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Reading Rules! (meaning, it's great, not you have to follow rules to do it)
I recently read Michael Dirda’s 29 rules for reading in the Washington Post and found it really interesting. I agreed with some of them and not with others, but it was interesting to see a point of view on how books should be enjoyed. These “rules” are not put forward as laws, or anything silly like that, because people can and will read anything they like, but as I’ve said before, writers do need to read, and sometimes its nice to have a little guidance on how to choose what to pick up next.
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Content warning: There is a summary of a plot below which involves domestic violence.
So here are my rules for reading, inspired by Dirda’s, which will hopefully prove interesting even if they don’t steer you towards a new book.
Hardback or paperback
This is one where I really disagree with Dirda, as I much prefer a paperback to a hardback, and have even waited for later printings of book where only a hardback is available. These days I will read hardbacks, but I prefer not to, mostly because they’re harder to transport and I tend to read a lot when I’m out and about.
There’s also something nice and comforting about a paperback book. It’s easier to hold and feels far more welcoming when you open it up. Hardback books feel crosser and grumpier than paperbacks - these may be a feature of my synaesthesia that I’ve only just thought about rather than books…
With editions though, first editions are special. As Dirda says, if it’s a non-fiction academic book, updates are useful, but for fiction, first editions are worth seeking out. Signed first editions are priceless, even if they were signed for someone else or inscribed by someone other than the author!
I love finding a signed book in a charity shop or used bookstore, looking at the message and trying to work out the history behind the message. When signed by the author, is it just a signature that was done for Waterstones or is there a personal message there? If there is did the author know the person or was it a book signing? For personal inscriptions, what’s the relationship between the giver and receiver and the meaning behind their messages.
I have an autobiography of Wilfred Owen on my bookshelf with a beautiful inscription about true friendship from Christmas 1989. It makes the book more special as it obviously meant so much to both of them, which brings me onto…
Books as gifts
I will give books as birthday gifts and Christmas gifts to everyone and anyone. Thankfully most of my family are readers and appreciate the gesture. I did however once give a book as an office Secret Santa gift and got the filthiest look from the person who opened it - I guess they would rather have received a cheap bottle of alcohol like everyone else.
Personally, I’d rather have had the book than the vodka I was given, but my housemate and I ended up melting skittles in it, so it all worked out in the end.
I read books from all over the world and even have a few that aren’t in English at all. I don’t have any issues with American-English, and will write in it if a publication is American and requires it, but it really annoys me when British authors writing novels set in Britain use American spelling and language.
I can’t be the only person confused when someone born in Newcastle talks about moving to Liverpool to go to college. Or a Londoner walks along the sidewalk to Kings Cross talking on their cell about what color they should wear to Jenny’s wedding.
I just find it really strange and jarring and, for me, it completely breaks the world of the story because the people who are really in that world wouldn’t talk or write like that.
What I look for in used book shops
First editions of classics which have been written in. Something special, like a book by a beloved author that I haven’t heard of; maybe something they wrote before they were famous that has been hidden in the sands of time. I also have a massive soft spot for books I had as a child and while I will very rarely actually buy them, I love seeing what once was special to me and the reminder of the connection I had with it.
I very rarely go out of my way to have multiple copies, though I do tend to have two copies of beloved books I have studied as one will be full of highlighting, notes and page markers, whereas my reading copy will be squeaky clean.
I agree with Michael about the ugliness of price stickers, especially if they leave icky residue on removal. I also buy a lot of second hand books and, while most charity shops and second hand bookshops will use pencil to add prices to books, some use pen, which is very annoying.
The joy of variety
I also love buying books of different genres. My dream library has a child was Belle’s from Beauty and the Beast and there’s still a big part of me that would love a dedicated room in my house for books. I also have an anemoia for binding all the books one owns in identical covers as seen in many Austenian TV dramas, even though I also love the array of beauty and creativity to be found in book covers.
The current uproar around AI being used to write stories in the place of real writers is completely justified and we need to be careful about the implications AI will inevitably have on the literature industry.
Considering the amount of anger around it though, I do find it quite amusing that many authors are more than willing to use AI to produce artwork for covers and/or illustrations. To me, this is one that works both ways and we cannot defend our value as writers when illustrators are being pushed to the sidelines.
Writers as recommenders
If a writer I love mentions an author they love in an interview, I’ll definitely make a point to look up their work, and probably read it.
Most authors aren’t millionaires
Since the launch of eBooks and special 99p offers and freebies that came with them, there seems to have been this hideous rumour started that authors are rolling in money and there’s absolutely no justification for spending more than a pound on a book.
I’ve heard people say they will only download free books and would never buy a hard copy because authors are so overpaid and who do they think they are asking for £7.99 for a book that probably took them a month to write (I am a slow writer and find this particularly perplexing), and, the saddest of all in my opinion, books just aren’t worth paying for.
So, I have a Kindle and have downloaded free books and there’s nothing wrong with that. And making use of our libraries is a fantastic thing to get access to free books. And I would definitely never pressure anyone to spend money they don’t have on books or deprive people who are struggling financially of the joy of reading. But please don’t say that books aren’t worth paying for and authors have enough money already - the vast majority of authors have second, third, fourth jobs and the same financial obligations as everyone else.
The struggling artist stereotype might be a cliche, but for the most part, it’s definitely true.
When books are upsetting…
Sensitivity editing of older books always hits the news. And of course some books are upsetting, offensive, even disgusting. Some books aren’t, and they upset someone anyway and get banned. (I often make a point of seeking out books that have been banned previously…)
However sanitising these books, probably isn’t the way to go. I’d rather know if an author wrote a horrible book rather than have it hidden from me under the dishcloth of an editor who’s replaced their red pen with bleach spray. Hiding nastiness behind a curtain allows it to breed and it will find its way out anyway.
Make five star reviews mean something
Speaking of nasty books, I once reviewed one for a publication which explored an incredibly violent relationship in which a woman was beaten black and blue by her male partner for ten years. She told her parents and they didn’t believe her because he was “such a nice guy”. He also beat up the dog just for good measure. At the end, she realised that it wasn’t his fault. It was all her fault because she was “putting negative energy out”. She turned her life around by “putting positive energy out”. He didn’t go to prison as he should have and she completely forgave him as he moved on with his life, probably to beat the living daylights out of the next poor woman who got stuck with him.
I gave it two stars - which I honestly thought was being generous. A group of my friends (none of whom had read the book) then tore me apart on social media, said I was unprofessional, callous and cruel, and that you should never ever ever give less than four stars in any review of any work because someone has put their time into creating it. A week later I was blocked and they still bad mouth me to mutual friends, over five years later.
For me, giving four or five stars to a creative work because someone has put the effort into making it, is patronising at best. It is so disrespectful to applaud someone and say “oh didn’t they do well”. Personally, I’d rather take the criticism on board and grow as an artist than have condescending gold stars thrown at me that don’t actually mean anything.
Nope. Never gonna happen. Not in a bazillion years.
There are two circumstances in which I (willingly) get rid of my books. If I read something and get the feeling that someone I know will love it, I will make a point of giving it to them. Or, if I read it and hate it, or enjoy it well enough but it’s like a pretty cupcake that is nice while it’s around but you’re never going to go out of your way to find it again, I’ll take it to the charity shop.
Otherwise, they stay.
Writers Reading with Debbi Voisey
I was really honoured to be featured reader at Debbi Voisey’s latest Writers Reading event on 21 September. I read a mix of poetry and flash fiction and had some really lovely feedback from the people who attended. Thanks so much if you came along, and if you’d like to see another group of writers read their work, Debbi’s next event will be on 14 December.
National Flash Fiction Day Write In
On 24 June 2023 I took part in the National Flash Fiction Day Write In and was lucky enough to have fourteen stories accepted for publication. One of my rejected stories also happened to be 75 words and was accepted for publication by Paragraph Planet, so there’s lots of new flash fiction for you to catch up on on my website. Some of them were read at Debbi Voisey’s Writers Reading, so you may have heard some before.
The House Amongst the Willows
Rehearsals for The House Amongst the Willows at Formby Little Theatre are going really well and it’s going to be a great show.
Performed during the Halloween season, this spooky psychological thriller has plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing what secrets are being kept in this family holiday home.
At the time of writing, the last two nights and matinee are completely sold out, with tickets for many of the other nights being limited, so grab yours now to avoid missing out on this delightfully creepy drama.
Seventy years of books and Sea Invisible
Over on Seventy years of books I’ve been continuing with The Palm-Wine Drinkard and looking back at the history of Maltese pop and climbing Mount Everest and on Sea Invisible, I have been reviewing books and plays, and looking back at my weirdest ever injuries.
Meow. I recently made a new friend, though I don’t think he likes me very much. He is a tiny little frog who lives in the muddy bit of our garden. I am very gentle with him and touch him very lightly with my paw and then he jumps up in the air which is lots of fun. I am only playing with him but he does get a bit scared and the humans make me come inside. But it’s OK because I get to have some bikkies while he hides away. I hope to see him hopping around again very soon. Purr.
What I’m reading
John Keats: A Life by Stephen Cootes
Things that have caught my eye
Celebrate the work of JAY-Z with 13 limited-edition library cards honoring each iconic album I love how Brooklyn libraries are celebrating Jay-Z’s music by releasing album themed library cards, and I’m very surprised Liverpool libraries haven’t done the same with The Beatles…
From Bob Dylan to Lou Reed: Hunter S. Thompson’s 18 favourite songs I have a special place in my heart for Hunter S. Thompson’s work and was once questioned at Arlanda Airport just for carrying a beaten up copy of Fear and Loathing. (Note: whoever has borrowed it without asking, please return it!) This is an interesting little list, and even has the playlist embedded. Enjoy!
Edinburgh and Ukraine Fringe Festivals I reviewed a number of the online shows for the Edinburgh and Ukraine Fringe Festivals. There’s so much great independent theatre and the online offering available now gives us all the opportunity to see things we wouldn’t usually be able to. My favourite piece from the two festivals was a 1960s retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray which added a new layer of horror to one of my favourite classic stories.
Over 100 people trapped for several hours in mystery writer Agatha Christie’s former home A fun story of life imitating art, thankfully with a happier ending! I think Ms Christie would have enjoyed this.
New kitchens! My partner and I recently decided to take the plunge and get a shiny new kitchen. Hence me falling in love with pastel units that have been discontinued. Typical! Still determined to have something that wouldn’t look out of place in Barbie’s dream house. Maybe…
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