When I was a kid we were forced to read for 15 minutes a day in school. The whole class sat in silence, each girl at her wooden desk and all you could hear were pages turning and the occasional cough or giggle. We all read the same book: The Cat in the Hat when I was younger, then Treasure Island, Wuthering Heights and Pierre et Jean as I got older. I hated this forced reading and spent my 15 minutes gazing out of the window at the huge oak trees in the schoolyard as they swayed in the wind. Today, I regret wasting this time at my desk because reading can be a shared activity. It brings people together in real time, whatever book they happen to be reading.
In Iceland, for example, there is a tradition, known as Jolabokaflod, or The Christmas Flood, in which family members and friends gift each other books on Christmas Eve. The rest of the evening is spent together, cozily reading those books. Last month, I decided to recreate that feeling in my own way.
It happened on a day that began very much like the opening lines from that initial book from my schooldays:
The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house.
All that cold, cold, wet day.
Except that we did not stay in the house, despite the rain lashing at the windows. Let’s go to a bookstore! I suggested brightly. My son-in-law raised his eyebrows. My two daughters shrugged their shoulders. My husband looked up from his cell phone. A bookstore?
I chose the only one I know in Ireland, Dubray Books on Grafton Street, Dublin’s posh shopping drag, close to St Stephen’s Green. I announced that I would buy everyone a book of their choice if they agreed to venture out with me on this little adventure. We bundled into coats, grabbed a couple of umbrellas and began walking to the Dart railway station, a few minutes’ walk from my eldest daughter Jasmine’s apartment block. No one was particularly enthusiastic, save for my granddaughter, Daphne, who was ecstatic to be taken on an outing. She and I stood on the platform, waiting for our train, waving to passersby and hoping they would wave back.
The idea of going to a bookstore actually occurred to me a few days earlier, when I stumbled across First Editions, a shop down a lane just off Baggot Street that sells, not surprisingly, only first editions. I paused by the book-lined window and peered in. I half-expected to see gremlins running around, arranging the books. But the shop was closed and a small notice on the door explained that it opened Wednesday — Saturday only, from noon to six p.m. Intrigued, I made a note of this and returned the next day. It was empty of customers when I arrived. A man sat at a desk, reading a copy of The Irish Times, eyeglasses perched at the end of his nose. The newspaper crackled pleasantly as he turned the pages. His name, he said, was Anthony, stressing the “th” — not Anthony with a hard “t,” not Tony. Anthony. I’m the brother-in-law of the shop owner, he explained. I asked where he was. Ah, said the man, looking down at me through his eyeglasses, he’s out on a tea break. It’s lonely work here, you know. I glanced around the shop. The books were carefully bound in plastic and many were placed behind locked glass vitrines. I browsed the books, chatted some more with Anthony, blanched at the prices and left empty-handed. I admire people who scour auctions and cross oceans but I buy books to read, not to save.
I recently completed an English translation of Israeli writer Meir Shalev’s latest book of non-fiction, My Wild Garden. In one of the chapters, he writes about his former obsession for collecting books:
“At a certain stage I discovered that I was not interested in the content of the books I procured but rather in their uniqueness: their age and rarity, and even worse — the number of books I owned and the very fact that I owned them.”
Shalev also talks about the sadness he feels when coming across stacks of books dropped off by trash cans or on street benches and wonders who these books belonged to, and who loved them. Books are bought by one person, and cast away by another.
Grafton Street was bustling with activity. The buskers were out and the rain fell down so carelessly we hardly felt it. “Perhaps we should eat lunch first?” one of my daughters suggested. But I shook my head, determined to stick to the plan. So we walked along together, navigating our way through the crowd to Dubray Books, situated about halfway up the street. Inside, separated from the bustle and hustle of the high street, a shift in tempo occurred. The bookshop was quiet and orderly; the smell of fresh crisp paper hung in the air.
We stopped being a group and each person went his and her own way. Jasmine, a naturopath who writes a blog on cooking for toddlers, headed up to the third floor to look at cookery books. My husband and son-in-law disappeared from sight and Emily, my youngest daughter, an industrial designer, went straight for the best-seller section on the ground floor. Do you have any good detective novels? I heard her asking a thin, bespectacled shop assistant. I was left with Daphne, who made a dash for the staircase that miraculously leads up to the children’s section. We climbed together, me grabbing Daphne’s arm as she wobbled dangerously up the wide wooden steps, trying to shake free of my grasp. Once up there, her hands touched everything at the level of a toddler: diaries and greeting cards, post-it notes and pots containing fragrant candles. In order to survive, bookstores have to sell a lot more than books today.
I steered Daphne toward the children’s section: pop-ups and puppets, plush bears and Peter Rabbits wedged between the bookshelves. There were lots of books I thought she might like: another book in the Peppa Pig series, The Gruffalo and, of course, The Cat in the Hat. But Daphne was interested in more transient pleasures. We stumbled back down the stairs, Daphne clutching a plastic caterpillar in one hand and a leprechaun in the other. I bumped into people browsing the shelves and I wanted to do the same. I came across my son-in-law, Isaac, clutching two books: the first was a thick gold-embossed Treasury of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (because it would be lovely to read these with Daphne) and the second Roy Jenkin’s acclaimed biography of Churchill (because he’s curious). Isaac was bashful: Sorry, he said, I couldn’t decide. His eyes were shining.
I live abroad today, and the opportunity to browse bookshops well-stocked with English-language literature is limited. I have learned to browse digitally, succumbing to Amazon’s reading recommendations based on my previous purchases. I have also learned to Google “the top 10 memoirs for 2018”, “the best female poets” or “prize-winning translations” in order to discover the next book I might like to read.
I am also accustomed to reading on a Kindle, highlighting passages that strike me as important, rather than scribbling in the margins with a pencil, as I used to do. I know where I am in each book I read on Kindle: For example, I am 45% through the book I’m reading right now, with five and a half hours to go if I continue reading at the same rate. At a glance, I can see what books I have read in the past months, and I can easily look up a quote I particularly enjoyed. I like to think that I am not only saving space in my house but am also saving trees. And, to be honest, I love the immediacy of buying a book online and receiving it immediately, even if I don’t read it right away.
I still make a point of buying actual poetry books, though. The one and only poetry book I purchased on Kindle, Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, was a crashing failure. I read it, wondering about the odd line breaks in Howe’s poems, until I visited a friend who had a print copy of the book. Leafing through the pages as my friend made coffee in the kitchen, I discovered those Kindle line breaks I had wondered about were governed by the default font and letter size. I vowed then and there never to purchase another book of poetry on Kindle. I buy poetry on Book Depository, wait for it to arrive in the post, and place it happily on one of the shelves in my home office.
But how much nicer it is to wander through a bookshop, and browse actual poetry shelves. And how nice it was for me to ask the shop assistant what her favorite book of poetry is (Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds) and who’s the most popular contemporary Irish poet (Steven James Smith). She smiled, pulled Smith’s Fear Not off the shelf and handed it to me. Take a seat, she said, read a few poems at leisure and decide for yourself.
Half an hour later, we stood together at the checkout, books in hand, curious to see what each of us had chosen. Jasmine was already flicking through the pages of her book, Deliciously Ella: The Plant Based Cookbook by Ella Mills. Emily held Aidan Truhen’s The Price You Pay and Raz carried two books, Chernobyl Prayer and The Unwomanly Face of War, both by Svetlana Alexievich. Why don’t you just buy them on Kindle? I asked Raz. Because I found them here, he said, and I want to hold the books in my hand as I read.
That evening, after Daphne fell asleep, I curled up on the couch next to Raz and Emily, Chernobyl Prayer in my lap. I wanted to read this, too. Isaac sat on the other couch, already through the first chapter on Churchill. Jasmine stood in the kitchen, book in hand, gleaning ideas for her next post. A family evening. A late dusk spread through a cloud-filled sky, and we read together until darkness fell.