It’s a small thing, but I feel I need to note a milestone in my life. T S Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. In my case I have measured out my life in books.
Recently I came to the end of my second little red notebook listing “books I have read”. I was surprised to find I could still buy a new notebook just the same, although now it has a barcode on the back.
Some people love lists, some hate them. My list-loving has lapsed in most cases, but I do keep up to date with this record of all the books I have read. I started the first book when I was a young teenager at grammar school, although that first red book is partly a copy of an earlier list of books read. My first book was a greeny-brown and I abandoned it when I started scribbling other things in the back.
My writing was very different in those school days…
This list was not chronological when it started but a round-up of everything I could remember reading at that stage. Most of the first page is science fiction and the second entry is still one of my all-time favourites, Captive Universe by Harry Harrison. It combines two of my favourite subjects – space travel and the Aztecs.
When I first started listing books, I clearly thought it was relevant what the genre was and whether I owned the books or not – probably because I read a lot of library books, many of them plain yellow-bound Gollancz science fiction, volumes of world mythology and all sorts of art books. Some people say you are what you eat. I believe you are what you read.
I was poor and working class and lived in a village. My older brothers hadn’t been interested in books so when I was born the only books in the house were the 10 volumes of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia.
It was a set bound in blue and dated from somewhere between 1922 and 1946, bought from a travelling salesman. Until I came along the pages had hardly been turned. By the time I said goodbye to them the spine was hanging off volume 10 – which contained the well-thumbed index.
The encyclopedia was on a top shelf in an alcove and I had to climb on to the back of an armchair to reach them – even when I was a grown-up! But these wonderful pre-WWII treasure-troves of knowledge were not the sort of thing you read cover to cover and to be listed in my notebooks a book had to be read in its entirety.
The first novels I read were given to me by a richer friend of the family. They were all boarding schools, ballet and ponies. I remember Damaris Dances by Elsie J Oxenham and the Secret Seven by Enid Blyton. It was a start to my reading but too early to enter my little red books.
Some books from my junior school days did make it to the list because I have re-read them several times since. Here are my three best childhood reads:
# Space Agent and the Ancient Peril by Angus MacVicar – a time and space travel adventure, featuring ancient Tiahuanaco (which they now spell Tiwanaku) in South America and the possibility that the Moon will crash into the earth…
# Knight’s Fee by Rosemary Sutcliff – about the friendship of two boys, one Norman, one Saxon – I particularly loved the illustrations by Charles Keeping and copied them in pen and ink…
# A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – I remember it most for introducing me to a new word, tesseract – a four-space hypercube. I made one out of pipe-cleaners!
These were among the treasures in the mobile library crates we had at junior school. Loosely-built wooden boxes held together with leather straps. I always wanted to be the first to get to the box but of course the teachers chose a different row of desks to go first each time.
But I am digressing more than a bit. Back to the books of books…
You can see how my handwriting had changed by these pages from the middle of my first red book of books – and there’s more variety of reading here, including classics and non-fiction.
In my notebooks I underscore the names of the best books – occasionally double underscoring and twice triple underscoring – that was for George Eliot’s Adam Bede and for Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass.
When we move on to the second book of books, we are back to science fiction and at last we have definite dates for the reading…
And that book has lasted for nearly 28 years. It has started filling up more rapidly in the last nine months, since I bought my Amazon Kindle Touch. From reading one novel every two or three months I have gone to reading one every week or so.
The Kindle has (slightly) changed my reading, too. Although you can never have too many books, in a small house you soon run out of space. It is such a relief to be able to read a book without having to go out and buy it, store it and then take it to the Oxfam shop when you are done with it. This particularly applies to books I know I wouldn’t want to keep for ever, such as most modern novels and a lot of “young adult” fiction and fantasies.
Although I fear for the future of physical books – and civilisation itself – be reassured that I do still buy illustrated books and those I will want to read again and again.
The first novel in my second little red book was a science fiction post-apocalyptic classic – Greybeard by Brian Aldiss – and the last was The Grey King by Susan Cooper, part of the Dark is Rising series for young adults.
I have now started the new little red book. I reckon it will hold around 560 books. I may not live long enough to fill it – what a distressing thought. I’d better get reading!
What are the books of your life, I wonder?
And if you are more interested in the notebooks than their content, you may like the Stationery Love section of Jera’s Jamboree by book blogger Shaz…