light in the dark

Twice recently, I’ve walked through the darkness that descends in late afternoon and pushed open the door of my local bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology. I go there often anyway, of course; but these visits were prompted by requests, on two separate days, for a replacement copy of my poetry book Sudden Arabesque, because, mirabile dictu, two different people had bought one! This heartwarming news meant I could brighten the winter’s evening by a visit to the bookshop. *

And what a delight it is to do this! Books everywhere, displayed standing, and shelved, and spread out on the central table of new arrivals. You can pick them up and handle them and turn them over in your fingers and leaf through the pages. There are so many beautiful cards as well, with all sorts of art; not to mention coffee and cake for those who want to linger. Of course I always come away with a book, or a card, a treasure of some sort. As so many bookshops close, any bookshop represents great courage if it has opened in recent years, and endurance if it has been there a while. I want to support this—and of course, it’s easy, as I love what bookshops offer!

Those two lovely unknown people who bought a copy of my poetry book have therefore supported (and I mean this is a wider than monetary sense) the bookshop, and also the poet; as well as the artist of the book’s cover, Ruth End, whose work I first saw on the walls of this very bookshop, where you can still see it now. And when we buy books published by a small poetry publisher, we validate the labour of love that such publishing entails.

In my bookshop you can find the work of many other local writers, and local as well as nationally-known writers do readings and signings there; writing workshops happen there too. So a bookshop becomes a cultural hub as well as a place to find books.

A bookshop is a light in the dark.

*An explanatory note in the unlikely event you wonder why I take Sudden Arabesque to the shop myself: it is published by Oversteps Books (that’s a clickable link) and anyone wanting a copy can order online directly from the publisher. Bookshops can also obtain it easily too. But, for my local bookshop, it’s quicker and easier to get replacement copies from me, and of course I love an excuse to stop in.

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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.