Writing about reading…

by Jim Caryl

READING about writing has been a pass time for some time, but writing about reading is a first. Those who know me know that I am a passionate reader; I’ll read from an eclectic range of genres, though of course I have my favourites. But I don’t really want to write about what I read, rather, I’d like to write about how I read.

My entire life, well, teenage onwards, I have carried a rucksack or satchel wherever I go. In this bag I always have certain essentials: a notebook, pens, journals, papers and a book (or two). More recently I also carry an iTouch and mactop, and perhaps more bizarrely, a torch and a whole array of iPod, camera and mic adaptor cables. You see, on the one hand I love technology; I am an unashamed technocrat, though perhaps less so than the eminent Stephen Fry. On the other, I lament the loss of handwriting, and very much enjoy putting pen to paper, hence the notebook. One thing I can never be without, however, is some reading material.

I almost always have more reading material than I would ever have time to duly read and digest, but carry it none the less, hoping I may just absorb the material by prolonged contact. This is certainly nothing unusual, most academics and students I know have been guilty of carrying papers around for weeks, without ever actually doing more than skimming them.

Books though, what a slave to them I am, and what guilt they engender by the mere fact that I haven’t read all of them yet! The process of preparing to read a book is described quite nicely in a recent article by Mandy Brown at A List Apart; the article is not exclusively about this subject, being more to do with the process of presenting web writing in an accessible and readable manner, but she none the less echoes any sentiments I could offer:

Think of your first encounter with a book. You look at the cover to get a sense of it, then perhaps flip to the back or the flaps to skim the publisher’s copy. Opening the book, you might glance at the title page, or quickly run your eyes over the table of contents. Maybe you peek into the back to check the page count, or casually assess the weight of the book in your hand. If it’s a hardcover, you might take the dust jacket off, lest it get in the way.

Most readers engage in at least one and usually several of these behaviors—they’re a kind of pre-reading ritual, part of the culture of books. And yet they serve an important purpose as well, in that they ease the transition between looking and reading. They help the reader establish interest, and they serve as an invitation to reading, setting the stage for the act that follows.

I spend a lot of time looking, holding and admiring books. People say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”; I’m not sure which people, but people say this. Now I don’t think anyone would say that a book is crap based solely on how it looks, but they’ll certainly pass it by. Time is so limited now, so precious. If we’re going to invest our much prized spare time by reading the labour of one author, amongst so many others, then there has to be a draw. In the absence of the Times Literary Supplement, New York Book Review or some other trusted review of current literature, how else do we pick out books if not by them grabbing our eyes?

Any of the covers that I’m using to liberally decorate this blog would be enough to draw me from one side of the bookshop to the other. Now I know many of these authors, so there’s a good chance I’ll enjoy one of their books, but when you’re a book buyer like me, rather than a book renter, I also see the book for the excellent examples of cover art that they are. To gorge your eyes on excellent cover art, take a look at Covers, a website devoted to the subject (bookworms beware).

Beyond the cover art, properties such as the quality of binding and copy paper, sharpness of print, use of interesting serified fonts and typography are not lost on me, I appreciate all the efforts of quality publishers. One publisher with whom I’ve been impressed is the Twisted Spoon Press, based in Prague; they do english translations of noteable Czech and Eastern European authors. I managed to get a hands-on appreciation of a selection of their publishings in a bookshop in Prague at New Year; they’re the kind of quality bindings that anyone would want on their shelves, and with prints of authors such as Bohumil Hrabal you know they’ll be a good read.

I’m currently sitting on a stack of books, thus I am continually surprised to find myself in bookshops as often as I do, following my ritual order of visiting the each section and checking certain authors; I feel like a Bee on its daily horticultural expedition. I will walk around the bookshop with an increasing number of books in my hands before finally accepting that I can’t possibly buy all of them, so sit down to quickly judge which one (or two) I really need to read, and put the rest back (yes, I put them back in their correct place).

In amongst all this, I need to actually write, think, do my job, go to the gym, climb mountains and do all the other OCD faffing that seems necessary, which probably accounts for why I’m clicking “publish” on this blessay at 3 am. Pfft.

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