Before the pandemic I loved going to meetings of my local branch of the Jane Austen Society. They were lovely places to meet like minded people for bookish chats, lunch and plenty of tea. Best of all were the talks we enjoyed – two at every meeting – and we had some great ones. My favourite is probably still the dramatic reading of extracts from Austen’s Juvenilia – it was hilarious – and I also remember one several years ago about William Beckford. I loved Amy Frost’s talk so much that I immediately went and borrowed every book by Beckford I could find in the library.
In fact, Amy Frost spoke at the last meeting I attended – in January last year – and gave another fascinating talk about what is wrong with location in Austen adaptations. Since then of course we have been kept at home. I have enjoyed several online events – including the literary festival hosted by Chawton House – but it has been a few months since the last one I saw. I was therefore delighted to be invited – along with the rest of my branch – to a Zoom meeting hosted by the Scottish branch of the society.
We were determined to do things properly so we set out a nice tea for ourselves and sat down to a talk on Jane Austen and the weather by Katie Halsey. I very much enjoyed listening to it and of course it made me long to read the novels again (it has been maybe two months since I read any Jane Austen – you wouldn’t think I would need more yet!). It was a thoroughly delightful way to spend the afternoon and I am definitely looking forward to the next opportunity to hear talks like this. They might not be quite the same as meeting in person but they are definitely filling an intellectual hole. If you know of any please do let me know!
Last week’s post about inscriptions in books reminded me that several years ago I bought Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books by Daniel Gray. It is one of those books which sounds utterly delightful but for some reason has languished unread on the shelf. Yesterday I finally picked it up and I can now confirm that it is wonderful.
This is only a small book, with 50 short essays on different bookish joys. The chapter headings alone give an idea of the gems inside – things like ‘Impromptu Bookmarks’, ‘Choosing and Anticipating Holiday Reading’ and ‘Feeling Bereft Having Finished a Book’. Every chapter resonated with me and I found that my pencil was much needed for a lot of underlining.
There are far too many good quotes to share them all but here are a few which made me feel seen.
Arrival in a house or flat kindles a desire to secure time alone with the bookshelves. The offer of a drink, preferably a slightly complicated one, is accepted, a distraction for your ferreting.
Bookmarks are the second socks of literature, frequently and inexplicably going missing in action.
What horror, incidentally, on those occasions when a fanned-flick forwards shows that what you thought were leafs of storyline are blanks or adverts for other titles.
I have many more I could share but, really, you should read the book. It is a bibliophile’s dream.
Incidentally, there is a chapter on author dedications. I knew from the moment I saw the dedication in this book that I would love it – ‘To the girl who won’t sleep until she’s had a story.’ I imagine this is referring to the author’s daughter but it feels like it was written for me.
Do you write in your books? I like to underline phrases that jump out an me – quotes I want to remember. I also love to find other people’s notes and underlinings in second hand books. What I especially love though are the inscriptions at the front of the books. Books showing my own history are wonderful – I was too young to remember my first visit to Tintagel but I have an excellent set of books to remind me of the trip. Or there is the book of Wordsworth’s poems which my Grandmother won in a potato race in 1924. We never got such good prizes at my sports days!
The inscriptions in second hand books are just as lovely. Presumably Mrs John High had a fondness for Walter Scott – two different friends gave her matching copies of his books in memory of holidays they shared. The questions about these former owners of my books can be endless. Did she collect Walter Scott or just the binding to make her shelf look beautiful? Did all these people go on a trip together or were the books reminders of two separate holidays? What about Walter H Whitehead? Was he a soldier when he bought this copy of Galsworthy’s The Dark Flower in Germany? The books give a fascinating glimpse into past lives.
Even the history of the books themselves can be interesting. When I bought this copy of Byron from a book sale at university I clearly had to write my details in the front – you can trace at least part of its history from the endpapers.
That’s why I am definitely in favour of writing in books. It gives them a life of their own which is fascinating to read in later years.
As soon as I read the blurb for Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark I knew that I had to read it. Any book about someone who is ‘different’ is bound to appeal to me but there was something about this one which made me drop everything and start reading it as soon as I was sent the reading copy (thank you Knights Of!).
A Kind of Spark tells the story of 11-year old Addie as she campaigns for a memorial in memory of the witch trials that took place in her Scottish hometown. Addie knows there’s more to the story of these ‘witches’, just like there is more to hers. Can Addie challenge how the people in her town see her, and her autism, and make herself heard?
I was not prepared for just how invested I would be in Addie’s story and how emotional it made me. I was in tears by the end but they were all happy tears – this book is just beautiful. It is well written, with an engaging plot and characters I really cared about. The characters – the way they were portrayed and the understanding shown – were definitely what made this book for me.
Almost every page contained something that resonated with me. I am not autistic like Addie but I am very introverted and suffer from social anxiety – as I child I could barely speak to anyone. I am still waiting to grow out of it but I have got much better at hiding it.
There are very few neurodivergent characters in books – anyone who is a bit different is usually a foil to the main character and designed to make the star of the show look good. The best example of a heroine I can think of is Fanny Price. She has many of her own issues but the majority of readers dismiss her as dull – reinforcing the idea that it is bad to be different.
A Kind of Spark is exactly the book I needed as a child – it would have made me feel a little less alone. Everyone should read this book. Those who are neurodivergent will find comfort and those who are neurotypical might just understand their peers a little better.
2020 was a funny reading year for me. I actually read more books than I have since I started recording my reading but partly that was because I had more time and partly because so much of that time was spent re-reading old favourites. I also got through a lot of audiobooks! The year started off very well with me reading through my unread shelves but that tailed off dramatically as we headed into lockdown and I needed comfort reading.
This year I intend to do better. I have given up setting myself specific goals as for me they always make reading feel too much like homework. Especially if I have a definitive list of titles to read – then I feel I can’t read anything else until I have got through the list but I’m never in the right mood for those books and I end up not reading at all.
However, it would be nice to get through some of my unread shelves so I have recreated them in my reading journal in the hope that being able to see my progress will motivate me to read more. There are 99 books there after all – surely I should always be in the right mood for one of them!
That number is considerably lower than it was last year as I have had quite a ruthless turnout. It is always hard getting rid of books but at the same time very freeing to no longer feel obliged to read something. The counting was problematic – I have a lot of books I bought to sell and there are many of those I would love to read but haven’t got around to yet. For simplicity though I chose not to count them and just stuck to my personal collection. There are bound to be some I missed but this is a start.
There are certainly enough to keep me going – not that I will put myself under a book buying ban. I will just try to only buy books I know I will read straight away. I will also be attempting the monthly challenges set by The Unread Shelf Project – hopefully those will ensure that I read at least one of my unread books a month!
My main aim for my reading this year though is just to enjoy it. To read whatever I want and not worry about the numbers or how literary it is. As Samuel Johnson said, ‘A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.’
I love this time of year. These evenings spent by the fire reading or playing games in the glow of the Christmas tree are so precious to me and I resent anything that pulls me away from them. Of course, this year I’m getting to indulge myself fully!
We always keep as screen free as possible over Christmas Day itself and I’m trying to carry that on throughout much of the whole Twelve Days. Naturally there are times it is impossible to avoid the screens but mostly it has been very refreshing to not have my phone handy to be checked every few minutes.
For the past few evenings I have been reading Imagining Anne: The Island Scrapbooks of L M Montgomery. It is full of copies of the pages in the scrapbooks and it is wonderful. I have been having such a great time reading old newspaper clippings and admiring small souvenirs. I have coveted this book from afar for a while now and I am so happy to finally get my hands on a copy. In these difficult times I am finding great comfort between its pages.
The tree is up, I don’t have to work again until Saturday and I am ready to settle down with my tea and books. Unless I decide on hot chocolate instead.
I am going to make the most of these two days – reading, playing games and definitely relaxing. Christmas really is a wonderful time.
I never set solid TBRs but I know I will be finishing Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome – other projects have got in the way of reading or I would have finished it much sooner! I am also looking forward to our new tradition from last year – we pinched the Icelandic idea of Jólabókaflóðið or Christmas book flood and so we will all be receiving new books on Christmas Eve. Tradition dictates that we should immediately sit down by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and read the books. I am not one to break with that tradition!
Yesterday was very exciting for me as it saw our box of Christmas books brought down and unpacked. These are books I haven’t seen since January and are real Christmas stories – as in they are actually about Christmas rather than just books I happen to like reading at this time of year.
Most of them are old friends – books like Lucy and Tom’s Christmas which I have read again and again since I was very small. There is even a picture book which stars my childhood friends and myself. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t read these ones.
Others are more recent acquisitions. Books which I have read once or twice but loved enough to keep for more Christmases. I won’t manage to read all of them every year but I love to see them nonetheless. Each of them brings back fond memories and they make a wonderful display.
Are there any books you particularly love to read at Christmas?
Every December I read Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday. I love the Swallows and Amazons series and this one is so perfect for reading at Christmas. Even if all the food does make me hungry. Last year I thought I would read a different book in the series but when it came to it I had to choose Winter Holiday. I couldn’t resist!
Earlier this year I started reading the series again in order and got as far as book five (I skipped Winter Holiday though as I read it so much!) so when December arrived and I started yearning for my cosy reading I was determined to pick up where I left off with Pigeon Post.
I couldn’t do it. Apparently I need to read about the Fram, the igloo and all that snow. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without it!
For the first time in weeks I have picked up a book which isn’t just cosy, familiar comfort reading. It did come from a familiar source though – L M Montgomery mentions The House of the Seven Gables several times in her journals and she seemed to enjoy it a lot so I have been meaning to read it for years.
For some reason, now seemed like the time. I have been immersing myself in her journals once more and they persuaded me to pick it up. I’m only about halfway through at the moment but I can definitely agree that it is a good book.
It’s funny though – it is both exactly what I need to read right now and also not at all what I want. It is a very gentle book which moves slowly with not a great deal of action (the first chapter is entirely given over to the backstory of the house and the family who lives there). So far anyway – for all I know it really picks up in the second half! That is certainly very soothing but it is also not gripping at all so I don’t find myself desperate to pick it up and I am more likely to get distracted by other things.
It is at times like this that I’m grateful I can read more than one book at once. When I have the focus for a slow story I have this one ready, when I need a bit more plot I can pick up something else. Choice is a wonderful thing!