Books, Books, Beautiful Books

I just saw a picture of my brother’s first grandchild, Teddy, with a pile of books entirely coverering his lap. It was part of a message from his Mum announcing that she has decided to become an Usborne sales consultant.

The picture reminded me of the important place books held in my childhood and the place they hold, thanks to me, in my daughter’s life.

When I was a small child I suffered from constant, chronic asthma. I was always missing school and my Mum often had to take me along to Uni lectures and tutorials as she juggled a sick child with study.

My family are all big readers. Mum swears I taught myself to read on summer vacation in Surfer’s Paradise almost out of boredom. Mum would buy my brother and I magazines and books to keep us occupied while she and my Dad read on the beach. My father wasn’t as big a reader as the rest of the family but on vacation he read Ian Fleming, Len Deighton and John Le Carré. I would flick through picture books and picture magazines (Treasure was my favourite, Graeme had Look & Learn that had less pictures and more text). So one vacation, when I was a little over three and a half, while flicking through Treasure on the beach I apparently managed to connect the pictures and words in “Treasure” well enough to start reading.

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Fiction For Me

Books, books, books

Books, books, books

Today’s Daily Prompt is:

When reading for fun, do you usually choose fiction or non-fiction? Do you have an idea why you prefer one over the other?

I read both, I enjoy both. I write mainly non-fiction (for some reason I just can’t manage plot) but when it comes to fun I read fiction.

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Choosing Is Hard

Choosing the Red and White Roses by Henry Payne

Choosing the Red and White Roses by Henry Payne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s Daily Prompt: “How do you pick what blogs or books to read? What’s the one thing that will get you to pick up a book or click on a link every single time?”

Picking books is a task both difficult and easy.

I find it easy to pick some books, they are the books by authors I have already read and trust to deliver something worth reading. If David Weber publishes a new book I know I will probably enjoy it. There are also older authors whose works I am slowly working through, Philip K Dick is the most common of those at the moment.

There are also times when I feel the need to go back to an old friend, when Austen, Hardy or Tolkein call to me. These are like a holiday, a rest from the work, the intellectual effort of understanding a new book.

Then it gets hard. Finding new authors to enjoy is difficult. I often lower the cost of testing the waters by having a look in a second hand bookshop. I also subscribe to the free sample edition of ‘Fantasy & Science Fiction’ magazine.

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PKD And The Three Stigmata

Cover of "Entropy Tango"

I have recently been reading some of the more esoteric books in my science fiction collection. It started because a friend gave me a copy of ‘The Entropy Tango’, one of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories. I was talking to him about rereading ‘The Final Programme’ and he gave it to me.

Unfortunately I found it a hard read and had to put it in the ‘too hard’ basket so I fell back on reading some Philip K Dick. First was a quick re-read of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ which I’d read again just a couple of years ago. Then I got onto more serious fare, ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’ (TSPE).

TSPE is a marvellous, wonderful book that concerns itself with many topics that interest me at the moment, particularly identity, reality, drug taking and addiction and even some aspects of godhood. It is a novel that rewards thought and reflection as you read. As you follow the story through the tale of Barney Mayerson (whose name is constantly confused by other characters) and the man who is his employer at the beginning of the tale, Leo Bulero, you descend into a number of rabbit holes — the question of how many and if you ever climb back out is just one of the questions I am currently thinking about as I read it for the third time in as many weeks.

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Long Live The Paperback

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

English: A Picture of a eBook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This weeks writing challenge from Daily Prompts asks “How do you prefer to read, with an eReader like a Kindle or Nook, or with an old school paperback in hand?”

I love a paperback. There is nothing nicer than browsing through a bookstore looking at all the covers, picking up the odd book and reading the back cover and inside the front cover before deciding to buy. I also love the feel of a paperback in my hand as I read.

There are also the technical advantages, a paperback doesn’t need power and you can read it in a wider range of light levels such as a sunny beach. I’ve also found a number of e-books with terrible quality control, particularly in fiction. One notable example was one of John Marsden’s novels from the “Tomorrow When The War Began” series where the publisher had obviously produced the e-book by scanning from paper and had done little if any checking of the result — it was full of errors that even a quick scan with a spelling checker would have picked up.

It’s also (currently) much easier to organise a bunch of paperbacks than e-books. I know that the bookcase in my office is the place to go for tech books and that in my lounge room one bookshelf tends to have general fiction and reference and the other has science fiction and non-fiction. When I’m browsing for a book to read that’s handy. On an eReader you can only list by author, title or date last read — they need to allow some sort of tagging or categorisation for those times when you think “I’d like to read some science fiction but I’m not sure what”.

On the other hand there are reasons that I love Kindle on my iPad. The ability when travelling to carry a lot of books in a small package is a dream for an avid reader like me. Before I had the iPad I littered the world with books that I bought cheaply and left behind as I travelled (you can even find an English language second hand bookstore in Rome and Florence if you try).

An eReader is also extremely useful for carrying technical documentation and books. Whenever I get a new gadget I always look on the web to see if I can download the manual in PDF and load it into my reader. As an IT professional I also have a number of tech books I use frequently and a number I am reading for my education and they are much easier to carry in an eReader. An eReader also makes multiple bookmarks and annotations easy and, at the same time, don’t damage the book as it does when you turn down page corners or write in the margins of a paperback.

You might think that e-books are cheaper, and for tech books they often are, but I find it surprising how often Amazon will sell you a mass market paperback of a fiction book for less than they sell you an e-book. I imagine this is because publishers offer Amazon a large margin on mass market paperbacks that allow them to discount steeply while keeping margins on e-books smaller. This is going to have to change.

I’d also like to once again raise the idea of browsing. Browsing at Amazon or in iBooks is still a much less pleasant experience than a good bookstore and the recommendation engines are terrible. When it comes to finding a new author or an interesting new book my favourite bookstore in Newtown is streets ahead of anything online. I even buy books there knowing I could get them cheaper on online just because I value the skill of the people that stock and staff the store (I’d ask you to do the same with your local bookstore).

Then there’s the question of lending, giving away and selling of my old books. I don’t often lend a book, perhaps I treasure my books too much and trust people too little, but I do it. I also give away a lot of books once I’ve read them a few times. This is what makes opportunity shops and second hand bookstores such a nice place to find inexpensive books. This is not just possible with e-books under the current licensing restrictions. Another thing that should change.

So to (finally) answer the question, when it comes to reading, apart from all the other uses I have for books such as reference and education, I prefer an old fashioned collection of dead trees. I do have to admit that for convenience an eReader is becoming much more useful and I expect I’ll be using one more and more over the next few years but I will always prefer a paperback, and I don’t think I’ll be alone.

My Paradise, My Promised Land

Today’s Daily Prompt is a great one. It asks “A genie has granted your wish to build your perfect space for reading and writing. What’s it like?”

Oh my, my perfect room for reading and writing. The luxury, the peace, the comfort, the books. I know where to start, a few years ago I saw a photo of the library in one of Sir Richard Burton’s houses. It had floor to ceiling bookshelves that were not only along one wall but came out into the room with books on both sides. In the alcoves formed by the shelves were different chairs and lounges and the opposite wall had windows to let in light.

So start there. Lots of bookshelves and I mean lots — we’re going to need more than a thousand or two of shelf feet. At the moment I have around two hundred shelf feet in this house and I’m running out of room even with the paperbacks two deep. The shelves are going to hold more than books. They are going to have interesting nick-nacks — Pez dispensers and a few memento mori of jobs, travel and people. They are also going to hold Lego models, Origami and other craft I’ve built from paper and cardboard.

Places to sit. I need at least one good quality recliner (the one I inherited from my parents would be perfect once I get it re-upholstered for the fourth time), a three seat lounge and a chaise. A bay window with a window seat would be nice. A three seat lounge in a window. Near every seat you need to have somewhere to put down a cup of coffee or a cold drink. It might be nice to have a few bookmarks on the same spot, I never seem to be able to find a bookmark.

Then a desk. It doesn’t need to be too big, for me a big desk just attracts clutter. It needs to be big enough for a 27” monitor, a couple of books, a pad, some pens and perhaps the speakers for the sound system (though there are probably other speakers elsewhere in the room). Either on one end of the desk or on a table nearby is an espresso machine, a biscuit tin and a candy barrel and tucked under the desk is a bar fridge.

The desk needs to look out a window onto something nice and green — trees or a lawn and gardens though it might be nice to have wooden venetians on the window.

The desk chair needs to have arms and the ability to tilt back. My current desk chair would be fine.

On the walls not covered by shelves are some interesting photos and prints. My print of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and my print of a pencil sketch of the Piazza San Marco are two examples. Some are certainly visible from the desk chair.

There are a number of things that aren’t in here. First and foremost is a telephone. No television, no games.

I need a way to adjust the level of the lighting easily with overhead lights, standard lamps and table lamps all with dimmers as well as blinds and curtains on all the many windows. A skylight or two would be good and I can even imagine a couple of those nooks with a stained glass window.

Finally we need that genie to stay around, a genie to keep the desk tidy and free of coffee cups, make sure the biscuit tin is full and the waste paper basket is empty — but never to move a book or a piece of paper. The genie can also keep the books straight and almost in the proper place, I like to have a little disorder when I’m looking for a book to read as it gives it an element of kismet.

That’s not just a place for reading or writing, it’s my nerd cave, my sanctuary from the world, a place of rest and writing and reading and working. My Xanadu, my stately pleasure dome, though mine would not, I hope, have caves of ice.

A Cluttered Mind

English: Black and white photograph of a shelf...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s Daily Prompt, entitled ‘Clean Slate’ asks:

Explore the room you’re in as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Pretend you know nothing. What do you see? Who is the person who lives there?

I sit in a lounge room with cluttered bookshelves DVDs and books spilling out of them. At one end if a large TV and sound system with large central speakers. The shelves contain more than books, there are Lego models, papercraft models (some of these are strange and geometric) and small tech toys. On top of one speaker is a cardboard giraffe model with a wire crank handle, next to the TV is a teddy bear wearing a Santa hat.

This is an eclectic and cluttered room, the person who lives here would seem to have a wide range of interests.

The bookshelves and the books on them attract my interest. At the bottom of one I spy a shelf that holds three dictionaries (one with a magnifying glass sitting on top of it), two atlases and two copies of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. In the same bookshelf are books on Macintosh computers, Unix and various programming languages. Further up I see Science Fiction, Penguin classics and a wide range of non-fiction. Philosophy, politics, language and the theatre seem common topics. This person is a reader, even the coffee table has several books on it with odd bits of paper and cardboard sticking out of them marking a place.

Computers obviously hold a central place in their life. As well as all the IT books I can see a MacBook Air on the coffee table plugged into a charger alongside an iPad and there is an iPhone charging on the arm of the lounge. An external hard drive and a Bluetooth keyboard are among the objects on the coffee table. Is that a Mac Mini sitting next to the TV?

Animation might be an interest; I can see toys from Toy Story, Cars and the classic Warner Brothers cartoons in various spots around the room. A look at the DVDs and Blu-Rays show the same, all the Pixar movies, some WB cartoon collections are there. A strange mix of movies and TV with a lot of BBC natural history – a David Attenborough fan.

This is a man’s room. I can imagine him as an interesting person to talk to with a wide range of thoughts and opinions and a strong interest in listening to others, those philosophy and political books. I can imagine a desire to learn, all those dictionaries. He likes to build things, the Lego and papercraft. While he’s obsessed by things, all that Lego and toys, he’s obviously not obsessed with tidiness though there is a sort of organisation to the room with different things in different areas, apart from the two bookshelves full of books where you can find a book on PHP next to a book on Shakespeare and “The Exegesis of Philip K Dick” next to Clancy’s “Patriot Games”. I think he has a cluttered but interesting mind.

Do you think you’d like him?

‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith

‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith is a difficult book to describe or characterise. It is an autobiography through the lens of a sometimes brilliant and sometimes hurtful relationship.

I could start by describing it as raw since the tale it tells is certainly a raw one. I could call it unadorned since the language is simple and unadorned. At the same time it is romantic since it is above all dedicated to Smith’s love for Robert Mapplethorpe. We could also add honest since Smith does not gild the lily and honestly tells of stealing and cheating.

Smith quickly moves through her childhood and only really gets into detail when she tells of falling pregnant, being dismissed from teacher’s college and giving up the child for adoption at the age of nineteen. Soon after she leaves New Jersey for New York, already seeking the life of an artist and immediately runs into Mapplethorpe who shows her a place to sleep and then disappears before resurfacing when they meet for the second time at the bookshop Brentano’s.

What follows is a love story, a love of the artistic life, of New York, of the times and the artists that inhabited it but most of all a love of Mapplethorpe that changed but did not decrease when they stopped as lovers and he realised his homosexuality. Nor did it seem to change as both climbed the ladder of fame and success.

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Quote of my day – Patti Smith

Picked up a copy of ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith and was immediately taken by it. The dedication and foreword were enough to get me hooked. The writing is raw, unadorned and honest. More when I have finished it in a day or so but until then this quote struck me immediately:

I vexed my teachers with my precocious reading ability paired with an inability to apply it to anything they deemed practical.

I think Patti and I must have had the same school career.

My Oasis

It’s hard to talk about my oasis, my place of calm. I don’t really have a specific place, more a state of mind.

It’s a spot where I can be comfortable and sit or lie there with a book, escape into the pages and leave the everyday world behind. It has been like that for as long as I can remember.

I’m a chronic asthmatic, have been my entire life. That meant when I was a child I spent a lot of time ill, a lot of time on my own, a lot of time amusing myself. It was then I became a more than avid reader.

45 years ago asthma was an uncontrollable disease, there were no preventative medications and not many options for symptom relief. If an attack started the best thing was to stay calm and relaxed and hope to ride it out, otherwise it was a house call from the doctor and an injection. I would retreat into a novel, relaxing and calming myself with a great story.

In the long, slow hours when I was awake at night or home from school due to the disease I needed a place of calm and serenity to make it easier on my body to shrug off an attack and to relieve the boredom and I found it in the pages of a good novel.

So my oasis isn’t a single place, when I was a child it was Africa with Dr Doolittle, England with the Secret Seven or the deck of an 18th century sailing ship with Horatio Hornblower. Now it’s just as likely to be the dystopian future of William Gibson or Southern England with Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennett.

When I open a book I am picked up and taken to another world, another time. I am entirely in the hands of the author to be charmed, scared, romanced or excited at their whim. I am so taken, so captured by my reading, that those that love me have learnt that when I’ reading it’s best to ask a question and wait a moment for my mind to come back from it’s meditation, realise I’m being asked a question and formulate a response. You’re not being ignored, it’s just that it takes a moment.

Sometimes I need my oasis to be a familiar place, I go to my shelves and pull down an old favourite that I know so well that all my responses to the book are predictable and familiar. These are the days when calm is hard to find. At other times a new adventure is what I seek. I want to explore new horizons in the infinite space of fiction.

So if you see me sitting somewhere with a book leave me be and know that physically I can be anywhere but inside my mind I am at peace, calm as I visit my oasis.

This post was inspired by the Daily Prompt Oasis.