By Stuart Sharp
Sometimes, we need to stop for a while, just to appreciate some of the things we have. This is no less true with books than with anything else, so I have, naturally enough, compiled a list. You might have other things that you feel grateful for, but these, I think you’ll agree, are mostly pretty great things too:
Public libraries, when you think about it, are really quite a wonderful idea. Despite the scary looking people who stand in front of the section you’d really like to browse, despite their refusal to get the one book you want to read, despite even the dreaded librarian’s stare that tells you that if you so much as breathe on the stock, you’re in trouble, the central idea is still absolutely amazing. You want to read something, so you go to a library, and you read it for free. For free! Well unless, like me, you happen to have a terrible memory for return dates.
Just think of all the books you weren’t quite certain of that you still read, because you were able to get them out of your local library. Just think of all the things you’ve learned by spending time there. As the brief history of libraries at http://www.history-magazine.com/libraries.html shows, the idea is thousands of years old, but it’s still every bit as brilliant now as it was then. Those of you who agree should probably make the time to go to http://www.lovelibraries.co.uk/ at some point as well.
2. The E-Book
No, I know it will never fully replace the paperback. I know it will never have that wonderful papery feel, or the smell of a really old book (which reminds me rather a lot of a sock drawer that has been kept perfectly dry for fifty years, though I suspect I might be alone in that thought) or the way you can drop a book and not lose more than your place. Go on though, admit it. You want one. Hundreds of books crammed into a space the size of one ordinary one? Is there anybody reading this whose bookshelves don’t need that sort of solution? And it’s kind to trees, which is nice.
3. The fact that you can read at all.
The nobility of the middle ages probably weren’t quite as much of an illiterate bunch as has occasionally been made out, but most of them weren’t big readers either. And the peasants were far worse off. Throughout history, large portions of the human population have been unable to read or write to any kind of high standard. And it’s still a problem even in so called ‘first world’ societies. According to the UK’s Literacy Trust (http://www.literacytrust.org.uk) 1.1 million of the UK’s adults have almost no literacy skills, while 3.5 million have the skills that the National Curriculum would expect of an 11 year-old. It’s a scary thought.
4. Authors Who Publish Exactly on My Schedule
Of course, being able to read is not the same thing as having something to read, which brings me nicely to my next point. There are some authors who, thanks no doubt to some very persistent bullying on the part of their publishers and agents, produce books exactly when I’m running out of things to read. Kim Harrison, in particular, seems to have timed many of her recent releases to coincide with my running-out-of-books moments. There are some authors who are even more predictable than that. For several years, the question of what to buy my mother for her birthday was solved for me by the fact that Terry Pratchett would invariably have something out two or three weeks before it. That this also allowed me to read it afterwards never entered my head. Honest.
5. Small Bookshops
There are a lot of big bookshops out there. They’ll have uniforms, and centrally determined marketing policies, and usually coffee shops where the overwhelming scent of the stuff is enough to put those of us who don’t drink much coffee off browsing. They aren’t always a bad thing. They usually have a wide range in stock, and decent prices. One of my favourite bookshops is my university’s branch of a major chain. It occurs to me though that the things I like about it most, that the staff know me by sight, that a couple of them know my reading habits, and that they occasionally recommend things I like, are actually things resulting from it being quite a small branch. Small bookshops just feel… more comfortable. Odd, in many cases, but comfortable. Rather like the cardigans many of the owners seem obliged to wear.
6. Paperback Novels
Hardback novels undoubtedly have their uses, but really, when you take away the ones that don’t come under the heading of ‘remarkably durable blunt instrument’, what are you left with? No shelf space and a bad back, probably.
Paperbacks are convenient, they’re light. A lot of the time they can fit in a spare pocket. Admittedly, they’ll disintegrate under a spilled cup of coffee, but I’ve already warned you about that sort of bookshop, haven’t I? More than that, paperbacks are cheap. Look at your bookshelves. Imagine how many fewer books there would be if you only bought hardbacks. Imagine how much lighter your bank balance would be. Now feel grateful that the paperbacks are pressing together in some strange, jumbled arrangement that would do the average dry stone wall proud.
7. Small Press Publishers
Otherwise known as those publishers who put out most of the decent poetry collections. Let’s face it, no one else will. Some of them, like Bloodaxe, have gone from being small to being quite a bit bigger, but they’ll still never compete with the truly large publishing houses. Instead, they, and publishers like them, will simply continue supplying almost every poetry book I own. The big names, in contrast, will probably continue to contribute those annoying ‘the nation’s favourite poems about love/trees/mildly concussed penguins’, none of them containing poems newer than fifty years old. I don’t want to read those collections. Except possibly the one about the penguins, which is, sadly, the one I made up.
8. Authors with imagination
To continue being moderately grumpy for a moment, let us consider some of the things that show up on bookshop shelves. There are the ghosted autobiographies, the reality TV tie ins, the utterly awful books that get their place because someone famous, good looking, or merely possessing embarrassing photographs of the publisher happens to have written them. I could go on, but it would depress us, so I won’t.
Let’s concentrate, instead, on the existence of authors who have made a living being as odd, as different and as wildly imaginative as humanly possible. From the realms of ‘proper’ literature, we have the likes of Murakami describing reality in a way that shouldn’t really make sense, and yet somehow does. For my own favoured genre of fantasy, we have Kelly Link, who not only has the ability to write the strangest short stories you’ve ever read, but who also has the peculiar knack of slotting zombies into parts of stories you never thought they’d fit into. I’m sure we can agree that you can never have too many zombies.
9. Buying books online
Which isn’t to say that your favourite small bookshop will necessarily have the particular slab of (maybe) zombie filled joy that you want to read. They are, after all, small, and don’t always have room for everything you might desire. They could always order it for you, but we all know how long that can take.
But the beautiful thing these days is that thanks to the likes of Powells (and some other online bookshop whose name I can’t quite recall at the moment) it’s possible to simply order books online, at three in the morning should you feel like it. Now, I have to admit to preferring real life bookshops, with assistants who are real (but quite possibly alien) people, but even so, there’s something quite remarkable about the thought that these days I could order Kafka’s complete works without ever bothering to change out of my pyjamas. Slightly worrying, but also quite remarkable. Isn’t the Internet a wonderful thing?
10. Book Blogging and Zines
On the subject of which, our last thing worth really appreciating is… well, us. Zines, bloggers and online communities. Random strangers who make up lists of things to be grateful for about books and then put them on the Internet for you to see. Estella’s Revenge and all the marvellous, marvellous book zines like it. Can’t decide if you’ll like the new book by a favourite author? Dozens of online reviews will help you. Can’t decide what to read next? Start a poll on a blog. Have a sudden urge to read a list of things to be grateful for?
Actually, I think we may have just covered that one.