When the world feels senseless, idiotic and unreasonable, as it did last week, the only answer is to go to a bookshop. I feel about them the way Holly Golightly felt about Tiffany. They calm me down right away (“the quietness and the proud look of it, nothing very bad could happen to you there”).
My favourite bookshop is only one step outside the clamour of the city slipstream. Its peaceful interior is the inverse of what’s outside - all ideas and no noise. There has never been a better time to visit. Not only to escape but to celebrate. The tenth annual Independent Bookshop Week has just begun, championing retailers in the UK and Ireland with special events like storytelling, facepainting, reading groups, author signings and literary lunches.
I can’t remember exactly when I went back to reading physical books exclusively. It wasn’t something I did on principle or to make a point, a grand gesture of moral superiority involving a technology fast. It was for pleasure. Work was screens and lights, distraction, juggling. Reading needed to feel different. Like diving. Depth, immersion, purpose. Choosing one thing over the endless, churning multiplicity of everything else. I kept my e-reader but found I switched it on less and less.
At the same time my children were discovering books – with me and for themselves. The best children’s books are probably the most delightful objects in the world. They have to be – you can’t persuade kids to read something by putting it on the Booker Prize shortlist or whacking a Richard and Judy’s book club sticker on the front. They don’t give a toss. You have to make the thing itself irresistible - a perfect synergy of content and form. The voices of a brilliant illustrator and author can create a harmony that is symphonic – just think of Quentin Blake’s Dahlian dream world (or is it the other way around?). Children’s books that explore the possibilities of the format are nothing short of magical. Allan Alberg’s The Jolly Postman was my favourite when I was little, though The Jolly Christmas Postman is even better and probably preferable for kids now - Christmas cards and packages will make more sense to them than letters.
A well-stocked bookshelf is a pleasure. A bookcase tells the story of your life - it could be an autobiography of autobiographies
Reading with my children brought home to me the joy of print books precisely when I needed it. Their pleasing substance and completeness - finishability is the tech buzzword, but of course it’s nothing new. It’s satisfying to work your way through a brick of a book. They may not be particularly portable but they offer a gratifying, physical measurability that e-readers do not. That wonderful mix of delectation and dread as the balance of pages tips right in your hands – desperate for it never to end, but knowing it must because you can’t stop reading.
That feeling is special and – as it turns out – useful. I’d always thought that I remembered what I read in paper books more easily and in more detail because I was reading for recreation, but a growing body of research suggests that we process information differently depending whether it is on the page or on a screen. Reading with paper is a physical process that differs to reading onscreen. It’s not a case of paper always being better (at least I hope not – otherwise you won’t remember this afterwards…). It’s more about using the right form for the right content. Dan Brown might be perfectly digestible onscreen, Dostoyevsky probably isn’t. As a music fan this makes perfect sense to me. There are tons of tracks that make me happy when I hear them on the radio, plenty I’d enjoy on a night out but relatively few which are so beautiful I feel compelled to catch and keep them, bringing them home like a butterfly collector who doesn’t have to kill anything. Special ideas deserve a physical form.
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Then there’s the curious consequence of all this: a collection. A well-stocked bookshelf is a pleasure. A bookcase tells the story of your life - it could be an autobiography of autobiographies. Just like a records, the books we keep reflect who we are and how we change. “You don’t put your life into your books, you find it there.” wrote Alan Bennett. Sometimes this is literally true. Open one and you can travel back to another place and time, finding archaeological clues Former You has left behind. Notes in the margin, a daisy from the park, train tickets, tearstains, bookmarks improvised from the receipts for dresses, lipstick blots, a cherry-juice fingerprint... I am a messy reader.
Of course there are plenty of ways to buy books. Some people think bookshops are old-fashioned and inconvenient. I suppose that’s true, but I can’t say I’ve ever walked into one looking for modern and convenient. It’s a bookshop, not a toilet (though if those are the qualities you demand, try this place. They have no stock, just tablets to browse on and speed-print books on the spot). Special and delightful is usually what I’m after, though, and most independents already do that very well.
For many shops the future looks precarious, but I hope sellers remain optimistic. A few weeks ago I was down in Brighton to help launch this year’s Record Store Day celebrations at Resident Music, which – its owner remarked ruefully - opened during the worst sales year in music history. Nobody could have predicted the “vinyl revival” then, but it has seen Record Store Day go from strength to strength along with stores themselves. Successful independents now focus on user experience (which plenty of people prefer to convenience). Many stores have expanded to create a better environment, selling good coffee, including event and exhibition space. The uptick in vinyl sales has led to an official vinyl chart and provided a creative challenge for labels and artists to produce beautifully formatted records.
It seems to me that the publishing industry is – wisely - taking its cues from the music business these days. There is a renewed focus on quality, special editions and books that do what e-books can’t. Booksellers are starting to do the same. The tenth annual Independent Bookstore Week is the biggest yet, with a headline tour from Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Shore To Shore is bringing a bill of poetry and music to bookshops nationwide.
All this to say, I suppose, Happy #IBW2016 to you and yours. There’s never been a better excuse to lose yourself in a bookshop, or stick your nose in a book.