A Good Read

I had made a mistake.

As I lay here in bed, staring down at it, I can only think that I should have known something of such impossibility would bring me to this. But when I made the discovery little over a week ago, I was far too excited to think in such rational terms. I had been foolish, addicted. I see that now. By all appearances, ‘it’ was a book. The kind you would see sitting on a desk by a box of cigars in a gentleman’s study. Red leather hardback, weighty, ambiguous. But as I soon discovered, it was a tool for the perverted kind of things nature would not allow.

I should take a step back and explain. When I first read the book – a fine story of a young amnesiac trying to find his way in the world, I loaned it to my new neighbour, Bess Waters. Bess was a pretty thing, a confident woman in her late thirties. A mathematics professor at the local University. I’ll admit to a slight crush – but nothing untoward. I had found her intimidating when she first moved in three months ago. After all, she was a lofty professor, and I was a mere semi-retired librarian. Over time, though, she seemed to warm to me and we soon became friends.

I had offered her the book to read. She took it gladly, promising to read it that week. Three days later when she returned it, she gave me a knowing wink and a devilish smile that seemed out of context for our friendship. I couldn’t quite grasp what this meant and, confused, I read the book for a second time. The moment my eyes fell upon the first sentence, the first word, my flesh bristled at the potential of what lay in my hands.

The story of the young amnesiac was gone. Instead, in those very same pages unfolded a story, told in frank and alarming detail, of a woman who was obsessed with her older, lonely neighbour. She fantasised about him when her house was dark and quiet. She struggled to sleep, ruminating on what could be between them. He was the last thing on her mind before she finally succumbed to sleep, and the first when she awoke. She was a thirty seven year old mathematics professor. He was a semi-retired librarian. Her name was Bess. His name was – well, you get the gist of it.

This book – and I hesitate to even call it that – was a sordid gateway to the mind of the person who read it before you. An ever changing account of their private thoughts, memories, secrets and urges. As you can calculate, this meant that when I gave the book to Bess, she had read an account of my thoughts and desires. This would have, no doubt, loosely translated into a story of a sad, lonely man in his late forties with a slight crush on his neighbour – on her. She wasn’t stupid. She had understood the true nature of the book. She knew that when she returned it, the book would expose her infatuation with me. And yet she had no qualms about this. I should have known this was a sign of what she was capable of. But at the time, I wasn’t alarmed, and I never anticipated what would happen.

I just dived head first into the depravity of it all and enjoyed it.

Really enjoyed it.

I read quickly, devouring the details of her fixation with me. Once finished, I loaned her the book again, hoping to learn more when it returned. I was too shy to do this in person, so I posted it through her letterbox. There was no need for a note – my intentions would be revealed in the book once she read it. She returned it the same way just a day later. The heavy clunk on my doormat as she eased it through the letterbox was the most thrilling sound I had ever heard.

That second read was mind blowing. Our communication through the book had ignited her infatuation, and now her head was filled with me, and only me. There was no room for anything else. She struggled at work, creating a series of bold fictions about the two of us in an attempt to make time away from me worthwhile. Her bedroom was next to mine, and in the evenings she pressed herself against the wall, listening for me as I retired to bed. She had powdered cement under her fingernails from where she had scratched away at the wall in a despairing attempt to get closer.

Reading of her growing infatuation in such intimate detail was like being inside both her mind and body. I felt everything she felt. Every raw emotion. Every physical sensation. Every desperate thought. I felt the aching zeal with which she wanted me, and it only made me want her in the same way. It’s sick, I know. Looking back now, I see just how sick and wrong it was to be ‘in’ someone else like that. But at the time, it was intoxicating and I just couldn’t see sense.

After that second read, I still hadn’t cottoned on to the depths I was sinking to. I just posted the book through her letterbox again, greedy for more. I don’t think I should be judged for that. After all, how often is one the focus of such intense affections, and affections by someone as beautiful as Bess Waters? Not very often, I can tell you. I speak from personal experience. Therefore I think it quite rational that I returned the book hoping for more. I was, in a sense, making up for years of romantic failure. So when she returned the book the following evening, again through the letter box, I abandoned any thought of sleep to gorge on the newly formed text.

As I slipped into her mind once again I learned how she had obtained items of my clothing from the washing line outside, spending hours inhaling the smell of my skin on their cotton. There had been fits of feverish anguish at the thought of being so far away, and she was following me, watching me, intent on closing the distance. The boundaries of her fantasies had blurred and she now believed there was something real and inevitable between us. She was impatient for our union, determined it would happen soon. Any alternative was unthinkable.

I finished reading in the early hours. Unlike the previous reads, I felt no excitement. This time it was different. She felt different – or at least, her mind did. There was a dark, final tone to her thoughts, as if she had finally achieved what she most desired. Knowing this to be me, I felt a creeping unease as I ruminated on what this actually meant.

Heavy eyed, I returned to bed and placed the book on my side table. I slept fitfully, dreaming of Bess, only she wasn’t there. I simply sensed her within a suffocating darkness, but I wasn’t sure whose darkness it was – mine or hers.

It is now the following morning, and the sun is seeping through my curtains. I found the light confusing, and I lifted my head to check the clock on my side table. It was just after 8.30am. Why hadn’t my alarm gone off? It took me a moment to register the heavy weight on my chest, and the space on the table where the book should have been. A quiet alarm crept through me as I looked down at it. The book rested across my chest, split in half, each side of the red cover sprawled over my body like angel wings.

“Bess?” I waited for an answer, but there was silence.

I lifted the book instead and saw new text on the cream pages.

My love, I’ve never been so happy. What we share is unlike anything that anyone else will ever have. Your mind belongs to me, and mine to you. How wonderful that the book has brought us together. But it’s not enough, is it? Now that we share a mind, shouldn’t we share everything else?

We were together. We shared a mind. We were to share everything.

“Shit… Bess, where are you?”

Another heavy silence, followed by the distant sound of vinyl hissing on the turntable downstairs in the living room. It sputtered for a second, before a soft melody began to drift through the house.

Throwing the book to the floor, I leapt out of bed and ran downstairs.

“Bess,” I called out. “How did you get in my house?”

I pushed open the living room door, watching for a moment as the record wobbled on the turntable. Everything else was calm, too calm. As I looked around the empty room, confused, I realised I was looking in the wrong direction. Behind me, a heavy presence swelled in the doorway.

“Bess,” I said, forcing myself to turn around. “I know you think we belong together, but you can’t just come into my house like this – ”

I stopped. The book lay on the floor by my feet, open in the middle. A single line of inky black text waited to be read.

Our house.

“Shit,” I mumbled. “I mean, yes. Yes, our house. Can you please come out? We need to talk about this.” Gritting my teeth, I stepped over the book, debating whether to turn right into the kitchen, or left to return to the stairway. If I remained downstairs I could run outside if needed. I crept forward into the kitchen, pushing forward despite the weakness in my legs, but the sound of pages fluttering behind stopped me cold. I looked over my shoulder at the book, which now lay in the kitchen doorway. It seemed to wink and smile, just like her. I snatched it from the floor, letting it fall open in my shaking hands. Another single line of text, small and petulant in the middle of the page.

Don’t you want me?

“Of course I do,” I said, desperate. “You know I do. I just want you to come out and face me.” I tucked the book under my arm and ran to the back door on the other side of the kitchen. I reached for the hook where I kept the keys, but the hook was empty.

I tried the door. Locked.

“Bess, come on now.” The book fell from my arm as I tried the door again, tugging hard on the handle. “Let’s talk. In person.”

There was no reply, except for book on the floor. It had fallen face down, and I knew there was more to come in those pages. I picked it up and continued reading.

I don’t want to talk, my love. I just want you. I just want you and I to be together. I need you. I need you to be mine. I need you to make this heart ache go away. Please, my love, take it away. Please don’t leave me with the burden of being without you. We’re so close. We’re almost there. Just a little bit closer and we can be together forever.

Oh god. This was – this was beyond me. What was I supposed to do? I tried to think, to slow my thoughts, but the world around me was fast becoming a suffocating haze of devilish smiles, winks and locked doors. The pounding of my heart was now so hard it resonated down my arms and fingers, making the book tremble in rhythmic little stops and starts.

“Bess,” I said, barely managing a whisper. “Please, where are you?”

In the living room, the turntable sputtered to a stop, leaving the air thick with silence again. I could hear fumbling with records, and shifting feet on the carpet. I forced my legs to move forward, clutching the book, bringing myself closer. It was an aching walk, but I made it. The living room door remained open, a tantalising invitation to join her, and on the other side, a shadow slipped across the carpet.

Taking a deep, shaking breath, I set the book on the floor and nudged it forward with my foot.

“Bess, of course we can be together. There’s nothing I want more. But… can’t we just talk? Please, Bess. Just come out.”

From the other side of the door, two dainty hands reached out for the book, snatching it from the floor and away from sight. I held my breath, waiting, anxious. Was she reading? Was it a trap? Why was it taking so long? Finally, I heard the book sliding across the carpet behind the door, and moments later it appeared, pushed by a single pale finger.

As I reached for the book, I had visions of her tiny hand springing out from behind the door, snatching mine and dragging me down into some violent ending. She didn’t though, and as I retrieved the book, I stared at the door beside me, feeling her impatient presence on the other side. Nervous, I fumbled with the pages until I found the new text.

I don’t understand. I saw your mind so clearly as if it were my own. You were so close to loving me. We were so close. I can’t take this, my love. It’s too much. Please, just tell me you love me. That’s all I need to hear.

I set the book on the floor, too afraid to proceed. Perhaps I should give in. Give myself over to her and burn the book so she would never know that I was choosing her out of fear. I wanted to contemplate that possibility just a little longer, but I found myself pushing the book forward again, as if I no longer held any control over my body. With my thoughts now imbued on those pages, I became paralysed with fear at the thought of what would happen next.

Once again, her delicate hand reach out for the book, and I could hear her shaky breathing on the other side of the door. A hesitant silence, and then a short, pained whimper, like a kitten falling under the wheel of a car. I heard the book snap shut, and just as before, her pale finger pushed it forward.

This is it, I thought. I stepped forward out of the door’s shadow and picked up the book, prising apart the pages. For a dizzying moment, I became mesmerised by it. The sound of the door sliding shut behind me didn’t even register until I heard the firm click of the lock.

You have chosen to reject me. How silly. There is no ‘choosing’. Do you think I chose to fall in love with you? No, I did not. You infected me and now I’m powerless. So if I don’t get to choose, then neither do you. The love I have is a screaming in my head that will continue until I have made you mine. I wish you could feel the same way I do. I wish you could feel the desperation I feel. It would make this so much easier. But, my love, there is no going back now. Not for me, and not for you. I’d rather die than live without you. And whether it is in life or in death, we will be together.

Turn around, my love.




Essay Saturday: Read Out Loud

I’m waiting for my turn to read, sitting in a large room full of people, holding their copy of the anthology. Some of them are members of the University I once attended, I spot three of my previous tutors – one of them the editor of the anthology. I’m waiting to read my story, Secondary Character to the room, among them is my mother and her two friends. The story is about my mother and grandmother. It’s semi-autobiographical. My stomach does that twisting thing, it’s beyond the battered butterflies, beyond the ocean, it’s a twist, a pull, something physical.

“Are you nervous?” My mother says. “No,” I say, “and stop asking me!” She laughs. This is the maybe the fourth time I’ve read my work to a room of people, the others being poems and stories in University anthologies. I rarely read my work out loud to anyone but myself, a lesson I learnt from my tutor, Catherine, about “letting your story sit in a drawer for a few weeks, fish it out, read it out loud, hear how it sounds it, edit it, edit it again and again and maybe send it out”.

I’ll never get used to reading aloud to people. It’s not that I get nervous, more that little parts of me itch when I read the words. I don’t worry about the words on the page, they’re my words, I know what they are, nothing to make me trip up. Even now, at the minor age of twenty-three, with a BA in English and an MA in Writing, I still struggle with words. Ever since I was a kid words, no matter how much I loved and adore them, perplexed me. Numbers too.

My mother said I was on the spectrum of dyslexia, my teacher agreed but nobody thought to test me. At school, I was in the ‘special’ class for reading, something I relished, I thought I was smarter than everyone else. I refused to have letters sit next to one another, rather writing them above so the page became a carving in the same spot. My teachers told me I had to work harder. Reading was difficult, I couldn’t say the words out loud. I knew what they meant but actually saying it was harder than it was for the other kids around me. But I loved English. I loved books. My grandfather and mother loved books, words were all around me. My mother would read to me at night and I’d have a go sometimes, sounding out the words. Somehow – I’m not really sure how – I finished primary school with a high mark in my English SAT.

When I was at University, my mother said I should go and get a test. My housemate, Dom, was dyslexic and studying Creative Writing. When I read his in-progress stories, I found that he added a multitude of different words in different sections of the story. “I can’t make my mind up, plus it helps me think,” he told me when I asked him. “It’s part of the dyslexia, the words don’t come together naturally but I have to put them down.” Unlike me, he wrote ruthlessly and hard. His drafts – no matter how many extra words were added – were always arranged very precisely. It took him hours to write a page but each sentence had its own sophisticated structure. My drafters were half-messes, mashed up ideas and sentences.

“Some of your lines don’t make sense,” Dom said after finishing one of my stories. “They’re great but you miss words out.” I knew what he meant. I did miss words out. My mind goes too fast for my fingers and the words disappear.

 

*

 

I’m sitting with my friend, recounting numbers we both remember. We find numbers difficult. Simple sums both confuse us but we both remember random selections of numbers from our pasts. “I can tell you my school number,” he tells me. “I can tell you my University log in and the phone number of my aunt.” 10021752. Nothing makes sense.

I see the beauty in numbers, the master of algebra and equations yet numbers fail me. Basic numbers. I still use my fingers and at school, when it came to Maths, I was in despair. I simply didn’t get it. “You’re either good at Maths or English,” my father said to me once, “you’ve got English.” At high school I had English in the bag but I still struggled with words, both words I knew and the new words I had never encountered before. It intrigued me, though. I felt foolish, stupider than my other classmates sometimes, but I worked it out alone.

“We’re British that way,” I say to my friend when we’re finished talking about the numbers and we’ve gone over how each of us fall on the dyslexia spectrum. “Speaking of spectrums, some of my friends say I’m on the autistic spectrum. I find people difficult.” “Me too,” he says. “Numbers and people.” “And words,” I say. “And words,” he says.

 

*

 

I’m sitting opposite Elly, the wooden table between us. We’re stoned, reading Angela Carter out loud, taking turns to recount her magical lyrical lines, her fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber: The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice, The Erl-King and The Courtship of Mr Lyon. I struggle at certain words. Part of it is my lack of vocabulary, the natural barrier of words unknown, other words, words I know, words I say on a daily basis, when presented to me in its written form, makes me stumble. “Habitually,” Elly says, softly, as if it is nothing, not drawing attention. I appreciate it.

When I read Carter’s work, I see her beauty. I imagine her banging her fingers against the keyboard of her typewriter. “Each word is perfect,” I say when we finish Wolf-Alice. “You know that she’s picked every word and used it for a purpose.” The sentences run long. I don’t usually like long sentences but the breathlessness created makes me think of the Beat poets. Her vocabulary is wide and sometimes Carter plucks strong words that I jolt, I worry about when I see it hovering at the end of the line. When I come to it, I stumble and ponder and wonder what the hell it means.

Sometimes, usually at pubs or at family events, people say to me, “Tom, you’ll know,” and they’ll assume I will. I’m the Uni boy, I have two degrees in English, I should know and sometimes I don’t. Part of it is simply not knowing and the other is this itch in my brain that won’t allow me to say it. When I sit down, under the skylight in my room, the sun coming down on my legs and feet, and I read The Guardian, I stop at words I know I’ve used before. There’s some power, I guess, some power against my mind, the power of the black letters sitting together, united, staring up at me.

 

*

 

I’m sitting on my parent’s bed. It’s night, the lamps are on. My niece, the seven-year-old inquisitive wonder, sits beside me. We’re reading The Fly and The Spider as well as Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. She can’t say the words properly but I don’t think she struggles in that way. My sister and mother tell me that she’s the top of her class. Last week she wanted to be a vet or “dog doctor” as she put it, this week it’s a dog walker. “Something with animals,” she concludes before I kiss her on the forehead and say good night.

“Uncle Tom?” she says before I walk out of the room. “Tomorrow can we read some more of James and…” She forgets the name of the book. “The Giant Peach,” I say. “Yes, we can. Not too early but tomorrow morning we will.” “OK,” she says. “Good night, Uncle Tom.” “Good night, Amelia.” I leave the door half open and walk upstairs to my room populated with books. I stand and stare at the shelf as if I’m Clare from The Time Traveller’s Wife, in my favourite scene where she stands and looks at Henry’s books. She recognises him within them. She sees his personality in his choices.

My own shelves: Homer and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Tolstoy and Moby-Dick, Tom Perotta, Lolita, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. American Psycho, the Brontes, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, The Hours and A Clockwork Orange. Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Flies, Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Larkin and Charles Dickens.

There are words within them I do not understand and words within them I have read, understood but still stagnate over. There is something to reading out loud, it is primal, native almost. Sitting around a camp fire and sharing stories is generational, it’s what makes us human but my bones and stomach won’t stop doing their quivering dance and the idea of words will not cease to terrify and astound me.




Litro Library: January 2013

These are our Twitter followers’ recommendations for January this new year. We hope you find something good in here for your reading pleasure!

You can join in on next month’s Litro Library reader recommendations too. Just tweet a photo of the book you’re currently reading and would recommend, along with a brief description, to @litromagazine with the hashtag #litrolib.




Reading the Classics on a Kindle

My favourite present this Christmas was a Kindle.

No, really. I’ve come a long way since the moment I announced, a year ago, that while some people might find a use for an e-reader, I could never be persuaded to make the move away from real books.

You know when you remember a past statement and just wish you could put it back into your mouth and swallow it for ever? Yes. That turns out to have been one of those.

I’m a serious reader. My addiction is incurable. The walls of my flat are lined with books, so many of them that they have overflowed their shelves and now stand in towering installations around the living room. It’s a weird week when I don’t read at least one book, maybe two, probably three. So I should be championing the importance of the printed word and denouncing those dangerous e-book pretenders, right? Well, that’s what I used to think.

But then, sometime during 2012, my opinion changed. Maybe it was the fact that so many of the other people speaking out in favour of print books were doing it in a way that I can only describe as embarrassing, grading to insane. First there was the (serendipitously titled) Slate article, ‘Out of Touch’, which argued that

If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. Like jellyfish or hydra polyps, they always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense.

This pretentious piece overlooks a pretty obvious fact that I couldn’t help but notice – that e-readers are actually physical objects. When you read with one, you may not be holding a sheaf of paper, but you’re still holding an item with words on it and taking those words into your brain. The same words, incidentally, as you would take in with a paper book.

Not that fanatical e-book detractors will admit that. They behave as though the act of passing precious words through an electronic device somehow makes them less valuable. Last month I went to an event at which several of the UK’s most prominent critics talked about e-books and e-readers as though a Kindle had personally come into their houses and killed their families. “They’re terrible!” cried one. “They’re ruining the country’s reading culture!” complained another. A woman in the audience nodded in agreement. She, she told the room, feared for the children who were unlucky enough to grow up using these dreadful devices. “But how many of you have one?” asked the first critic suspiciously. There was a pause, and then three quarters of the room put up their hands. After that, the discussion became much more subdued.

If even these snobs were hiding secret e-reading habits, the format must, I thought to myself, have something to it. After all, what could really be so bad about the act of e-reading? The words are the same, and it’s the words that really matter. Paper is lovely to touch, covers are beautiful to look at and there’s a special acquisitive joy about owning a physical object that any bookworm will recognise immediately, but a book is made up of words, and that’s what an e-reader offers: the chance to get to grips with those words, just in a different medium.

And what e-books lack in packaging they more than make up in additional features. Instead of just reading you can also listen to audio, watch a video or look at photographs to enhance your experience of the text. Random House’s recent A Clockwork Orange app includes interviews with critics and a scan of the original manuscript. Looking at it from this point of view, the idea of owning an e-reader suddenly seemed extremely attractive to me.

So now I’ve got one. What’s my verdict?

You may be surprised to hear it, but the words still look like words. They still go together to make stories, and those stories are just as good, or as bad, as they would have been if I’d been touching pages instead of my rather fancy leather Kindle cover. Even the technical issues I was worried about turn out not to matter: I’m surprised by how similar flicking from screen to screen feels to the physical turning the page motion I’m used to, and I realise that what I found less immersive about reading on a computer was its ability to switch between multiple procrastination methods rather than anything about the scrolling text. Reading a book on my Kindle still feels like I’m, well, reading a book. The medium alone can’t make a reading experience invalid. I haven’t ‘read’ Trilby, I’ve read it, and there’s nothing any nay-sayer can do that’ll convince me otherwise.

Has my Kindle put me off physical books? Since I went out last week and bought seven newly-released paperbacks, I don’t think so. On the contrary, it’s given me access to an additional treasure trove of out-of-copyright, and therefore free, classics. As a fan of eighteenth century and Victorian literature, this is a huge attraction: my e-reader has given me the ability to get my hands on books that (aside from fortuitous discoveries in second-hand bookshops) simply don’t exist for me to buy in physical format.

Then there’s the weight issue: I can read Little Dorritt on the train without putting out my shoulder trying to haul a physical copy of it around in my bag. And if I find a title that I fall in love with and know that I want to read again and again in future – well, I’ll buy a beautiful physical copy to keep on my shelf. Conversely, I no longer have to worry about wearing out my favourite copy of an old and much-loved novel. Instead, I’ll just buy the e-version so I can read it on holiday while it’s still sitting safely on its shelf – the literary equivalent of having my cake and eating it too.

Of course, I need to point out that the e-book is not a trouble-free product. There are e-book detractors – and these are the ones that I do listen to – who point out their concerns about low pricing models. They also (with good reason) remind digital fanatics that the current e-book licensing method means that readers do not own the e-books that they buy. They are merely renting them from the distributor, a rental that can be brought to an end at the distributor’s discretion.

But are those things enough to damn e-books and e-readers? Of course not. And are people who predict the paper book’s demise correct? I don’t think so either. E-books are not paper book replacements, nor are they really being marketed as such. They should be seen as a handy alternative, a useful add-on that’s more likely to improve and expand reading culture rather than kill it off. E-books can do things that print books can’t, and vice versa – but what stays the same, no matter the medium, are the words themselves. And aren’t those words what we’re all here for?




Let the Seasons Dictate Your Reading

This week, as the weather started to actually reflect the season we are in, I found myself cycling to work to the wonderfully fun sounds of The Go! Team.

The seasons always have an impact on what I listen to. As soon as the sun comes out, I trade Cat Power, Modest Mouse and Bright Eyes for American Football and The Wooden Birds. I never make these shifts consciously, they just happen. It seems natural that I should want to  consume all things light, frivolous and exciting that fit in with the raised spirits that summer brings.

In the last few weeks, I have also noticed a battle between my wintry and springtime self, while reading. I started reading The Joke by Milan Kundera, a novelist I very much admire. I’m currently about halfway through the book, and have been stuck at the same page for a number of days (I usually read a 250-page book in a week or two). While I really like the story so far, the composition and, well, everything about the book, I can’t bring myself to read any more. I can’t focus. It’s irritating.

The other day I was chatting to my friend, a bookseller, about the big Russian books we both still had to get around to reading and I told him about my struggle. He mentioned that, although there are a few books he really wants to get on with, he can’t read Russian literature at any time other than in winter. The tone, style and subject matter of many Russian books feel incongruous to the hot, happy summertime. Perhaps this is the root of my struggle with The Joke.

When I started the novel we were still wallowing in what felt like a prolonged winter, or at least an underwhelming spring, but for the past week the sun has felt like it’s gearing up to explode. The warm air, the smell of BBQs and sounds of children playing all around me couldn’t prepare my brain for a world of corruption and prisoner camps in communist Czech Republic. I needed something more uplifting.

So I went to a bookshop and bought Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tale so curious and whimsical that, sure enough, my desire to read returned.




I don’t like the smell of the digital page

A couple of weeks ago I received the latest issue of the magazine of the Society of Young Publishers and there, almost at the end, I found an article on the joys and sorrows of ebook readers. I have to admit, I had been thinking of buying one for a couple of months, but I just couldn’t make a decision. There were at least ten different devices on the market, all with different features: touch, no touch, color or simple ink, one that would allow me to be able to pay my rent or one that would let me call my mom for an emergency cash injection. I was in a digital limbo.

Then my father called me and said he was coming to London for work, and could he stay at my place?

So he arrived on a rainy Tuesday and we went for dinner at a nice restaurant with Wi-Fi, and there I saw it: The Tablet. To make a long story short I persuaded him I would borrow it just for the week he would be in town. Finally, there I was, with a chance to enter the digital era and save my bookshelves from cracking. I downloaded every free ebook I could find and started reading Wuthering Heights. I hope Bronte’’s ghost will not haunt me forever if I say that I had never read it before.

I read about 10 pages and I loved it, but I just couldn’t continue. I was confused. There in my bed with my tea on my side, there were no pages, nothing that my brain could make sense of. Okay, maybe it’s just me. I am a bit of a control freak but I need to know I am not missing pages (I know this probably sounds mad), and I found myself looking at the page numbers every two seconds. I ended up just going through the whole book to be sure that I downloaded it correctly and that I would not find myself at midnight trying to rob a bookshop here in Stratford because I have to finish the book and I can’t download a good copy.

It was an unsettling experience. I missed the spilling of my tea all over my books because I can’t keep the book open with just one hand and my cup won’t stay in equilibrium on my legs. I missed the smell that new books have and the way I don’t have to worry about throwing them on the armchair because it could break.

In the end, I kept the Tablet hostage. I’m not sure my dad will see it any time soon. I mean, it was the first book I ever read digitally and I ought to give it another go. What book lover would I be if I ignored this big chunk of the market? What if in 20 years printed books are rare and there are no bookshops to rob if I don’t like to read on an eReader?

So I am going to go finish Wuthering Heights now, paper version with tea stains on its lovely perfumed cover. There will be time to get used to the digital copies – at least, I hope.




Genre Games

If you’re a regular user of your local library – that is, if you’re lucky enough still to have one – you’ll be familiar with the way the libraries categorise books for adults. If it’s anything like my fine county, Essex, their libraries separate the fiction from the non-fiction, with biography, probably appropriately in some cases, occupying a no-man’s land between the two. If you’re into non-fiction, then providing that you know your Dewey decimal classification system and can find the relevant shelves for The Technology of Biscuits, Crackers and Cookies by Duncan Manley (DDC 664.7525) as opposed to The Great Big Cookie Book by Hilaire Walden (DDC 641.8654), then you’re laughing.

It’s fiction that I find a little trickier. Years ago, I’m reliably informed by older relatives, fiction was all alphabetical. Daunting, perhaps, in a large library but you knew where to look. These days, fiction is subdivided into about a dozen categories, with its own coloured symbol on the spine of each book (red heart for Romance, devil for Horror etc.). In other words, you have to know more than just the author’s name to be able to find the book on the shelf. If you’re looking for Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks then try the Modern Fiction category. If you’re looking for The Mallen Streak by Catherine Cookson then try the Saga category. You would be correct in both cases. But try looking in either for The Founding by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, who has written 33 other books to date about the Morland Dynasty, definitely a saga, and you’ll find that in the Historical Fiction category (with a white castle tower on the book’s spine). Write about living in Roman times if you must (still Historical Fiction) but whatever you do, don’t investigate any wrongdoing. If you do, you’ll find yourself in Crime (black handcuffs on a blue background), along with Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis, one of the many excellent books in the Marcus Didius Falco series. Similarly, Patrick O’Brian, author of more than 20 classic books set sailing the seas in the Napoleonic Wars and after, such as Master and Commander and The Fortune of War can be found not in Historical Fiction but in the Adventure category (little stick man running with gold background). I’m sure there’s a set of rules somewhere and, anyway, the exercise running around the library is probably good for me.

With library fiction categorised in this way, I find it also gives a clue to the changing habits of the reading public. Over the years, Crime seems to have expanded considerably, perhaps because of the popularity of the many TV detectives (Wexford, Morse, Dalziel etc.) but also because of the high quality of much of the writing. Fantasy (blue unicorn on the spine) also seems to have expanded its shelf allocation, again probably because of the film and TV success of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones but also because the books themselves usually weigh in at more than 1000 pages. Certainly in Essex, they seem to have won this space at the expense of Science Fiction (letters SF on pink background) but I’m sure the aliens will fight back at some stage.

Finally, a few words for the most embattled category of all – Western (cowboy hat and gun on bright yellow background). Every year, the shelf space shrinks for this category and worse, is often placed in an obscure and rarely visited part of the library, near the service lift. The days when books such as Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey filled shelves in the library may be over. I’ll admit now that I’m not a great reader of Western novels, perhaps not being of that generation when Western films dominated cinema schedules. But recently, I have read one or two books in the genre, admittedly after seeing an entertaining film that made me want to search out the book. But, here again, the library confused me. Following some admiration of Brad Pitt in the film of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I looked for the book, written by Ron Hansen, and found it not in Western but in Modern Fiction. Appaloosa by Robert B Parker is in Historical. Is this a conspiracy against the poor old Western category? I think I’m going to fight back and, in the spirit of High Noon, increase the borrowings of Western books from Essex libraries single-handed. I don’t expect you to join me. But looking at the offerings on the library shelves last week, how could anyone possible resist the books, regardless of content, when written by authors with names such as Skeeter Dodds, Curt Longbow and Colt Mahone?

Briony Wickes




Best of the Best

Despite very rarely winning anything, I am a competitive person. Although my days of playing team sports at school are now a distant memory, rather than mellowing with age, my competitive side has only got worse and I’ve found myself focussing all my competing instincts on academic pursuits. I’ll admit it: I like to be on the winning team in debates, get the best marks in essays and even come top of the class in the end of term Christmas quiz. So when I saw a Facebook ‘app’ challenging me to see how many books I had read from the BBC’s ‘Big Read Top 100’ list and test my self-imposed label as a bookworm, I was intrigued. I had to give it a go.

I got mixed results – although I had beaten the average of 6, I had only read 39 out of 100 ‘must-reads’, trounced by some of my classmates who had posted their own totals to compare with mine. Rather than reaffirming my love of literature, the list left me feeling a little inadequate. And at the risk of sounding like a sore loser, I couldn’t help but disagree with some of the books that had made the Top 100. Meg Cabot’s ‘The Princess Diaries’ made the grade but E.M. Forster didn’t? Of course, it’s only my personal opinion but I was baffled by some of the choices in the top 100, as well as a little confused by the point of the actual list itself. Should we rate our favourite books and, if we should, how do you go about ranking them?

Literature has been ranked and listed for decades. Anyone who has studied English at secondary school will be aware of the existence of a literary canon, the great books that have shaped the way we read and write today and made their indelible mark on our culture. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Formalist critics were very keen to evaluate the worth of texts and rank them in order of greatness. Although slight changes have been made over time, the literary canon still stands strong and dictates a lot of what we read, watch and learn today. It probably always will, although some campaign for its abandonment.

The ‘Big Read’ list, on the other hand, is ranked by popularity.  Launched in 2003, the goal was always to find the nation’s best-loved book. Whereas the canon was chosen by intellectuals steeped in high culture, the BBC threw their ‘Big Read’ list open to the public, asking people to vote for their favourite book through SMS texting and the Web. You can see the results here. The public vote certainly does make this list more democratic than others but popularity doesn’t necessarily mean quality writing. The Guardian have gone one step further and created a ‘100 Best Books of All Time’ list, crowning Hans Christian Andersen’s  ‘Complete Fairy Tales and Stories’ the ultimate worthwhile read. Worse still, are the lists that claim you should read certain books BEFORE YOU DIE. Lists like these seem almost more akin to the Ten Commandments than a useful directory of friendly recommendations. Surely, reading ought to be a pleasurable pastime but by adding the concept of our own mortality, these lists create an uneasy pressure to complete all the books or face an afterlife of regret and bitter failure. The MLA’s ‘List of 30 Books Every Adult Must Read Before They Die’ is at least do-able, but the 1001 books variety is just plain depressing for the completist.

It brings me back to questioning what the point is of all these lists? Are they useful? Some would argue that lists like these direct you to new books and help you sift the wheat from the chaff. They give new readers, unsure of where to begin, a starting point. Even the ‘Read Before You Die’ lists give people a challenge or a goal to focus on. I can certainly understand why people would turn to these lists for direction but to me, all these lists do is create feelings of inadequacy. After looking at them, I feel ashamed that I haven’t read more than half of the books from the Top 100 and even guilty for picking up the latest Charlaine Harris book for my holiday reading, instead one of the chosen few. Many of us aren’t in school any more, no-one ought to tell us what we can and can’t read. How can you truly enjoy a book if you are forcing yourself to read it? For me, ‘lists of bests’ can be fun, some can even be useful but I would advise against following them to the letter: sometimes, it’s best just to leave the lists and keep an open mind.

Briony Wickes




Apprenticeship: Part One

I was asked to look after a friend’s house for a couple of months. He lived in Cambridge, a city I had never been to, and he had a garden full of vegetables that needed harvesting. I had been reading a biography of Hemingway, a writer I was obsessed with at the time, and had heard the term ‘apprenticeship’ used to describe his years in Paris. I was at the end of my first year of university and had nothing else to do so I decided to look at a brief relocation and a garden full of vegetables as an opportunity to begin, in earnest, my own apprenticeship.

I packed a suitcase full of clothes and paperbacks, enough notebooks to last the summer, my typewriter and an old bicycle and headed up to Cambridge. I had whole days with nothing to do but sit and write and read. A few days in, I had a system. I would get up and write for two hours, then cycle into town to walk around, go shopping, drink tea and read then head back to the house to write until my girlfriend returned from work. It was a good system and it made me quite prolific; I averaged one story written, one edited and about 20 pages of notes each day.

I used to write full stories in one sitting but after a few weeks of nothing but time, and enough brain space to cope with it, I found I was composing several stories in my head all at once. So I began writing them all at once, in fragments as they came to me, a process that has served me well ever since that summer. I wrote stories about young girls and old married couples and teenaged boys who thought they were cooler than they were. All of these stories had sprung from little observations I would witness in my hours walking around Cambridge.

The main story of the summer however came from an observation I made before I left for Cambridge. Someone had left some water in the bath and there was a moth floating in it. That simple, slightly sad, sight started a story about a little girl finding a moth in the bath and, thinking it was swimming, watches it die. The story follows the father’s reaction to his distressed daughter and the two of them organise a burial for the moth, which in turn causes the father to remember his own father’s funeral.

After finding the moth myself, I had begun noting down some ideas about a girl finding a dead moth and being sad, but it was in the time and space once at Cambridge that this story evolved into the one above. With this story in particular I also honed my method for writing that accompanied my fragmented approach. I began writing and rewriting each sentence or paragraph until I was happy with it, independently from the rest of the story; sometimes it would be right first time, others it would take up to 30 rewrites.

I spent about three weeks working on the moth story, moving phrases and changing words only to change them back again.  Once it was finished I sent it off to a magazine and waited…




Putting Pen to Paper

The first stories I tried to write and the book that started it all: continuing the brief history that foretells the work I am currently writing.

One night I couldn’t sleep, I wrote three stories. One long, one short and one vignette, though I didn’t know that was what they were until much later. Much later I also realised that at the time of writing them, I knew nothing about writing. The key to this realisation was in the endings, which also ties into the book that made me want to write seriously; Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts. The basic point is that I had no idea how to end a story without killing all or at least one of the characters involved.

The first of the stories I wrote was about a young boy finally telling a girl he’s known all his life that he loves her. They go out for a drive and crash and the girl dies. The second was about a boy who stumbled upon an old man who gave him lots of wisdom and then proceeded to die on a park bench. I tried to stop killing but whenever I did the story felt unfinished.

A few weeks later, my girlfriend’s little sister had heard that I was trying to write short stories and gave me Carver’s Short Cuts. I read the book pretty quickly and was immediately struck by the wonderful nature to the writing. It was honest, simple, realistic and overall thoroughly entertaining. The thing that really made an impression during my first collision with Carver though, was that stories can end without death or severe maiming.

Carver’s stories are magnificent and reading them instantly made me think about writing differently. I initially thought that stories would have to contain all the information a reader could want including back story and internal emotions like something out of Proust. But Carver taught me that stories can actually have little in the way of detail and still be just as absorbing; it is the holes he leaves that allow the reader’s imagination to seep in and when that happens you invariably get sucked in.

After reading Short Cuts, I went out and bought as much Carver as I could find and I began writing stories without endings, sometimes without beginnings too. Admittedly they weren’t that much better overall but I had made a change and a few months later I started my apprenticeship; a summer of nothing but reading and writing, during which I wrote my first published stories.




To Write, First One Must Read

I’ve written a few blogs before in recent years on different topics and the thing I’ve always found difficult is starting it off. Do I do the whole, ‘Hello reader, I’m going to talk about…’ thing or do I just start it and hope my readers don’t feel like I’m being rude by not addressing them? I can never decide, so this time all I’m going to say is: This is a blog series about being a modern writer, by a modern writer. I’m currently writing a collection of short stories and I’m going to start at the beginning.

To write, first one must read.

I never really read much as a child. I only started reading because of boredom. I was 18 and working in an off licence in which no one ever shopped. I’d spend most of the time sitting on a wonky stool staring out the window from over the desk, hoping for someone to come and break the monotony. Some of my co-workers did their college work, some did origami and one or two read. Inspired, I went to town before one particularly long shift and I picked up the cheapest book I could find and threw it in my bag for work.

To write, first one must read.

At work I started reading what turned out to be The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It was wonderful and remains a favourite to this day, but looking back it seems Kundera did far more than entertain me for a few shifts; he started my literary education.

A few pages in, I stumbled on some words I didn’t know. I was worried that I had picked utterly the wrong book but I persevered. I kept a little piece of paper as a bookmark and systematically noted down any words I didn’t know in order to learn them. The paper filled up pretty quick with words I now scold myself for not having known; words like ‘semantic’ and ‘quandary’ and ‘irreparable.’ I’d go home and look up the words and write down their definition. After a little while they began to catch. I found I would start using words like ‘assimilate’ and ‘supplant’ in my everyday speech. The more I read, the better my vocabulary became.

When I first started reading I had no aspirations to become a writer, I was simply passing the time and appreciating the words and the worlds sculpted from them.  However, years later when I started writing, I was given a piece of advice that many writers have either given or received: to be a good writer, you must be a good reader. After that I stepped up my literary education. I started reading slower, taking in all of the detail, and tried to observe and understand the construction behind the architecture of the stories. My reading turned to study.

Looking back through my old notebooks now they are littered with words I needed to learn alongside my own writing as I spent hours reading and writing, emulating the writers I loved, trying to find the way I liked to write. I can track what books I was reading by the style and sentence structure of what I was writing at the time. With every book I read my style changed as the great writers I was reading influenced me.

There was one book that had more influence on me than any of the others, the book that made me want to take being a writer seriously. That book was Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts and it is a different story…

Alex Thornber




Reading On The Train

“Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction,” says David Ulin in The Lost Art of Reading. So, I do resist (eventually) but at what cost?

From Dalston to Waterloo I have 40 minutes and an old book I grabbed on the way out. It’s not a long journey. It’s not even a complicated one: three changes and plenty of time.

In an empty carriage to Canada Water (because it’s 3:45pm on a hot Saturday afternoon); I ignore the book in my bag for an out-of-date Metro from the next seat, then consume it like a McDonalds – as if it’s going to get cold and congeal – and realise that I have no idea what I’ve just read. The stories don’t resonate. Not even Nemi (Metro’s cartoon strip) on the back pages sits for long in my memory bank. But it stands between me and the book, in the same way the internet is now thrumming behind this half-typed page, whirring away to be opened. Eventually the book, A Multitude of Sins by the American writer Richard Ford, gets its turn. On the front cover one man stands in a blur that is Grand Central Station. I soon realise that I’ve read all of these stories, except the second half of the last: ‘The Abyss’.

The train hunkers through East London. Before I know it I’m at Canada Water. It’s 4pm, but there’s plenty of time. So I read from where I left off years ago, riding the escalator down to the Jubilee Line. An illicit affair between two people at a conference in Arizona has suddenly taken a wild turn. The pair rent a car and, despite their reservations about each other, all that they risk, and what the hell they’re doing, they speed off for a romantic break to the Grand Canyon. It’s an overlapping of his and her POV. She thinks he’s arrogant, oafish and boring. Her enthusiasm for the vastness of the landscape suffocates his. Five hours into the trip and her voice is that of birdsong on a sketchy winter morning. As soon as they hit the road, away from the ‘illicitness’ their work environment defined, sexiness disintegrates to a sordid layover in a motel en-route and then… where am I? On a now crowded train at Bermondsey. One more stop and the pair, frazzled, irritated and bored of each other, reach the Grand Canyon.

I get off at London Bridge, with 15 minutes until I meet my work partner, Steven. So I head out of the station into the sun. The London Dungeon guys, covered in fake blood, try and spook me as I find a spot away from the tourists. But I’m taken. The couple are at the canyon. Each desperate to define the wonderment they feel so individually. She takes photos. Hands buried in his pockets, he scuffs the dry earth, longing for his wife.

“Take a photo of me!” she cries. Reluctantly, he takes the camera as she larks around in front of him.

“Just a bit closer,” she squeals, stepping over the safety barrier. “Look at me!” He sees her, star-shaped for the photo. Aligning his right eye with the view finder, there is an “Oh my!”

Fully aligned now, but he can’t find his subject. He moves the camera around the space, frowns, she’s not there – only the drop of the cliff edge and the crevice of the void. Dropping the camera, he walks to where she stood, steps over the safety barrier and looks into the canyon. 100 feet below, and her broken body lies in the top branches of a tree.

What? It’s 4:30pm. If I don’t run to the foyer I’m going to be late. But where is it? Everything looks different.

“Where’s the main train station?” I yell at a man in a fluorescent jacket as I run past.

“The consort is straight ahead.”

I sprint to the consort. It’s smaller than I remember, mostly under construction and screened off by bright orange netting. A few upbeat station attendants stand at the gates to the platforms.

“Is this the main station?” I puff.

“This is it!” the guy says, twinkling in amusement.

“Really?” I look around – nothing but screens of orange and a Cafe Nero.

“But, I’m supposed to be meeting someone under the ‘big clock’.”

He roars with laughter. “You’ve been watching too many films!”

“We’re catching the 4:50 train! Is there a clock at this station?”

“You must be thinking of Liverpool Street, love.” He now frowns.

“No, Waterloo.”

Digesting this, his eyes well up, the laughter roars out again. “Waterloo? This is London Bridge!” He splutters. “Del Boy met his wife under the clock at Waterloo!”

“We are a culture that seems unable to concentrate, to pursue a line of thought or tolerate a conflicting point of view,” says Ulin. Well, what if you can concentrate – just not on the right thing? In being so ready and willing to disengage from the plentiful distractions around me, I lose sight of B and am lost before my final destination.

At 4:46pm, an angry Steven is still standing beneath the clock at Waterloo. We make the train, but when I reach down to find the book – it has gone.

And the unfinished narrative has been distracting me ever since. Wondering what that man did after seeing his mistress dead on top of a tree caused me to take the wrong branch of the northern line to work this morning, which in turn stressed out a heavily pregnant woman and thirteen people in a BBC meeting. I wish I could just completely disengage from reality and submerge myself in a fictitious world but that would leave me as the figure on the front of Ford’s book – in a daze, at the wrong station, with the real world shooting past. But maybe that’s just what happens every time you read a good story.




If you love your books, let them go

One day on a bus home from my sixth form college, I found a book underneath my seat. White, gold-edged, and claiming to ensure that your chosen man falls head over heels in love with you, this book was titled The Rules: Time Tested Secrets For Capturing the Heart of Mr Right. Scrawled on a pink post-it stuck on the cover were the intriguing words: Free book. Look inside for details. www.bookscrossing.com.

Now, with advice like “Don’t leave the house without wearing makeup. Put lipstick on even when you go jogging!” and “If you have a bad nose, get a nose job”, I’m not sure this book has been especially useful. In fact, it probably filled the head of my 17 year old self with some very questionable notions. Even now, the feminist in me wants to cry when I read phrases such as “Men like women who are neat and clean… why not please them?” and “Wear black sheer stockings and hike up your skirt to entice the opposite sex” (some classic advice there!) but I like the concept. Somewhere out there is a person who has been affected by this book. Maybe (though I doubt it), they’ve even found “Mr Right” because of it, and with the help of BookCrossing they have been able to share the book they love with others.

This, alongside March’s World Book Night, where the tagline was ‘Do you love a book so much you want everyone to read it?’, got me thinking. Some people believe that there is nothing sadder than a book that will never be read again. They think that we should rehome our read books rather than leaving them sat lonely and dejected on our book shelves. I, however, have to disagree. As a rule, on the odd occasion that I actually love a book, I’m strangely possessive over it. When I love a book, rather than sharing the literary joy, I take pleasure in adding it to my ever-growing collection. However, after visiting BookCrossing’s website, I’ve started to change my mind. With the inspired tagline ‘Welcome to the world’s library’ their website has got me in a sharing and caring frame of mind. So I’ve picked a book that I know in my heart of hearts I will never read again, I’ve printed off a BookCrossing label, and I’m going to let go. Tomorrow I’m going to release my book into the world of book sharing and leave it on a train.

All you have to do to join me and start sharing your favourite books is visit the BookCrossing website. You can set up an account for free, print off labels (you can even personalise them with photos of your beaming face if you like) and start releasing your books out into the wild. Share a well worn book, an old favourite, or maybe one that you think other people could appreciate more than you. With BookCrossing’s website you can track how far your books have travelled, who is reading them and whether or not they are enjoying them.

If you love your books… it’s time to let them go. Happy sharing!

Ellie Walker-Arnott