3 Reasons for my Shameful Secret

abundance bazaar biscuits blur

Biscuits or books?

I have a shameful secret. My book shelves are full of books I haven’t read. Shocking, isn’t it? You’d think that instead of browsing Blackwell’s and Waterstones for the latest hot reads, I’d get through the stack building up at home first. Good housekeeping, surely. Like eating all the biscuits in the tin before going out to buy more.

Cider with RosieWell, not really. For a start, less than half the titles stretching out until the crack of doom across my walls are down to me. When, many years ago, my husband and I united our separate collections of 500 or so each in marriage, I looked forward to throwing out the many duplicates that must occur. There were 6. From which one can only conclude that either we complemented each other nicely, or had absolutely nothing in common. I wish I could remember what those 6 books were, as that might shed some light on the situation, but I can’t. Cider with Rosie, possibly, and The Catcher in the Rye. Certainly not Science Fiction, Fantasy, Travel, Anthropology, Psychology, Cell Biology, History, Biography, Classical Music, Wood Engraving or a free copy of the Book of Mormon picked up in Salt Lake City on a gap year holiday. In other words, my undergraduate accumulation of Eng Lit underwent a rather exciting broadening of horizons, thanks to its new shelf fellows.The Catcher in the Rye

Since then our store has only grown, with beautiful Folio Society editions of the great classics rendering redundant all the old dog-eared paperbacks (which I still can’t bear to throw away). And I have to admit that an uncomfortable proportion of all our books are ones I’ve bought, Fully Intending To Read One Day but have not, as yet, got round to.  There are various reasons for this:

  1. The author is well-known but doesn’t grab me,
  2. The book looks dauntingly thick.
  3. The title puts me off.

Pathetic, really.

The Once and Future KingSo I have resolved to tackle the backlog, beginning with a book that comes into Category 3, in spite of its passing 1 and 2 with flying colours. I have huge admiration for T H White (1), whose The Once and Future King is one of the best books I have read in my life; and, far from being of a daunting width (2), this one is pleasingly slender. But –  Mistress Masham’s Repose? It sounds like a twee fest of Miss Muffet clad little girls playing in a prettily decorated wendy house.

Mistress Masham's Repose.png

I could not have been more wrong. Wronger I could not have been. Mistress Masham’s Repose turns out to be a glorious riff on 18th century literature, with Gulliver’s Travels at its heart but sweeping in references to Alexander Pope, Dr Johnson and a whole sheaf of other literary figures. Mistress Masham herself doesn’t even figure in this delightful tale (it’s just the name of an island in the parkland of a vast, crumbling stately home); the heroine is Maria, a brave and resourceful 10 year-old orphan who, stumbling one day on a hidden colony of Lilliputians, battles to protect them from her evil governess and the governess’s crony, a most unchristian vicar. I love the way T H White makes absolutely no concessions to his readership in what is meant to be a children’s book, though if I’d tried to read it as a child I probably would have taken a different view. Gullivers TravelsA thorough knowledge of Gulliver’s Travels, including the lands of Laputa and the Houyhnhnms, is taken for granted, and much of the dialogue is in a flowery 18th century English, to the point where Maria wonders whether she too might start speaking in Capital Letters. Yet somehow the richness of the story and the sheer powerfulness of the characters win through and all I can do is kick myself for missing out on this wonderful read for so long.

Still, I’ve learnt my lesson. Now for the next in my treasure of neglected works.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Erm…

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)

 

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How to be a relaxed parent: read to your children.

Book House Summertown

The Book House, Summertown, closing in June 2018

Two weeks ago I had the melancholy task of collecting a book from the Book House, Summertown, Oxford.  Before I am deluged with outrage that I could ever describe a bookshop visit as melancholy, I’ll explain that this wonderful, deceptively spacious (as estate agents love to put it) jewel of a bookshop is closing in June 2018, and they’d asked me to take back the one copy of Ante’s Inferno still on their shelves.

Ante Passchendaele jacket

A younger sibling of the glorious Aladdin’s Cave that is the Book House in Thame, the Book House, Summertown, has been a fixture of this part of Oxford for nearly 30 years.

Book House Thame

Aladdin’s Cave – the Book House, Thame

 

During that time the Summertown shopping centre – as so many throughout the UK – underwent a sea change in character, with traditional stores giving way to coffee and charity shops. When I arrived in the 1980s, there were 3 butchers, 3 greengrocers, 2 newsagents, 2 off licences, a toyshop, a pet shop, a post office and, oh joy, a bookshop.

All have gone now, with the Book House holding out valiantly years longer than the others. Life has changed, our shopping habits have changed and – saddest of all – so have our reading habits. We are all reading less than we used to; according to the wonderful Book House manager Renee Holler (herself a prolific children’s author), sales are down even in children’s books, supposedly a growth area in the UK market.  Competition from ebooks, Amazon and supermarkets offering cut-price paperbacks add to the pressure and increasingly, it’s all too much for delightful independent bookshops like the Summertown Book House to withstand.

One reason for the decline in reading among children, according to the annual Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer survey from Nielsen Book Research, is that we are reading to them less than we used to. In 2013, 69% of preschool children were read to daily in 2013; five years later, only 51%. Parents of three to four-year-olds apparently ‘struggle to find energy at the end of the day.’

Dinosaur bookCall me a dinosaur (ooh, yes please) but this statement puzzles me as much as it saddens. Do these parents not put their toddlers to bed? In my memory, amid the nightly chaos of trying to clear up toys (rarely succeeded), cajoling squalling youngsters upstairs, into and out of the bath and finally to their beds, that moment when at last we sat down together and read Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Peepo Peepoor Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea was the gentlest, easiest and most relaxing of parental input.

So relaxing, in fact, that I’d frequently read myself to sleep, much to the annoyance of the child on my lap who’d turn and pinch my cheeks awake again. How do these parents, who lack the energy to read to their children, settle them into their beds without it?The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Now I have a 2 year-old grand-daughter, bedtime isn’t (yet) one of my tasks. But during the day she only has to set eyes on me to demand ‘Old King Cole’ (her current obsession, narrowly running ahead of Humpty Dumpty and the Grand Old Duke of York) before taking my hand and leading me to the sofa for a surfeit of nursery rhymes. I’m only too happy to comply, having always found reading aloud much less effort than creating imaginary games of Shops, or Lions and Zookeeper (to pick two of my daughter’s favourites when young). Their time will come, of course, along with the joys of television, ipads etc which for now the parents can control. But when it does, I’ll do all I can to keep alive this early love of books.

Meanwhile, a heartfelt plea: I totally get why Amazon is so successful. Online ordering is so convenient; I love having things delivered direct to my house instead of having to traipse round city centres trying to find them. So why not use the online ordering system operated by bookshops such as Blackwell’s and Waterstones? Often the prices match Amazon’s; you may have to wait a couple of days more for the delivery, that’s all. The difference is that you’re supporting not only the bookshops but also publishers, since while bookshops and wholesalers demand a 40 – 55% discount on the RRP of each title, Amazon is the greediest with its insistence of 60%.

And above all – as a little girl at Pegasus Primary School (part of the Blackbird Academy Trust) advised the Duchess of Cambridge on a recent visit – read to your children!