Thoughts On Books

Written February 2020

I’m not an English A-Level student. 

But I have always had a deep love for what the subject is fundamentally all about, reading and writing. Until I was about eleven my dream career was to be an author, and from as long as I can remember throughout primary school I was always writing little stories about one thing or another. I even had a crack at publishing some; I think you can still find my masterworks from when I was nine on Amazon Kindle. Invariably the subject matter of my stories were influenced by what I was reading at that moment, whether that be fantasy or adventure or what I’ve found to be my personal favourite, science-fiction. I could churn through a book in about a week, reading at every possible opportunity, and never without something on the go. 

But then came the looming shadow of GCSEs, and the seemingly infinite revision schedule that comes with it. Reading for pleasure was no longer top of the agenda, and my rate of book consumption dropped through those two years greatly, as novels became replaced by textbooks and revision guides. In the summer after Year 11, I’d tried to get back into the habit I so dearly loved and start reading properly again, but I ended up bouncing around from place to place so frequently I never had time to stop and visit a library or Waterstones. It hasn’t been until this year, really, that I’ve vowed to start reading more again, and have enjoyed it immensely. But I’m also aware a large number of people do not express such endearment toward books, and this has made me reflective. Why is it that books are such a revered species, to the point where there is an entire subject devoted to their study, which populates your GCSE timetable, once a day, whether you like it or not? What is it that draws me to books, even now when my days are filled with Maths and Sciences?

I think that books can almost be a metaphor for people: they have a spine, a backbone, that holds all of their pieces together. They have a name and a face, from which we often make judgements about what they contain, whether they’re the sort of thing we might be interested in. They even wear clothes in their dust-jackets and cover art, purposefully designed combinations of colours and images to attract a certain reader — indeed, sometimes these jackets are intentionally misleading as to what lies within the pages of the novel. And then there are the pages of the books themselves, those which contain the book’s life. Generally, the first few pages set the scene, give some exposition and politely introduces the main theme of the plot. But as you stay with the book longer, and get deeper and deeper into it’s pages, the plot reveals itself further in all its complexities, until after a while (how long depends on how well the reader gets on with their book) the whole plot is revealed, and the reader knows all that the book has to tell. Of course, sometimes we may start reading a book but soon learn that it’s not the right one for us, and put it back on a shelf for someone else to read; or maybe we may read a book and be very fond of it at first, but on re-reading our opinions can change.

The point of this metaphor? I’m not sure yet. But it helps me to convey, perhaps, just how fantastic I think books are. A good book is excellent company, just as good — if not better sometimes — than a friend (there’s no chance a book will argue with you!). I’m a lover of fiction and non-fiction, and though my studies lead me toward reading more of the latter, a well-written piece of fiction always enraptures me. To be transported to a world as far flung as a different Universe, with characters as varied and exciting as you’ll ever meet in real life, all from mere ink stains on a page is a truly wonderful experience if you think about it. I often find, though, that the most poignant books are those where you can see your own lives and that of those around you within the pages, where you’re left with a somewhat altered perspective on the real world, caused by looking through the lens of a fictional one. This has happened to me a few times, and though I’m sure an English student could surely pull apart the exact tools and techniques used to evoke such a reaction, I’m not so interested.

In that way, I’m a bit of a Book Purist: I like to think that I read a book as the author intended, from cover to cover over a reasonably short amount of time, pausing to contemplate the events as I go along. I don’t like to sit on chapters and pages to analyse and extract every last morsel of detail from his words, for me, that rather sucks out the fun. Instead, I like to just take the finished product and whatever effect it leaves me with. Besides, sitting on the same book for too long becomes boring for me, my interests will have shifted somewhat and I’ll want something different to keep me engaged. On the flip-side, however, I don’t like to read books too quickly, although the lure of getting through fifty or sixty books a year is tempting. I know there are many techniques for reading quickly, such as not using the little voice in your head or just skimming across the pages. There’s even techniques that involve going to the end first and working your way methodically through different sections of a book, skipping parts as you go in an effort to absorb as much information in as little time. But I find this a horrible proposition — you should savour a book, especially fiction, and take every word as it comes on the page, try and absorb all the little details to truly immerse yourself in the story.

When it comes to the book physically, I tend to be even more of a purist: with everything else, I’m a real progressive — newer is always better as far as I’m concerned. Yet with books, I’ve always been against the e-reader revolution. There’s just something so perfect about a real, physical book, I think it’s its permanency; whatever time of day or night, the words on that page will always be the same, and I can just open the pages directly where I’ve left of, without worries like battery and internet connection. Plus it’s just the feel of the things, the feeling of paper on skin is one that can’t be emulated on a screen. 

I used to gravitate toward the biggest book I could find when I was younger, but now I’ve become more wary to pick up a thousand page epic. Hardbacks are can be cumbersome, and I hate the idea of ripping or damaging a dust-jacket, so I always have to remove it on purchase and store it away until I’m finished. I consider a broken spine almost a personal cardinal sin, also, so am always careful not to bend the pages back too far (I find the best way to read is to keep the two sides of the book at a right angle and then just turn the whole book slightly every time you change side to keep the page being read directly opposite). And god forbid getting out a highlighter or pen to scribble across the pages to make notes on the novel. A paperback, B-format, 20cm x 13cm in size, 300 or so pages printed on nice thick paper, with a reasonably sized typeface and some decent line spacings (I always fall victim to going back and re-reading the line I’ve just read), all just large enough so the spine fits snugly between your curled fingers and thumb so it can be carried comfortably by your side, that’s my ideal book. 

But I digress. If you get on better with an e-reader or a book on your phone, who am I to judge? So long as makes good writing and novels accessible to more, on the whole I see it as a good thing, especially as simultaneously it seems bookstores are doing better than ever. There’s no fear of my beloved paperback going extinct, just yet. 

However, though I know the future of the book is secure, I fear that maybe the true book-lover is an endangered species. When I walk into a bookstore now often I find the most popular shelves aren’t populated by truly thought provoking or inspiring tales, but by pseudo-autobiographies of the stars of sport and screen. Sometimes I can get rather annoyed by this: why are these people in here? I think, these people have their own worlds. Why do they need to seep into here, the domain of the bookworm? I fear that people more are reading a book not because they felt particularly drawn to it, but because they feel they must, because everyone else is, because it’s what that new film is based on. I fall as much a victim to this as anyone else, and on the one hand I see the positive side to this that it gets more people reading. But on the other hand, the sheer variety of books that lie within a library or bookstore that just yearn to be read is outstanding, and yet we all seem to congregate around a few select works under the recommendations of “experts”. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen just as much a victim to this as anyone else, and also some of these books are genuinely worth reading. Like I wrote about earlier, some of these books can truly transform your opinion on the world and thus important that you at least consider giving it a read (something like George Orwell’s 1984 springs to mind). But then there are these reading-pandemics that grip nations when both avid and occasional readers are enraptured singly in a novel or series (remember 50 Shades of Grey?), and any other books published at this time are left unopened on the shelves. What I’m getting at is, though recommendations for book can be helpful and beneficial, we should not just read what everyone else is and leave these piles upon piles of books untouched. Think of all the hours of painstaking craftsmanship the author poured into their pages, only for them to remain firmly shut.

So here’s what I propose: when you’re next looking for a book, walk into the library, go up to a shelf (either of a subject your interested in or just to General Fiction if your feeling particularly daring), scan the shelves very briefly, and pick a random book. Read the blurb if you wish, and decide whether you want to choose another, or just go with your instinct and check it out and start reading. If you get started, realise it’s not for you a couple of chapters in, return it — no harm done. But at least you tried. And of course, you may just discover an absolute gem of a novel, an undiscovered hit, potentially exploring new genres as you do. Either way, just feel good that you have read something that maybe no one else has for years, given the plot the time and attention it deserves, and you might even just find a new favourite.