An audio version of this post is available here.
Oh oh oh! I’m on Amazon with my finger poised over the big yellow “Buy” button, when it strikes me. The full history of me stands up and checks me, like a border guard. And I stop.
The smell of book, an old, foxed hardback in my hands. Ex library, from my mother, its board cover sliding beneath a poorly fitted transparent plastic coat, worn semi opaque with use. The edges of the book’s closed pages are a series of ridges running the height of the book, betraying its hidden binding. Stitched, glued. Inside, it is tattooed as if it is part of a herd or interned in a prison camp, to be used until death. But it is in my hands now. Freed. Retired. Not retired. You have one more job ahead of you, book. One more.
I take it with me everywhere. It is heavy, and I am small, but from the moment I discovered it, it became my bible. A book that doesn’t have a story in it. That doesn’t explain a topic. A book, a brick four inches thick, that exists solely to contain all the words, abstractly, in alphabetical order. A dictionary.
I treat it carefully. I carry it carefully. Everywhere. It quickly becomes inconvenient for my family, me lugging the book about. Instead of looking on the shelf to find the dictionary, they first have to find the child who will be attached to it. It is as if the book has grown legs, or I have become a hermit crab whose home is somehow outside this solid object. And the edges of its pages betray its bindings. And when you open it, that smell.
It only happens, or only seems to happen a couple of times a year. But time is a slippery thing, a wriggling thing, and who can say? The catalogue comes from the school and is full of books for children. Being one myself (technically), and with it being the 1970s, this is a thrilling event. Companies in the UK haven’t explored the option of marketing to children yet. Products other than toys – which one must deliberately go to a toy shop to seek out – aren’t aimed at us. The library has a corner for children, but the books there are colourful, shiny, illustrated, jam-tacky, and of little interest to me, other than Dr Seuss, but everyone loves Dr Seuss, not least because he is American and therefore inherently more exciting than anything which is not American. Consequently, Dr Seuss is always out on loan. My other books are almost all adult books – very old ones at that, my grandfather’s copy of Defoe or Kipling (yes, reader, I have Kippled), or Swift; or children’s books inherited from my father, and therefore without exception, aimed squarely at boys or men. The most modern themes in these books are from the 1940s. The oldest are very old indeed. So this book catalogue is a very exotic bird. I spend days going through it. I have been given an allowance to spend and immediately discount any book that is illustrated or thin, however beautiful or popular, because I will read it in minutes, and I want a book to last me a few hours. I make a list and cross it out and remake it and refine it. The books are delivered to the school and on Wednesday, library day, when we go in, the desks are covered in boxes. Boxes of new books. They smell different to old books. Of ink, of solvents. There is no foxing, no ridging on the edges of the closed pages: there is no stitching, just glue. The bindings are tight, not floppy. The colours are bright, the covers, slick. They sound different. Not the soft, flumpy sound of steam powered books, but an electric wick-wick! You can cut yourself on them, I discover.
Forward, to Fleet Street, and my new fat wages which allow me, each month, to spend a hundred pounds on books. And a husband who strongly disapproves of this, who would, I suspect, rather spend the money on weekends in the country. But frankly I find weekends in the country exhausting and they would do nothing to quell my appetite for worlds and facts and the next page. I tear through books like a circular saw, next, next, next. One a day. A hundred pounds is probably about a third of what I need to spend, to keep my head fed. There’s me, my body, which people meet and which they think is me, which requires almost nothing except a comfortable place to sit and a cat: and there’s my hungry head, my pacing lion head, my circular saw head that sucks in all the worlds, that must be fed read meat.
I can’t read. I am ill. It is 2006. The page, the words on it crawl away from my eyes, flinching, ducking. They shrink. Trying to read a word is like trying to thread a very tiny needle with cotton whose end is frayed. It just won’t. I push the sentence into my head, but it is dead, floppy, it contains no sustenance. It falls straight back out of me again. I pick it up, I am a monkey with its dead baby, trying to make it move, oh come back to me, move: but it will not move.
I do not remember when I put books down. I threw or gave away hundreds, keeping only those that I considered magical: Fraser’s Horse Book. My collection of dictionaries, which are my holy books. Rupert Thompson’s … all of Rupert Thomson’s. All of Jeanette Winterson. All of Patrick Hamilton. All of Wyndham. Golding’s perfect journeys through time, over sea. Van der Post’s blinding sentences. I could no longer access these countries. But I could not forget them either.
Now books were strange objects of resentment. I tried re-reading easy, familiar books. No. I was in exile from the only country I had ever loved.
What changed, I do not know. My finger paused over that yellow button. “Buy for Kindle”, but however big the type was on my screen it made no difference to my ability to read and comprehend it. Suddenly what I wanted was a book. I wanted it the way you sometimes suddenly want another human body to touch yours, if you are alone. I wanted an old book, in my hands, foxed and crack backed, the quiet of much turned pages, the minute fur on the edges of its paper (have you ever put your lips against this? So soft). The smell of it.
I bought it, second hand on eBay instead. Beautiful bashed up old Penguin Classics binding, the best-looking books in the world. Pulp nonsense. Tiny print. It should be impossible, doubly so, trebly so as I’m particularly ill at the moment. But this illness is strange. Facilities come and go. I can’t raise my arms to brush my hair at the moment. But it turns out I can once again step across the border between this world and the others. I read it in a day. And then I read another.
I started reading on the 28th of April, 2015. Four days ago. I have read four novels since then.