When it comes to the argument about eBooks or the real thing, I’m a straight down the middle kinda guy. I wouldn’t be without my Amazon Fire, stacked with more books than any person – even a trained librarian – can carry. All my regular reading, be it fiction or non-fiction, is on Kindle (Chris Difford’s autobiography my present tome).
I was in at the cutting edge of eBooks too. Or at least I tried to be. Back in the late nineties I bought a Rocket eBook reader from Noble and Barnes in the States but when it arrived it was the low memory version for export markets and not the top of the range reader I expected. A long transatlantic email battle ensued before I got my money back. Then five minutes later the world was flooded with eBook readers and I’ve been a Kindle man ever since.
However, there are occasions when only the real thing will do. Particularly books that rely on illustrations (A couple of excellent, recent books on Great Yarmouth’s town wall spring to mind). I was going to say any vintage book should be paper-based too but actually, that wouldn’t be true. I spend a lot of time at archive.org where thousands of ancient, hoary old reference books have been digitised and saved for eternity (well as long as the format can be read) and can be accessed for free. This is the online equivalent of a well-stocked reference library, fully searchable thanks to the OCR process, and fully accessible from the comfort of your own study.
Behind me in the study though are shelves groaning with books, my two main collections (obsessions) being Toc H and Norfolk. I also have a reasonable London assemblage particularly volumes dealing with underground London. There’s a fairly impressive lesbian literature section and a scrum of travel books mostly relating to places either Hazel or I have been together or separately. My rock book collection, which once filled an entire wall of my bedroom, is now severely depleted and I retain only the rarest or most personally precious digests. And, yes, that does mean the one’s with my own name emblazoned on them as my ego is in need of massage as much as the next man’s.
I’ll be honest with you though, apart from books which I have written or contributed too, I don’t often find myself emotionally attached to individual titles. Notable exceptions would be my copy the Big Blue book, the AA bible, signed by all those I was in rehab with. And I wouldn’t have minded keeping the copy of the hand-written and illustrated George Harrison lyrics book thing I once reviewed. I daren’t even Google how much it would be worth. But generally, it’s what’s between the covers that I prize. And that’s why, in most circumstances, I care not whether it is digital ink or the real thing.
I was brought up in a household where reading books was the norm. Well, my for mum, nan and sister anyway. Dad was more of a magazine man (The Hertfordshire Countryside, Photographic magazines etc). I was enrolled in the library as soon as I could read. Back then it was a little hut on Cuffley Hill that had been the estate office when all the houses in that area were built. I remember the children’s section was in small raised bit at the back. In those days my chosen reading materials were Thomas the Tank Engine and Dr Seuss, the latter at least partly explaining my later obsession with surreal humour.
By the time the library had grown up and moved to its current location, so had I. Now my taste in literature meant I was always trying the find the dirty bits in Confessions of a Taxi Driver, or working my way through the Nick Carter series (A kind of adult James Bond). But I denigrate myself unfairly because titivation was just one motivation. I normally had four books borrowed from the library at all times (When they put the allowance up to six at a time I was ecstatic). I read anything and everything.
It wasn’t just the library either. Mum belonged to the Companion Book Club and every month we got a new book come through the post. These filled the hall, and eventually the loft, and the range of authors was as broad as it was long. Through these books I discovered authors who remain favourites with me today: Victor Canning, Alistair MacLean, and Neville Shute to name but three.
And what of classic literature. I’m sure I have regaled you previously with tales of my battles with Miss Mitchell as we dissected works of art. I much preferred to read and enjoy than try to impart meaning on the author’s behalf. It did mean though, that we looked at some of the classics, if you regard Shakespeare, Dickens, and John Wyndham as classics. Me, I’ve also thought Shakespeare a little overrated – good stories but drowned in flowery prose; Dickens is OK but Wyndham’s work is best interpreted on screen (At least one of my good friends has just fainted on reading this paragraph).
Classics for me were those that my rock’n’roll heroes used to reference so I was reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On The Road, and Absolute Beginners (And the even better City of Spades). Also Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby but we should talk about what the hippies were doing to their scrotums in a separate blog!
I also tried Ulysses. Forty years later I have still not got past page 32 despite numerous attempts. It was this experience that made me decide life is too short to try and read books just because one feels one ought too. Thus Catch 22, Of Mice And Men, The Great Gatsby, and Moby Dick remain as unread as Ulysses and I won’t lose any sleep over that.
So as I end my own writings, I ought to try and leave you with an all-time favourite. It’s difficult because books, like music and art, are mood dependent. Some days only a Chris Ryan or Clive Cussler will cut the mustard whilst on other days an autobiography of someone in at the birth of punk is what floats my boat. However, if you pressurise me to make a choice then I’ll have to go with one I’ve read a dozen times or more. If I were a producer or director I’d have made a film of it years ago. Indeed the film rights were sold to Warner Brothers for $1m way back in the early seventies and yet it remains unfilmed. We are talking about James Michener’s The Drifters, an epic journey through the lives of six diverse young people travelling through Europe and Africa during the hippie era. Each has their own reason for being there and……well, read it for yourself. And it doesn’t matter if you download it for your Kindle, buy the book from an online retailer or a high street shop, or borrow it from a library or a mate. It’s what’s between the pages that matters!