Today, it seems, is #Nationalbookloversday...I saw this on Twitter, and so global is the world nowadays that only this moment have I realised it is a US rather than a British thing. When I saw it, I wasn't actually thinking of it as connected to any particular nation, but rather to all of us who belong in the Republic of Books. Anyway, I may be based in the UK now, but I lived twenty-seven years in the States, and most of my library (or what's left of it after moves and downsizings) was gathered there.
"Blessed books—any one of which is worth all the toggery we ever put on our backs," wrote the artist Samuel Palmer in a letter. And how true. I'd always sooner buy a book than a piece of clothing. I read Palmer's words in the wonderful biography Mysterious Wisdom by Rachel Campbell-Johnston; she brings this artist of poetic landscapes to life, often quoting his own vivid expressions and forceful opinions, as well as delicately probing the mystery of his art. I heard her speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2011, the year the book came out, and on the strength of her brilliant talk I bought the book on the spot. I hadn't read it properly, though, until just the other day. The book was waiting on the shelf for just the perfect time; that is what books do, our faithful companions.
My novel Inscription is a love letter to the book, to the book's codex format as well as to the richness reading brings. The books we write are alchemical compounds of all the books we've read, transmuted somehow. Inscription touches on the historical mystery of how the codex book form evolved, and I have my first-century protagonist affect its spread a little. The protagonist of the modern strand is herself a book-lover who says, "Books have become my country." The books on my shelves, or so I feel, hold my life, remind me I have lived and read; they are part of me.
Of course, I also love libraries and bookshops. Second-hand and charity bookshops are my favourite haunts. In Cheltenham, where as a teenager I combed the shelves of Alan Hancox's room after room of books, I now browse in Peter Lyons's eclectic and fascinating collection; or in Cheltenham Rare Books next door, with its tempting first editions and literary oddities (as well as Inscription, honoured to find itself in such company). Even a modest budget will stretch to something in both these places. Then in the charity shops, especially those just selling books, there's always some great find, and the money goes to a good cause, or that's my excuse.
For new books there's Waterstones, and I am glad of it, but when possible I go to the independent Suffolk Anthology, a beautifully curated (as the trendy saying goes, but it's really fitting here) selection of new books on every subject. I'd be singing its praises even if it too didn't stock my book, as it also has coffee, cake, a place to sit down, and always a warm welcome.
"Blessed books,"indeed; I can't help loving them, and wanting them. What I have to safeguard, in this new world of addictions like facebook and twitter, is time for the reading of them. And I have to make sure I have a bit left over to write my own.