My love affair with libraries

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My love affair with libraries started more than 35 years ago when my parents first took me to our local library and registered me there. To a child who read voraciously this was a gift that kept on giving. To know that I could walk up to the shelves, pick up a book, any book, and hand it over to the nice librarian to have my card stamped and take it home with me to read was intoxicating. On each visit I always checked out the maximum quantity of five and there were times, in the school holidays, when my parents would have to take me twice a week to keep up with my reading demands.

Looking back with an adult’s eyes, I don’t think it was a particularly attractive library, with its fluorescent strip lighting and cheap shelving. But it was beautiful to me.  I felt a thrill every time I crossed the tiled floor of the foyer in the Victorian municipal building where the library was housed, walking past the librarian’s desk to the children’s section where I would choose my next reading adventures with more care than I applied to any other decision I made at that age.

Then I moved away, to university to read English Literature and Language where (in that pre-digital age) a library once again became the centre of my life. I haunted the book stacks there, working my way through bound copies of Blackwood’s Magazines to find contemporary reviews of Victorian novels, reading up on literary theories and criticism and generally enjoying the fact that I could read for many hours a day and call it ‘work’.

Once I started paid work (for a publisher, you may be noticing a theme developing here!) I didn’t visit libraries for a while. I was earning so could afford to buy books (particularly with my publisher discount!). Then my husband and I moved to Australia and the local library became a lifeline once more while I was looking for work; free books to read, somewhere to while away the hours between interviews, free Internet access, a book group where I could meet people.

But the most significant library to me was the one I joined when we moved to Raleigh NC in the US. When we first arrived my husband started his job straight away, but I couldn’t work to start with as I had to wait to be allocated a social security number (which took six months in total, long story). This meant that I was six months without a bank account, a state drivers license, a job. In other words not many ways to fill my days. Luckily there was an amazing library only a 15-minute cycle away, at Cameron Village. This place saved my sanity. The library felt so welcoming, the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful and it had a truly amazing array of books over two levels. |i went there two, maybe three times a week.And it hosted so many book groups! I joined four, yes four, book groups. Meaning that I got to meet up with people who were as passionate about reading as I was every single week. And was introduced to books I would never have picked up if not for them.

After moving back to Melbourne (and rejoining my local library!) and living there for a few years, we finally moved back to the UK but to Cheshire not my native Oxfordshire. So once again, I was in an unfamiliar town where I didn’t know anyone and I was freelancing from home therefore not meeting anyone through work. So what did I do? You guessed it. Joined the local library. And I have also been working my way around the amazing libraries that Manchester has to offer: Central Library, John Ryland’s Library, Portico Library, and Chetham’s Library (oldest public library in the English-speaking world), to name but a few.

Okay, so I am not sure how to end this article as really I just wanted to witter on about my love of libraries and didn’t really have an end point planned when I started this. So why don’t I finish by saying that if libraries aren’t used, they disappear.

Visit your local library. Support your local library. Love your local library.

 

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The Shakespeare Authorship Conference, Manchester 2016

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Every now and then I like to indulge my inner nerd and go to some sort of literary panel discussion or conference. So at the weekend I went to the Shakespeare Authorship Conference, held at the Manchester Central Library.

I should say upfront that I don’t really believe that there is some dark conspiracy to cover up the identity of ‘the real Shakespeare’; in fact, quite frankly I don’t care that much. What draws me time and time again are the plays themselves. Their language. Their wordplay. Their characters. That said, I do like a robust discussion about books and/or authors.

By virtue of it being a ‘Shakespeare Authorship Conference’, there was of course the upfront agreement that there IS a question about whether or not ‘William Shakspeare of Avon’ wrote the plays (obviously some in the academic world deny this question’s very existence).So the orthodox view wasn’t represented. But there were more than enough other theories expounded to keep the conversation flowing all day.

What I found most fascinating is the apparent lack of documentary evidence proving beyond doubt the authorship of the plays. I can see why so many alternative author and conspiracy theories abound; considering the author of the plays was a person of considerable literary ability, there are very few contemporaneous documentary references to Shakspeare. No letters survive, no diary entries, no annotated manuscripts (well not ones where the hand can be confidently attributed). Even his will does not mention his library (that you would assume he would own) or the manuscripts of his plays.

At the end of the conference I left knowing a lot more about the proposed alternative authorship contenders than I did before; I vaguely knew that some believe that the Earl of Oxford was the real author, or Christopher Marlowe, but I didn’t know about all the others. There really are a lot?! For those who are interested in learning more about the candidates,I suggest you check out the Shakespeare Authorship Trust site.

And I now know that I am not an ‘Oxfordian’ or someone who believes in a co-authorship or group theory. I think I may be a ‘sceptical Stratfordian’. But really, does it really matter? After all, what’s in a name?…

Can you ever own ‘too many books’? …

Decisions, decisions

Up to last month I would have unhesitatingly said ‘No!’ Impossible! I could never have “too many” books. What a thought?!’

As far as I am concerned, I ‘AM’ my library; I have been building my collection for over 20 years. Crime fiction, art history, literary criticism, history, literature, popular, lexicographical, the list is endless.  Luckily space has not been a constraint for me as wherever I have lived I have always had space for my books. Although sometimes I have had to get a bit creative: I have turned spare bedrooms into a library. And the drawing room. And the dining room. And well, sometimes the bathroom. In fact, let’s just say that I am an expert at putting IKEA Billy bookcases together and leave it at that. Of course I dream of the day when I have a beautiful bespoke library and/or cosy reading nook surrounded by books; in fact I have a Pinterest board devoted to book shelving!

A couple of years ago I owned over 1100 books. And I was all set to keep going. But then I relocated back from the US (my third international relocation in seven years) and I realised that I just couldn’t justify the expense of shipping (and insuring) over 30 boxes of books – again. Sighing, I managed to convince myself that a small cull was the only way and donated/sold maybe 300 books. It was a wrench but as I had found books much cheaper in the US (than Australia, where I was living before) I had been buying indiscriminately and joyfully for two years, so I targeted those books and the cull wasn’t as heartbreaking as it could have been.

Three years on we are moving again, this time to England and the 800 books I had shipped back to Australia from the US have somehow increased in number again. So once more I have to give myself a stern talking to. Do I really ‘NEED’ all these books? Can I really ship/insure them for a fourth time which would mean that I will have spent more on shipping my personal library, than the cost of compiling it?!

And let’s be honest, I am not going to reread all 1000-odd. So why do I want to keep them all? Why am I finding this cull so hard? Part of it is book lust – I like looking at them; I receive a huge amount of satisfaction from just standing in front of my wall(s) of books and looking at them, browsing them, dipping into old favourites. Part of it (and this does not reflect well on me) is that I am proud of the number of books I have – ‘Look at me, I’m a big reader’, that’s what my shelves say to anyone visiting my home. And part of it is that I just can’t let go of a book once I have read it. Books are friends, they are companions. One of the reasons I have taken my library with me on all my moves is that they are a constant, a familiar ‘place’ that I can recreate no matter where I live. They are a source of memories (books given as gifts, books signed by authors, books bought when travelling, books bought as a result of recommendations from friends), a source of comfort (there really is nothing like rereading an old favourite, curled up with a cup of tea in a comfy chair). And, obviously, they are a source of entertainment which I needed when I was new in town and hadn’t had the chance to meet people (usually by joining three local book clubs!).

But I have to cull. I cannot ship over 1000 books internationally again so I made a rule and it’s a simple one. Any book that I have read and have no intention of rereading I decided I had to discard. But it’s not simple. Because every time I find a book I haven’t reread and that I have no intention of ever rereading, I find a reason to keep it. I like the cover. I like the author. I ‘might’ read it again, who knows?

So there I was, a couple of weeks ago, on the floor in my study surrounded by piles and piles of books in the ‘to ship’ area and one lonely pile in the ‘to donate/sell’ area trying to follow my simple rule and I had an epiphany. Maybe I’m ready to make the move without all of my books. Maybe I can just take my favourites and my reference books and ‘let go’ of the rest. After all, I am moving ‘home’, I don’t need my ‘comfort blanket’ this time. And suddenly I was at peace with my book culling. The piles and piles of books transformed themselves from friends into a mixture of friends, colleagues and distant acquaintances, making it much easier to sort them. And so I packed my acquaintances and colleagues into boxes and took them down to the local charity stores, the secondhand bookstores and handed them out to friends with a light heart.

And anyway, I can always buy some more when I get home…

It is a truth universally acknowledged…that there can never be too many Austen adaptations

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This year was the bicentennial of the publication of Pride & Prejudice and its hero(ine)s still speak as much to women (and men) now as they did then. Love him or hate him, two hundred years on, Mr Darcy is here to stay. As are screen and book interpretations and adaptations of Pride & Prejudice, of which the latest to grace the silver screen is Austenland, possibly the most Meta of interpretations yet (and based on the novel by Shannon Hale).

Keri Russell plays Jane, a modern American woman who has been unlucky in love. Obsessed with Jane Austen’s novels and holding out who she sees as the perfect man (Mr Darcy of course), Jane is struggling to experience real romance in her life as no man ever measures up to her fantasy man. Literally; Jane has a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Colin Firth/Mr Darcy in her regency-decorated apartment (there is a LOT of chintz) and the only man we see visit her flat doesn’t come close to Darcy’s stature!

Eventually in desperation Jane decides to sink her life savings into ‘the romantic experience of a lifetime’ at Austenland in England, a regency themed house party that guarantees the Mr Darcy experience. Unfortunately when she arrives Jane finds out that she has only managed to afford the ‘copper package’, rather than the other two female guests (enthusiastically and hilariously played by Jennifer Coolidge and Georgia King) who are experiencing the ‘platinum package’; this means that Jane is treated as the poor relation of the house party, placed in a plain brown dress with her hair undressed, and introduced to the house party guests as ‘an orphan with no money to her name and taken in as a charitable act’ by the snobbish lady of the house, played superbly by Jane Seymour. As a result, all of the gentlemen with their ten thousand a year pay her no attention at all, in keeping with the mores of the time. And so Jane’s time passes. However, Mr Nobly acts almost nicely towards Jane sometime and there is always the groundsman, Martin, played convincingly by Bret McKenzie who seems very interested in Jane. But who is acting and who is real? Is anything at Austenland real (I am still not sure of the significance of the orange-faced footmen, can anyone enlighten me?!)?

What I enjoyed most about this film was the number of layers in it; you’re the audience watching a film in which actors play actors, playing regency characters. About two-thirds way through the film, the regency characters put on a play, thereby adding another layer. All good fun and some of the best scenes are when Kerri Russell’s character, Jane, steps back from the performance and asks herself what she really wants. Is all romance just a game? Can she really find true love while playing a part?

Does Jane find her Mr Darcy? That would be telling, but what I can say is that you will be thoroughly entertained finding out.

The curse of the unread book

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I am an inveterate book buyer; sometimes a red mist descends when I am ‘just browsing’ in a bookshop and I leave in a daze weighed down with books. I am also incapable of passing a secondhand bookstore without going in and buying at least two books. I also have to limit myself to only logging onto booktopia once a month (around pay day).

Unfortunately these bouts of bookish bagging have resulted in a number of books finding their way onto my shelves only to be forgotten about. I hadn’t realized how bad it had got until I was happily rearranging my books the other day and kept coming across them all.

So I have decided that before I buy any more books, I must read every unread one on my shelf, and to prove I have read it I will blog a short review every time I finish one. To make sure I don’t cheat here is the list of the unread books on my shelf (along with the reason for purchase at the time) that I am now committed to working my way through:
The Pages, Murray Bail (loved Eucalyptus)
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes (it’s Julian Barnes!)
HHhH, Laurent Binet (heard a lot about it, thought it sounded interesting)
A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt (am working my way thorough her entire oeuvre)
The Trout Opera, Matthew Condon (thought it sounded interesting)
Old Filth, Jane Gardam (Vintage special offer)
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (saving to read on Christmas Day)
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (have been assured it is nothing like EPL)
Mr Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood (Vintage special offer)
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver (not sure why I haven’t got round to this)
The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa (always wanted to read it, picked it up cheap)
Every Day, David Levithan (heard good things)
The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough (saw the TV show years ago, got it cheap)
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan (haven’t liked anything later than Atonement, except Sweet Tooth so going back to his earlier books)
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel (picked it up cheap)
The Glass Room, Simon Mawer (Vintage special offer)
Silver, Andrew Motion (‘sequel’ to Treasure Island, seemed like a good idea at the time)
Goodbye, Columbus, Phillip Roth (Julian  is rude about in The Secret History)
The End of Your Life Book Club (good reviews)
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson (liked the title)
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (I like bookstores)
The Machine, James Smythe (in list of ‘must-read’ dystopian novels, had read the others)
A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark (gorgeous Virago Modern Classic hardback 30th anniversary special edition, had to have it)
The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West (picked it up cheap)

Hmm, when I hit upon this idea I hadn’t actually counted how many unread books there were; this is a slightly larger undertaking than I first envisaged. I don’t know whether to be pleased at this bounty of reading material or embarrassed that I have this many unread books on my shelves. My main concern is how I will cope with this prescribed reading list; I hate knowing what I am going to read next, I like it to be a spur of the moment choice. Of course, this is probably why I have so many unread books and quite a few reread books (more of those another time).

So, watch this space. I won’t be reading in authorial alphabetical order although that is how I arrange my shelves and therefore how I listed them – I will dabble. First cab off the ranks is The Machine by James Smythe.

How to: Make book recommendations to your book club or book group

I love recommending books; it is one of my favourite things – when I’m not reading books of course. So I am always very (too?) vocal in my book group, when we get round to discussing and choosing ‘the next book’. I have belonged to, or run, many book clubs over the years and have the following advice for members of book groups who struggle to choose books or want to get out of the rut of their current choices.

Selection system

Before talking about book selection choices, as a group you need to agree HOW you will select your books.  Democratically (obviously) but how? One option is for each member of the group to take their turn to select the following month’s book; another option is for all of the group members to each recommend a book, then once all books have been presented, the group votes and the book with the most votes is selected.

Some groups like to have their reading list set for the next six months, or even the year, others like to ‘wing it’ a bit more and don’t like the idea of being tied down to six to 12 book selections. It’s up to you.

Accessibility of the text is another element to take into account; you don’t want to select books that are only available in hardback, are brand new so super expensive or not stocked in the library.

What sort of books do you want to read?

Once you have decided how you will be choosing books, you might want to limit the selection to a certain genre (science fiction, contemporary literature, short story), a specific author (Dickens, Austen) or award winning books (like working your way through the Booker winners list). Ongoing or monthly themes are also a useful way to limit selection e.g.  ‘madness’ (The Yellow Wallpaper, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox).

How to select a good ‘discussion’ book

As Dorothy Parker so beautifully put it once about a hated tome, “…this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” It is too easy to select a book that doesn’t work for a book group discussion: Too pretentious; too simplistic; too controversial; sometimes a book that is really enjoyable to read for one’s own pleasure just doesn’t have enough depth for discussion purposes.

Books that work well for discussion are novels that offer an intriguing plot such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a polarizing storyline such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin or something that enables an ‘ethics’ discussion such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Further suggestions are listed at the end of this article.

Reading guides, book recommendations, resources

Need a bit of extra help to talk about your chosen book, or come up with discussion questions? Publisher sites are very supportive of their readers; many post discussion guides, author interviews, suggestions for further reading, etc.  Some also host online book clubs/discussions that you can join in. There are, of course, also many, many book group guides sites: Goodreads is the largest site for readers and book recommendations in the world. It has more than 14,000,000 members who have added more than 470,000,000 books to their shelves.  There are online book clubs, online discussions, etc. and it is a great site to get ideas for books to read. Reading group guides and Book Browse both offer hundreds of reading guides to a range of contemporary and classic literature and fiction (and some non-fiction too).

List of further suggestions

This could be endless, I know I will have missed lots of people’s favourites. I apologize in advance!

Books that stimulate strong discussion/dissension:

  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Gone Girl, Gilian Flynn
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Perfume, Patrick Suskind
  • People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Books made into films:

  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
  • Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Short stories:

  • Collected short stories, Roald Dahl
  • Short stories, W.Somerset Maugham
  • Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy
  • The Garden Party & Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield

Historical fiction:

  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Restoriation, Rose Tremain

Dystopian themes:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Passage, Justin Cronin
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • Wool, Hugh Howey

Fantasy/Magic Realism

  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  • Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel