Breaking the habit

A month ago today, I annnounced to the world that I would not be buying any books or even ordering more from the library, so as to start clearing the backlog  of books that I’ve bought, apparently  with the aim of reading one day, probably not this year!

The first reaction was disappointing,

” Oh, only a month?”

I should explain more . At least once a week I work two shifts in the recession-damned city of Gloucester, with plenty of time between jobs to hang around the city centre, which is rich in charity shops. I have little disposable income, so find myself hanging around the shops to keep warm, or to find items for the childrens’ club where I work, to look for jigsaws in winter, and books all year round. I used to rummage around looking for books to sell on Amazon, but to be honest, that’s no way to find bargains for resale! Libraries are also comforting places to pass time, keep warm, read, and even get a tolerable vending machine coffee for 70 pence.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my pile of books-to-read had been growing  and some of the library books were having to be returned before even being read, because some other reader had decided to request them simultaneously, after they’d languished in the stack at Cheltenham Reserve for a mere four years!  Obviously, Something Had to be Done.

Result? This new puritanism has been harder than I thought. Ok, I have a shiny new toy, an iPad which I bought mere weeks before I knew I was going to lose one of my jobs, so that has taken up some of my time, learning to use it, buying apps, and playing jigsaw puzzles online! The Kindle App means that I can download a sample of a book to assess it for style, before I even think about “needing it”. I tried that today with Maine , and found it wasn’t my sort of book: the use of  tenses was too grating.  American authors tend to use the past simple ( he did; she went; they packed; etc) more than their British counterparts, or so I believe, and the result is a flatness of style, a litany of lists.

BUT now, the fete and festival season is on us, and it’s my habit of a  mere forty-five years to head straight for the bookstall for a therapeutic rummage. The first fete I went to, I succumbed, and bought a memoir of a couple’s move to Spain, thinking as I did so, “Just one book won’t hurt”. I paid 60p for it, and have I read it? Er, it’s on the pile.

I started my month reading the library books, either those about the iPad, or the witty and wonderful Look Back With Love, the first volume of early 20th century memoirs of Dodie Smith, the author best known for One Hundred and One Dalmatians. This had been recommended by Slightly Foxed, a charming and curious book-sized quarterly  for bibliophiles, to which I subscribe. This led me, via the to-reads pile, to I Capture the Castle, by the same author.  I had attempted to read this as a teenager, but failed to spot the humour or quirkiness, possibly because, in  parallel to the life of the heroine, Cassandra,  my family also lived in a rented house similar to a castle, my father was absent literally and metaphorically, and we were often short of a bob or two! I enjoyed this book, but found the middle section a bit of a chore, lacking the pace of the beginning or end.

At the same time I was listening to a highly engaging psychological thriller called Shatter by Michael Robotham, set in the Bristol and Somerset area. Although extremely nasty in that it deals with a sexual sadist and his victims, it also touches on the cruelty of war – how it damages the minds as well as the bodies of veterans – and the impact of a progressive disease, in this case Parkinson’s, on a character’s daily functioning. I’ll be reading or listening to more by the same author. Another listen was Marina Lewycka’s Various Pets Alive and Dead. While I did not enjoy this nearly as much as her previous three, the information on the commune-child of the 80s character Marcus’ secret career in high finance, short-selling and other dubious practices in the City of London in 2007/8, was , to my surprise, totally enthralling. It caused me to bite off a few nails on more than one occasion. I hadn’t seen the link between gambling and banking before, nor the beauty of mathematical equations.

Another thriller, more forgettable, from the library pile, followed, and just when I’d read all the library books, another one came in! This was Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. I’d read a few of hers before, and found them to be fluffy, if offbeat, romances, but this one had over 700 good reviews on Amazon, so I wanted to give it a go. It’s a delightful shock, dealing as it does with the class system and the character development of  a young, small-town carer of a profoundly disabled youngish man, who has been left quadriplegic after a terrible accident. I can’t say any more than this without spoiling the plot. Let’s just say that it wasn’t what I expected, and I was so determined to get to the end that I read the last 20 pages sitting on a damp playing field just outside Gloucester, because I could not have gone to work without finishing it!

And now there’s another Moyes from the pile: Foreign Fruit, which begins in the 1950s and is therefore not as gripping to me as Me Before You, but  will do for now. I admit to ‘cheating’ and ordering yet another of Moyes’ titles, Silver Bay, from the library, which has  now arrived, but as I have campaigned hard against library closures and cutbacks in the county, I do feel it my duty as a citizen to keep using the libraries: the more branches, the better! And Gloucestershire’s  library books are free, if reserved online.

I’ll probably read Silver Bay next, (though I have just noticed, while inserting this link, that the bay in question may turn out to be a horse, and not part of the coastline, which is a disappointment) and then, when I have had enough of romance, I’ll go on to the wonderfully-named Hand Grenade Practice in Peking by Frances Wood, which is an exquisitely-bound Slightly Foxed Limited edition copy of the author’s memoir of her time as a teacher of English in Maoist China. I, too, have been a TEFL teacher,  in Greece, Finland and Czechoslovakia,  and Thatcherist England.

Meanwhile, in the audio corner, the iPod is having a rest because its case is broken and the replacement hasn’t arrived. I have The Help By Kathryn Stockett loaded, but problems have intervened: I keep taking it on the bus, only to find I have brought the empty case, or forgotten the headphones! I’ll probably grab another Michael Robotham thriller as my post-The Help listen.

The iPad has turned out to be not very useful for the daily bus commute, being heavy, at nearly two pounds, and books cannot be read nor puzzles/games played in bright sunlight. It’s more useful for the sofa, but I would not swap it for a Kindle ( are you crazy?)

My finest achievement, this month, has NOT  been the taking to a charity shop of a paltry two books, nor the return of six library books. No visitor would not enter my house and comment on how much more spacious it looks! It’s the fact that I have been to several fetes, countless charity shops, The Works, the library sale section; I’ve visited Amazon and Fetchbook on more than one occasion, and only bought one book! The way I’ve achieved this is by using the ‘Read page 99 test’. A well-known author once led a campaign to persuade readers to read page 99 as well as the first page before deciding whether they’d like the book or not. It can’t have been a very successful drive, as no one else seems to have heard of this method, but for me it can work as a powerful DISsuader! Unfortunately one can’t do this with a Kindle sample- yet.

I don’t need any more books; I am certain of this, but, just as some people hunt elephants, I hunt books. They are my insurance against loneliness, boredom, unemployment, and ill-health.  I have never stuffed or mounted any books as trophies, but I did once buy a copy of The Hobbit, for 50 pence at a knockdown charity shop, to make into hand-crafted notelets and bookmarks. Some expressed alarm at such wanton vandalism, but the recipients, all Hobbit-lovers, were amazed and appreciative.

In those carefully-crafting times,  it was not so much breaking the habit, as breaking the Hobbit.

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