In my previous post I mentioned the ‘mysteries’ of writing, and this week I have been reading a book about writing’s conjoined twin: reading. It is Daniel Gray’s Scribbles in the Margins. 50 Eternal Delights of Books (Bloomsbury, 2017) and it is a kind of homage to books and to reading. It actually says very little about particular books or authors and is much more concerned with the generic experience of reading, and such things as the smell and texture of books themselves. I suppose that any kind of reader will relate to this, but perhaps academics in particular, for whom reading is so central to their lives, will do so.
I felt little pings of recognition with the emotions and experiences described
as well as, occasionally, not being able to relate to it at all. So, for
example, I identified very strongly with the first ‘chapter’ (they are really
mini-essays) on the experience of finding handwritten dedications in old books.
I had thought that taking pleasure in that was unique to me; apparently not,
and that connection of one’s experience to that of others is in itself one of
the joys of reading. On the other hand, I could not identify at all with ‘reading
in a tent’, having neither done so nor wanted to. Re-reading an old favourite I
could very strongly relate to, but wasn’t surprised to find discussed; the
pleasure of the books you find in a holiday cottage was again something that
resonated but which again I thought of as my own idiosyncrasy rather than being
a shared pleasure.
recall a time when I didn’t read, and can’t, therefore, recall learning to
read. I certainly learned before I went to school having been taught, I
imagine, by one of my older sisters. One of my greatest childhood pleasures was
to go to the local public library – so many of which
have now disappeared or are under threat of closure – which in memory was
vast, hushed, wooden but I suppose was really quite small. There’s a romance,
it seems to me, in finding books in libraries and bookshops which is quite
different to buying online, and certainly the physicality of a book is quite different
to that of an e-reader. It has recently been reported that book
sales are increasing and e-book sales declining, quite contrary to the
expectations of a few years ago, so perhaps I am not alone in that.
life I have published several books, including that on which this blog is
based, and it has a particular pleasure which is not at all like publishing
academic journal articles. That may be because I have not published nearly as
many books as articles, so they have more novelty. It is also because,
nowadays, journal articles appear on line long before they appear in print and,
in fact, often I never even handle the paper journal itself. With books, by
contrast, there is something quite special in receiving the first copies.
pleasure is, indeed, to do with the physicality of the book: its look, its
feel, its smell. The book of this blog has a particularly distinctive appearance
because of its cover design, at least in the paperback version (the hardback is
very dull, but hardly anyone buys that, anyway). When I was first shown the
design for the first edition I thought how clever the designer (whose name I do
not know) had been. It was a kind of pastiche of a student notebook and seemed
to fit perfectly with the ‘ethos’ of the book (if there is such a thing).
editions (and, now, the design of this blog) expanded on that theme, including
picking up on one of the reader endorsements by featuring the rings of a coffee
mug. I tried to persuade the publishers to also include some image of an
overflowing ashtray, to (look away now, kids) reflect the prodigious cigarette
consumption that had accompanied its writing. But, alas, that suggestion was
rejected as inappropriate in this day and age. Never mind, my own copies, like
most of my books, have ingested the tobacco smoke that they live in and have become
suitably yellow and odorous – another of the delights of books that Daniel Gray
In On Being at Work (Routledge, 2013: 38),
Nancy Harding describes being in a bookshop and picking up a book (by Judith
Butler), reading the first paragraph and being enthralled, captivated and
confused. Picking up Antonio Gramsci’s Prison
Notebooks in a bookshop, over thirty years ago, was like that for me. It’s
chancy and contingent. Just like picking up a thriller or a romance, the purchase
of an academic book is often to do with the feel and look, the back cover
blurb, a few sentences read at random. Yet such encounters can be life-changing.