I was up late last night. Exhausted, I had to put all my books back into my bookcases. They had been taken out because, for the first time (drum roll and complete lack of excitement for anyone other than myself) we have a carpet down in the dining room instead of bare floorboards. Lovely – the smell of new carpet is second only to the ‘new car’ smell, but taking everything out of three tall bookcases and then having to put it all back - dusting those unread for a while and then flicking through to try and find out why they have been so neglected – takes AN AGE. I have three full shelves of Keats books; two more of other poetry. I know these books so well, have them bookmarked, can open them at the right place almost with my eyes closed. I found three biographies I haven’t even started yet, simply because they are such monumental tomes I just can’t find the time to do them justice (and they aren’t about Keats.)
Anyway, the exercise (and I definitely burned off a few calories) got me thinking this morning about why I have these books all around me. No-one else in my family is so obsessed by the printed page, unless it has a crossword on it. My husband occasionally mutters the words ‘charity shop’ under his breath, but he now knows that I am likely to come out with more books than I have given away.
Mercifully, now that I am officially a ‘writer’, I find it easier to justify the need to take up whole walls with shelves full of books only I am interested in. He literally has one, small, shelf. It has two books about swimming, three on Audrey Hepburn, a ’100 things you never knew about Irish Rugby’ and two ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ coffee table books that are really only weighing down the bottom of the shelves to ensure they don’t fall on top of us. I have read since I was small and have always wanted everyone I love to love books, to understand what I find in them. But often, people just aren’t interested. Fine. But they don’t know what they are missing.
Soon, we will be decorating upstairs, where I have all my books about World War One, and last night’s exercise will be repeated. I am writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain for Pen & Sword History for next year, with another to follow, so they aren’t going anywhere. Some of them are library books that I have renewed over and over again so they almost feel like mine. I have developed a real relationship with them, know them intimately (the index of two or three of these books are ingrained on my optic nerve in some cases) and feel quite put out if someone else reserves them.
I know I am not the only person who feels like this. There are Pinterest boards full of pictures of libraries, book cases, books, inspirational quotes about books, fun quotes about readers and reading. Never has the printed word been more popular, despite (or perhaps because of) the availability of ebooks. There is nothing quite like the smell of a new book; that ‘crack’ as you open one for the first time. Library books rarely smell as good, and occasionally someone else’s fossilised breakfast cereal or an unidentifiable hair drops on to your lap, but really that just shows they have been loved and gobbled up and now it is my turn to enjoy them.
I have just had a fabulous ten-day holiday, housesitting in Suffolk and got lots more of Shell Shocked on the page instead of in my head or scribbled in notebooks. It was the best holiday we have had in ages, despite the fact that my husband and I had our noses on the keyboard some nights – me tapping away at a chapter and he analysing suicide statistics for 1910 to 1930 for me to add at a later date. All my aches and pains seemed to disappear as I gradually relaxed and I felt so much better. We were in a house full of books, which helped, and I am out writing this afternoon, a coffee shop trip to the one where they have lots of books on shelves and quotes on the walls. It is all I need to be inspired and WRITE.
Books offer me an inner (and now outer) life that I just couldn’t function properly without. I feel grateful that I have the opportunity to take myself to places I may never see, hear people I don’t know speak to me and understand the lives of others in a way that can only enhance my own.
So, however late I have to stay up, however much dust gets up my nose, however much others mutter and chuckle at my absorption in pages old and new, books are my ‘forever friends’. Always there for me, never letting me down. Truly medicine for the soul.
As I like to do at these moments, I include here a poem. This one isn’t by a ‘high brow’ poet but it speaks such truths about what it means to read, to let yourself love books and to open your eyes to the possibilities they hold, that it seemed an apt way to end. It is by the magnificent Dr Seuss…
I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! – Dr. Seuss
I can read in red. I can read in blue.
I can read in pickle color too.
I can read in bed, and in purple, and in brown.
I can read in a circle and upside down.
I can read with my left eye.
I can read with my right.
I can read Mississippi with my eyes shut tight.
There are so many things you can learn about, but
You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.
The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
If you read with your eyes shut, you’re likely to find
That the place where you’re going is far, far behind.
So that’s why I tell you to keep your eyes wide,
Keep them wide open … at least on one side!