Archive for November, 2014

The Comfort Zone

November 2, 2014

I’ve been poorly and therefore resting over the last few days, and resting means reading. When I’m ill, I usually go back to old favourites, which means SF, detective fiction and the like. And that got me thinking: I’m not that adventurous in what I choose to read. I don’t stray beyond the genres I’m familiar with, and comfortable with. When I go to a bookshop, I head for the same sections. The newest thing I took on board was probably travel writing, about a decade ago.

So what? I could argue, I know what I like and I stick to it. But I’m not satisfied with that as a response especially when, in a house surrounded by thousands of books, I sometimes find myself feeling bored and unable to choose what to read next. And it’s not because I’ve read them all: there are sizeable piles of waiting-to-be-reads sitting about the place.

When I’ve tried being adventurous, I’ve sometimes been disappointed. Don DeLillo bored me. Saul Bellow was OK but I can do without him. When I was a teacher, sometimes students would introduce me to something new: I was persuaded to buy and read ee cummings’ poems, and was very grateful for the arm-twist. Apart from that, scanning my reading log tells me I’ve discovered and enjoyed Neal Stephenson (but he is SF-ish anyway) and Miklos Banffy (but he’s an Eastern European writer anyway).

I’m conscious, as I get older, that time is limited. Not that I’m about to fall off my perch imminently (at least I hope not) but I have moved on from thinking ‘yes, it would be nice to re-read that one day’ to ‘I’m probably not going to have the time or inclination to revisit that one, so out it goes’. So, do I have a jaded palate? Is this inevitable at my stage in life? Is there anything left for me to try, or to discover? Or do I just need to get out more?

The Beauty (or not) of Books

November 2, 2014

Although I love reading books, I’m also often conscious of them as objects in themselves, and sometimes the physical book itself adds to the pleasure of reading, somehow.

Most paperbacks nowadays are banal, nondescript, the products of corporate marketing and design. Penguins used to be easily and unmistakably identifiable as such, with colour-coded spines and covers, and fonts that were part of that design; early Penguins with the single-colour cover and the white band with the title are classics that are a pleasure to look at as well as read. The French still do this marvellously with some publishers issuing first editions of new novels in a plain (no illustration!) cover and standard fonts giving author and title; I’ve no idea why this decades-old presentation has survived, but it looks good. I remember when the French paperback collection Folio was launched about forty years ago: they still use the same white cover, same font, although there has always been an illustration of some kind taking up part of the front cover. Again, I think it looks good; it has evolved into a classic.

Hardbacks are a different prospect. Occasionally I come across a beautifully produced hardback title in the UK: I’m thinking of books like Umberto Eco’s On Beauty, On Ugliness, and The Book of Imaginary Lands. The paper is good quality, the colour printing is clear, the binding is stitched and sturdy: I love having one of these open to read. Most hardbacks nowadays are manufactured down to a (high) price here, printed on poor quality paper and bound with glue, so that they don’t open and lie flat properly; I have no idea how long the binding glue will last before it crumbles. Often US editions are better made and worth buying in preference.

Why am I bothered? Because, with hindsight, some of the books I bought long ago and have loved, cherished and re-read many times, have not stood the test of time, and, quite frankly, I think they should be capable of outlasting me. If all I require of a book is to sit on a shelf, and have its pages turned every five or ten years, then it shouldn’t self-destruct after thirty years.

My favourites are probably the Everyman’s Library hardbacks in their new incarnation: cloth binding and sewn pages, decent quality paper (though some of my older volumes are, to my disappointment, slightly foxed now), always a pleasure to read. And the Arden Shakespeare Second Series hardbacks with their blue cloth covers and minimalist dust-jackets: I have now managed to collect the complete set over twenty years or so.

Good books speak to me across time: I get goosebumps looking at ones like Shakespeare’s First Folio or the King James Bible of 1611 in museums. Physical books can and should last: there is something wrong with them becoming transient junk like so many other things nowadays.

On the other hand, as Theodore Sturgeon once said, ninety-five percent of everything is crap.

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