Thursday, 5 March 2009

Happy World Book Day!

Today is the day dedicated to books: the day that it's okay to bunk off work and bury your nose in a book*, the day that is specifically designed for you to go to a bookshop or website and buy a book - any book, the day that you should spend asking other people what they've read recently and enjoyed, and telling them what you've read recently and enjoyed. Change your facebook status to tell everyone you know the title that changed your life. Spot a stranger reading a book and ask them about it. See someone in Waterstone's looking at a book you hated and tell them that: then recommend a better one.

I love reading. I love bookshops. I may have mentioned this before. When I'm feeling low, visiting a bookshop is practically therapy. I don't have to buy anything - in fact I frequently don't - instead, I just browse and let all the pages and covers calm me slowly, tell me of the thousands of other worlds I could enter if I chose. That's the best thing about books: inside any one could be the portal to another world, a parallel dimension, an ideal place.

The books that keep me coming back for re-read after re-read are always those ones which do capture me and transport me bodily. I'm not just talking about the books which I can fall into and switch off completely from the outside world - I'm pretty talented at that. Easy to stop up your ears when your inner ear and eye is so completely concentrated on the object in your hand. I'm talking about the books which are a perfect mix of big ideas and tiny details, that contain characters I can identify with, that recreate that sense of magic I got from my first hit of fiction all those years ago. It's like heroin only without the fatal side effects or fall off from the intensity. I can re-read books like these instantly - have been known to - and still get the magic.

Books like this usually fall into one of two categories for me: children's fantasy (The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce, practically anthing by Diana Wynne Jones, to name but a few) or books about books (I'm talking things like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, things which Middeke and Huber call 'biofictions' that create their own intertextuality). I know not everyone likes the same things, and not all the books I go back to time after time are like this, but a good proportion are. (To my shame, the other major category is Dick Francis novels. I re-read all thirty odd of them every year or so. But then that only takes about a fortnight!)

I find that I have this strong emotional reaction to books less often nowadays though. When I was six or seven I saw my mother putting aside some books to take to Oxfam. "Didn't you like them, Mummy?" I asked. "Yes," she said, puzzled. "But then why don't you want to read them again?" I couldn't conceive of the idea of liking a book but not wanting to go back to it. Now I know there are so many books out there that I won't have time to read, that it's sometimes not worth going back to them. I'm trying desperately to reduce my holdings of books at the moment: I don't have room to store all of them on bookshelves as it is, and I'm expecting to have to move to a smaller place in the summer, and to have fewer shelves still. I've got a shelf which contains only books which I haven't read yet but which I expect to get rid of when I do. So far only two out of seven have escaped the cull: Q&A, the novel which Slumdog Millionaire is based on, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, even if it made me cry. I regret a little letting The 19th Wife go, but since it was a free book anyway it probably won't kill me.

So the only question is: do I celebrate World Book Day by buying a new book? Or by reading one I've already got? There's just so much choice!

*subject to terms and conditions: namely your boss's attitude...

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