Reading: Ancient Light by John Banville

I haven’t followed much of the Fifty Shades of Gray hype. Mostly because I haven’t read them, nor am I likely to. I have no problem with women reading erotic fiction, which is, I believe the attraction for a lot of readers, it’s just that I have read Anais Nin and DH Lawrence and plenty of other stuff and I think there’s much better out there. This is popular because it is popular, not because it is good.

So instead, I am going to blog about other books. Good books. I have just finished Why be happy when you can be normal? by Jeanette Winterson, which I loved. It moved me and made me think, as all her books do. And now I am reading John Banville’s new book Ancient Light.

The Sea was my introduction to Banville. I read it in hardback when it first came out and, like Winterson, I found lines which spoke to me. The language was sophisticated and beautiful, the imagery rich. And reading the first few pages of Ancient Light I am reminded why that one book was enough to place John Banville high on my list of favourite authors.

I love books, and always have. When I finish one I like to kneel on the landing in my house where the majority of my fiction collection lives, and pick the next book. Years working in a book shop, and an addiction to second hand book shops, means I have plenty I haven’t yet read – I am like a kid in a sweet shop trying to chose what to read next. I have to match the book to my mood and there are many books with scraps of paper poking from between their pages where I have begun reading, and not finished. Not because I didn’t like the book, not even because I didn’t want to, more likely because something shiny and new caught my eye and I, magpie-like, became distracted.

But I have a new plan: less telly, more reading. I began with Why be happy when you can be normal?, and it’s going well so far…

The little stranger

I have just finished reading Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and, whilst it is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to record some thoughts on it (maybe this is why I should join a book group).

Ever since reading Fingersmith I am wary of Waters’ narrators. I felt betrayed by the twist in the tale and, I think, it was my first introduction to the idea that the narrator may have an alternative motive, and may not be entirely reliable.

There was a point at which I began to feel uneasy about trusting Faraday, the amiable country doctor telling the tale in The Little Stranger. It may have been his willingness to prescribe away every little neuroses; his fascination with the crumbling aristocratic family at the centre of the story; or his facility to infiltrate that family whilst failing to prevent, or even predict, its demise.

Since reading Fingersmith, I have become really interested in the role of the narrator in telling a story, as well as in the narrative structure (something Waters toyed with in her last novel, The Night Watch)

Can reading make you happy?

Can reading make you happy?

This article on the BBC news site today makes some interesting points about access to wisdom and the value of libraries as free repositories of knowledge. I am certainly of the belief that reading is important. But can it make us happy? It is like the point Alain de Botton makes in his book, The Architecture of Happiness, does architecture make you happy or does the happy person just appreciate beauty more?

I have read books as if my life depended on it since I was a child. I can see that there is a fine balance between experiencing the word outside and learning about the world within, but I cannot undervalue the importance of being exposed to new ideas. A lecturer said to me once, when I was back at University, that there were three types of people: those who talk about each other, those who talk about things and those who talk about ideas. I strive to be the third type of person (although, as a designer, the ‘thing’ requires discussion as well as the ideas behind it) and I cannot help but judge a book by its cover – there are people who spend their lives engaged in the kind of design that relies on you doing just that. But the real, honest to goodness, joy of books – for me – is that they are a direct access to someone else’s world. To their way of seeing things, describing things, and of solving problems. And that ability to understand other people’s worlds, and to communicate directly to them in the appropriate way, is what makes me a good designer. I couldn’t do that without books – talking to people is important too, but it is knowledge, language and imagination, all of which is fed by reading, that makes me good at what I do.

Reading makes us rich in the things that really matter.


In attempt to convince myself I have done housework, I have rearranged some of my books – in fairness this involved a bit of dusting, so it isn’t so much of leap. I have always strugled with how to group the books I have. I have six bookcases in three rooms and I have to keep books togther which make the most sense to be grouped together. I used to keep them alphabetically by author for fiction, and otherwise by bookshop category (ie. history, philosopy, travel, cookery, gardening, etc.) The a-z for fiction doesn’t work. It means that books are not grouped by size (which looks untidy) and that if you get a new book, or decide to get rid of some, you have to shuffle the whole lot along to make or lose space. It’s inefficient. So I have decided that by bookshop category, then grouped together by author (all books by the same author together) is the way forward. This means I can have books by my favourite authors in more prominant positions, it also means I can group according to size a lot of the time. This makes me happy. Today I have created a new shelf/new group of books spanning philosophy, popular science, critical theory, biography, history and travel. This is my ‘modern life survival kit’ shelf.

Books I’ve bought/books I’ve read

Very much like Nick Hornby’s column in Believer magazine, I am going to record the titles of those books I have bought, and those I have read, along with comment, review and potentially, justification for these.

Go slow England – Alistair Sawday
The moneyless man – Mark Boyle
Free – Katherine Hibbert
The age of absurdity – Michael Foley
AA 50 walks in the Peak District
The pleasures and sorrows of work – Alain de Botton

The Age of Absurdity – Michael Foley

There’s a prevailing theme influencing my book purchases at the moment – it is a dissatisfaction with modern life, with hearing people talk about shopping and Eastenders all the time, with working hard all week, only to be too busy, or too tired to enjoy my free time. I am reading about contemporary thinking on modern society and its obsession with luxury, celebrity and entitlement. There have been some interesting television programmes recently tackling these issues, as well as long-running newspaper columns. I am not looking in these books for an answer, I am looking for inspiration and, I suppose, comradery. I am looking for the voices of people who agree with me, who share my concerns and ideas.

The walking book is for places to visit to escape the relentless consumerism, the slow England book is to plan my next getaway.

Meeting the Poet Laureate

Meeting the Poet Laureate

This evening I was fortunate enough to go to a poetry reading by Carol Ann Duffy. Now I know a lot of people might think of a poetry reading as a stuffy, dry affair but this was far from it.

My expectations were high because I am a massive fan of Duffy’s work. I bought The World’s Wife when I was the tender age of nineteen. I loved it. It was funny and clever and thoughtful. I had previously never considered that poetry could be this much fun. I’ve bought every collection she has had published since. I have to say I think it’s fantastic that Duffy’s poetry is studied in schools now, I kind of wish it had been when I was there.

So back to the evening: less than ideal sound levels meant that she was stooping over towards the microphone to ensure we could all hear properly, and she did it with grace and humour, although it can’t have been a comfortable position to stand in for an hour. The poems, funny on the page, were hilarious when read by their charismatic author. And the stories she told us about how the poems came about, or things that had come from writing them were similarly entertaining. I dragged along a friend who had never read a word of her poetry, and I think he left a convert. It was utterly thrilling meeting her for a book signing afterwards and it was a marvelous evening. If you ever get the chance to hear her, I suggest you do so.