A quickening of the heart : life as a book collector

I had a bit of a lovely moment the other day. I found a clump of the books that I collect, and I bought them all because it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually afford all of them. And now, several days later, I’m still riding that wave of delight that only comes when you find the thing you love and are, due to circumstance and the twists that life gives you, able to make that thing your own.

Book collecting is a curious thing. I have been doing it for long enough now that I’m able to walk into a bookshop and scan the shelves within minutes. The books that I collect are distinct enough in cover and spine to make themselves known to me, and if they’re not there, then it’s a different sort of visit. One where I wallow in familiar names and new ones, and maybe take something different home. But if they are there, then, it’s something quite perfect. The heart quickens, and you tell yourself to stay calm because, inevitably, you won’t be able to afford the one you’d like.

But sometimes the stars come together, and you’re able to take one or more home. And that moment of connection is such a potent and precise kind of energy that I suspect, were it able to be harnessed, would power a thousand cars for a thousand days. The thing is, you do not collect stories without having a story of your own. Each book that you collect, each title that you invest yourself in, each author that you find a little bit more about yourself, becomes part of your own story.  And so, when you find these titles in the shop or a new book by that author that you’ve been collecting, there is a little part of yourself located in the finding. You find yourself, and all of the other selfs that you’ve ever been.

There’s a parallel here for any sort of collection; that sense of knowing the story of each thing and how and when it came into your life, but it always feels a little bit more powerful for me because I collect books and books are powerful things. Books endure, and have done so in a fairly recognisable form for centuries. I suspect, for example, if you were to place a 1990s brick phone against an Apple Watch and presented both to an individual from the 1600s you would have substantial difficulty in persuading them that they were the same thing. But a book, with its recognisable form and shape and intent, has that coherence pretty much whenever, wherever and however you find it.

I keep returning to that notion of the finding, for I am as fond of that as I am of the having. The finding is the chase, you see, and it is a rather beautiful thing. Being a book collector means that you have that peculiar need to just check a bookshop that you’re passing, or to pause when you are on holiday somewhere to pop in a bookshop that you’ve never been to before. You learn to accept that books may make themselves known in the most inopportune of moments; when you are walking back to the train station after a conference, or indeed backpacking across a country on the other side of the world. This is what it is, this integration of the find into your life.

That’s what book collecting does; it slides away from that semantic precision of ‘collecting’, redolent as it is to me of Boy’s Own trips to the Amazon and butterflies pinned in tragic horror to cases, and instead becomes something rather more embedded. Something closer. Something lived, lived and learnt.  Something felt. Something felt deep down inside of you, where feelings lose their precision and instead become raw and un-edged and indescribable things. That’s where book collecting lives, there.


“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.


Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

Confessions of a book nerd – those moments when you know you’ve got issues…

1. When a famous lady writer comes into your library and asks for a new library card. Process new card. When famous lady author says, “How much do I owe you?”, just burble slightly in response and go “OH FOR YOU NOTHING I LOVE YOU BY THE WAY.” And then ignore your boss behind you who says, ” £1.50 please.”

2. When somebody gets to the Chalet School section before you, picks up the book you’ve been hunting for for years and then goes “Oh what’s this old thing?” , you stand there and mutter: “YOU’RE NOT WORTHY!”

3. When you rearrange the bookshelves in your local shop so that all your favourites are face out. And you have to be dissuaded from standing by the section and talking to random shoppers. All day.

4. When you see the price that your local specialist is selling “The Giraffe, The Pelly And Me” and you phone your parents and ask them to take your childhood copy out of direct light.

5. When you take an hour bus ride to visit other libraries in your area because you’ve checked out their catalogue in advance and know that they’ve got the missing editions of the X-Men multi-volume you’re desperate to read.

6. And then you get the same bus back because you’ve got your books and it’s six hours until the next bus. Making your trip to the town last a princely total of twenty minutes.

7. When you meet one of your favourite authors. Or, well, don’t actually meet. Just stare at them lovingly in the distance because you know if you get any closer, you will cry at the wonder of being close to somebody who is this perfect with their words. And also, because at some point, you know you’re moments from going “CAN I – TOUCH – YOU?”

8. When you get into a lift with one of your favourite writers, stare everywhere but at them before suddenly saying “WHY DO YOU KEEP WRITING THINGS THAT MAKE ME CRY?”

9. And then staring at the floor and feeling the shame that comes when the doors open and said writer legs it.

10. When you meet somebody who you really admire and they discover you’re a book nerd. And then they ask you for a recommendation and you clutch the first book that comes to mind, be that Jamie’s Fifteen Minute Meals or Fifty Shades of Grey, and regardless of how you feel about the book all you can say is, “BECAUSE – IT’S – GOOD?”

11. When a writing conference is held where you work, and it’s full of the most wondrous writers who you adore, and every now and then one of them walks past your office door, and all you can do is make the 1st of 3938384 trips to the toilet that day just in the tenuous hope that one of them asks you for directions. To the place that they’re already at.

Obviously, I’ve never done any of these. Ever.

(And obviously, that’s a total lie)

Meet the family (confessions of a book collector)

My books! My lovely lovely books! Behold the heart of my Temple of Solitude! The left hand side is all Brent-Dyer, and a few Lorna Hills on the bottom. When you’re a book collector, you remember where so many of them came from. It’s almost as important as the book itself.

My Chalet School collection is worldwide. I picked up Tom Tackles the Chalet School in Auckland (hyperventilating that I’d crossed the world to find a book I’d been after for ages), and I picked up my Armada paperback double of Jo Returns and New in Heathrow of all places. Running for a flight, I saw it on the bookshelves and I screeched to a halt. Caroline the Second came from Reading University archives (which I do reccomend if you’re a school story nut, they have some fabulous things there).

An obsession grips you when you’re book collecting. You stare out the child in the shop and will them to PUT THE BOOK DOWN (in my defence I was only twelve). You want to complete the series. You need to do it. And then, once you’ve done it, you move on to the next. You move on to the EJOs, the Angela Brazils and even, in a fit of confused longing, you hit a May Wynne and an Ethel Talbot or two.

(The one on the far right is a very bashed up Abbey Girls compilation which my Grandad once decided to duct tape together. My reaction to this suggestion is not appropriate to be shared).

And, just because I love her, here’s some Angela Brazil. The spines! The way they feature girls with lustrous locks! “Oh jimminy,” expostulated Elizabeth, “These books are just perfection!”

Kindle power

My birthday was this week. My amazing mum and dad got me a Kindle (best parents ever). There’s a small problem though. I think I’m this close to marrying the Kindle.

I am, as previously blogged, a Book Collector. It started with the Chalet School, branched off into Angela Brazil and Elsie Oxenham and now my collection consists of a dominating strand of girls’ school stories and a few magic little pieces such as a pen and ink version of Black Beauty and a couple absolutely gorgeous editions of Sadlers Wells stories. I love collecting books. I love everything about it; the thrill of the chase, the thrill of the unexpected pleasure and the not particularly subtle way your hand tightens when you finally get hold of your prize. Quick sidebar, if anybody’s got a job going spare in their antiquarian / children’s literature specialist bookshop, do drop me a line. I’ll work anywhere and even bring you the odd batch of chocolate brownies 😉

But I love the Kindle with an equal passion. I love the way I can blink and have a book arrive in my hand. It’s literally (or should that be literary) magic. I am a hungry reader. I long for more than I have. Always will. I want that next hit. Reading is an addiction. It’s one of the nicer addictions but it is still an addiction. You want that next emotional hit. You want to sob your heart out, to fall in love, to live a life other than your own. You want it bad.

I think the Kindle satiates that hunger and does it spectacularly. It’s perhaps a reflection of our want, take, have society but it does solve other problems of the modern reader. Sometimes I want the story but I don’t want the object. I rent. A small, poky once-garage with hardly enough room for myself let alone a thousand books. I spent half an hour of careful browsing, plus some excited burbling on Twitter, and came away with a Kindle packed with about sixty titles that I can’t wait to read. Sixty titles on a tiny tiny thing. It’s nuts. Thanks to the amazing Project Gutenberg, I snaffled books by LT Meade, Edith Nesbit, Alexandre Dumas (remind me to tell you about my obsession with ‘sturdy Gascon ponies’ sometime) and, naturally, a freaking ton of Angela Brazil (“Ethelreda, put down your trunk and come outside!” expostulated Marie-Heloise”). Now that I think about it there’s practically a PhD thesis in the use of speech tags in Angela Brazil but that’s for another time.

I also checked out Amazon. Once you’ve registered your Kindle with your account (and I actually did this without realising I’d done this *technofailface*), you can browse the world of books they have there. Due to me being a true Yorkshire woman and therefore congenitally tight, I stayed away from the paid books and checked out the freebies. From a children’s literature perspective, there’s some amazing treats on there. A prequel from Patrick Ness, a short novel from Julia Golding … it’s worth spending the time to have a rummage through.

Just don’t download Cybill Disobedience. Just don’t. I know it’s free but don’t. Trust me.

If you love them, let them go

Books are full of magic and pain. Of heartache and sorrow and (in the case of certain novels featuring the manliest of men making their manly way across Middle Earth – ILOVEYOUFARAMIRDON’TEVERGOCHANGING) unbridled wonder/lust.

But sometimes you have to let them go.

Space, place, shelf; all of these get too tight, too full, too crammed left-right-and-up-side-down with books. You lose titles in the madness, the glorious madness of titles that say nothing to the stranger but say everything to you; the title which made you realise you could love somebody, the title which made you weep, the title which you read curled tiny-small underneath the duvet clutching a torch and praying that your parents wouldn’t discover you were still awake. You paid for these moments of course, these moments which left you bleary-eyed and waking in Gondor but having breakfast in the cold damp light of day, but god they were worth it.

But sometimes you have to let them go.

These books, these books that speak of an era in your life, these books that stamped their presence on your daily existence. The horse books, the multitudinous horse books; the Pat Smythes, the sisters P-T, too much K.M Peyton to handle and that glorious glorious Encyclopedia of the Horse with photographs that satiated your desperate longing for a horse during those awful dry years of frugality and hope.

Sometimes you have to let them go.

You realise that it’s not the book, it’s the memory. It’s what the book symbolises, rather than the book itself. You’re holding onto the feeling, the memory, the days where you Jo-sat on the windowsill with an apple and had nothing else in the world to do but readreadreadread.

Sometimes, and sometimes hurts more than you may ever realise, you have to let them go.

You move out of home. Your parents move house. Your flat only has room for one Billy or two at the most. You want to live in a castle, all Beauty and the Beast ballroom wrapped in books, but you don’t. Not yet. Not yet. It will come but it’s not yet.

So you share them out. Make piles. Awkward wobbling Guggenheim-esque piles of books and literature city-threading across your bedroom floor. You donate them to charity shops, to the kids next door, to the school where they’re desperate for books, to anybody who can let these books live again.

And then, maybe fifteen or twenty years later, there’s that wonderful moment where you stop and you look and you see the photograph of your bookcase as a child and you see the title, you see the spine of a Follyfoot or the edge of a Bunty and you know. You want these books back in your life.

It’s a self-flagellating experience, book-collecting. But this moment. This moment when you remember it all, crystal-clear clarity, love pure and vivid rises in front of you and your fingers itch to read them again.

And you know what? You’re going to get them back.