Saturday, 13 May 2017


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.

Throughout, 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.

I can’t 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.

In adult 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.

That 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).

Subsequent 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 identifies.

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.

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