. Furthermore, it is just not the same. Yes the story is the same, the words are the same – but the digital experience is just lacking. I can’t mark relevant passages digitally and quickly find them when I want to tell someone about it. I can’t fully gauge the process I am making on the book, because there is no transition between the bulk of the book starting in my right hand and then ending in my left hand. It is just not the same pressing a button to turn the page compared to the physical act of turning the page, especially when you are in the middle of one of the climaxes of the book.

Above all else though, the reason why I shall stick to regular old paper books is a case of ownership. To me it doesn’t feel like an e-book truly belongs to me. I like having rooms that contain my library. I like that I can roam around and see all my books, marvel at their gorgeous covers, rearrange them according to my mood. I can show anyone my books and say, here look – this is a physical manifestation of me. It is simply not the same if you are to hand over your kindle or kobo or nook to someone and say ‘here, this is who I am’. It is just not the same. It does not feel right being able to carry your entire library with you contained in a small device. Books exist, they need to take up space – physical space – not measurements of space. Books are 3 dimensional, that is how they are best experienced, not as kb or mb on a device. You can’t stroke the spine or sniff the pages of an e-book. You can’t accidentally spill something on an e-book and have a memory of why it is that you spilt that crème soda on The Chamber of Secrets. There is simply no back story, no attachment to a digital book like there is with a real paper book.

I could continue ad nauseum with my thoughts and feelings on books, but then this would probably turn into a book and not a blog post – which may actually not be a bad idea. I do think that I shall continue in a second and perhaps a third post on books.

What sparked your love for books? When did your inner book collector come out of the closet?

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