I have been absent from the world of blogging for the past couple of weeks for a simple reason. Books. And what could have been more apt than for me to discover, just as I turned my mind to blogging again, that books were not just something enveloping my time and interest as I began back at Cambridge , but were something grabbing attention beyond the heights of the University Library’s dusty shelves.
Tomorrow, the winner of the 2012 Man Booker prize will be announced. This is the 44th year of the competition which started in 1969. The ceremony will take place in London’s Guildhall to be covered by the BBC. The winner receives £50 000 and the six shortlisted writers £2, 500.
The winner also receives a specially commissioned and artfully handbound edition of their book.
It was this last snippet of information that stayed with me the most. The writer, who probably began his or her novel with ideas jotted down on scrappy post-it notes, has taken their creation through the void of black and white Times New Roman on a cut throat journey of editing and rewriting to come to this final moment. They may well wish never again to open that file on their computer. Yet I imagine as they are handed a beautifully bound copy of their work, with a waxy, embossed cover and starchy leaves that crackle as they are turned, that the monotonous tapping of the keyboard that has been the pulse of their day to day life for so long must seem worth it. The special commissioned copy of the winner’s book will sit on their shelf to reflect their public success in the competition and the sterile word document will be transformed into an object living and breathing with personal value and memories of struggle and inspiration. Often it seems, it is not what we read, but how we read it.
The way that we can read books today is changing. Cambridge is a patchwork of artisan and antique book shops nestled down crooked alleyways. All sorts can be unearthed from the higgledy -piggledy shelves, be it a fully illustrated gold embossed collection of ‘Tales from the Arabian Nights’, or more simply, a mouldering pocket edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Sometimes, the book seller can be a little liberal with the term ‘antique’. My brother is an avid collector of old books and on one grey and foggy November evening we travelled to a book seller housed in what turned out to be a dilapidated warehouse tilting at a drunken angle. The smell of mildew and creosote, coupled with the atmospheric tinny drip of rainwater was a far cry from the squishy chairs and the squealing costa coffee machines of Waterstones. Clearly ‘antique’ had become ‘decrepit’. Yet old books can be little fragments of history. Dates in the cover. Names scrawled over the title page. Notes in the margin. All these little details bespoke a copy so that it takes up a unique place on a shelf.
Even if the pages are tea stained and raggedy and the ink has melted grey at the edges, these more unusual editions of literature are surely more valuable than the mass printing of chunky volumes piled up in a jenga on the Waterstone’s special offer table, automatically branded with the bright neon ‘three for two on all classics’ sticker. A shelf full of beautiful and historical books becomes a work of art that is being continually developed and perfected. I recently acquired a copy of John Donne’s poetry in French so old that some of the pages had not yet been cut. As I slid the knife through the pulpy fibres I felt I was reawakening a lost tradition that celebrates as much the way that a book is crafted and put together as it does its contents.
Patterns of reading however, are continually evolving. We often read quickly and in transit. E-books entertain us as we stand wedged on the tube or sunbathing on a beach. I find myself often reading for a specific purpose, searching frantically for quotations and themes to fit the essay titles that I have been set in a race to meet the deadline. Computer formats of literature are invaluable for this. Yet my degree and current study of 18th century literature has found me a compromise between new and old ways of reading, allowing me to pick up the mass produced modern classics at a slashed price and still feel I am getting a beautiful book onto my shelf. 18th century readers kept ‘commonplace’ books in which they collected their favourite quotations into exquisite journals. I too have been keeping a form of reading log in a little embellished notebook that I bought at a vintage market stall, which I look back through to refresh my memory of the best bits the written word has to offer.
This is one way to keep books beautiful, by etching our favourite words onto some uniquely bound pages that we can place on the shelf as personal to us. That way, when my latest edition of a cheap Austen is donated to the library book sale to make space for the new Waterstones BOGOF I’ve quickly picked up in town, I can keep reliving my favourite moments of literature bound into beautiful covers by a pen in my hand.