The inaugural Weekend of Reading took place in Hobart over the weekend. It was a fantastic three-day event, organised by Kate Harrison and Jane Rawson, which kicked off on Friday night with the announcement of the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize shortlists.
I was really pleased when Kate and Jane – who work together under the banner of Read Tasmania – asked me to take part in one of the panel discussions. Along with fellow Hobart writers Peter Timms and Ruth Quibell, I tackled the question ‘Do you need to own books to love them?’
There were a few purists in the audience, which led to some interesting debate – one or two people who believe strongly in the concept of a personal library and think you should hold onto every book throughout your life. There were others – mainly younger people, who I suspect are very aware of the reality of life in the rental market and the challenges of lugging heavy boxes around every time you move – who were passionate advocates for Tasmania’s excellent library system.
Ruth, Peter and I fell somewhere in the middle. All three of us are enthusiastic readers, but we feel lucky to have grown past the stage where we need a groaning bookshelf to project a sense of self to the world.
The panel lasted an hour, but we could easily have talked for longer because there were so many things we didn’t have the chance to discuss. Audiobooks and ebooks. Film and television adaptations. Bookclubs. The cost of books. Suggestions to improve Tasmania’s poor literacy rate.
Hopefully there will be future Weekends of Reading in Tasmania, where there will be further opportunities to have these interesting and useful conversations. In the meantime, I’m posting a slightly edited version of my opening remarks below.
Books are the only thing I spend money on without any sense of guilt. I will happily forego new clothes and nice bottles of wine if it means I can buy just one more book. But the question this panel has been asked to consider – do you have to own books to love them – has really got me thinking over the last few weeks.
There has been a growing trend recently for books as decorative objects. A London-based company called Ultimate Library will furnish your hotel or your luxury yacht with brand new books that have been chosen for the colour of the spine rather than their content. Another company, called Decades of Vintage, does the same with second hand books. They are sold by length, so you can order six feet of books in a shade that complements your curtains.
For me, that kind of ownership is not what books are about. For me, it’s all about what you find between the pages.
Growing up in a small Scottish town, which didn’t have a bookshop, libraries meant everything to me. As a primary school student, I was given special permission to use the high school library and one morning a week, when my classmates were still struggling with basic readers, I was allowed to walk out of school and make my way across town. It was an enormous privilege, although I wasn’t always pleased when the high school librarian would steer me away from the mass-produced series like Sweet Valley High – the ones I really wanted to read – and towards the books of more literary value.
In the public library there were no such restrictions and once or sometimes twice a week I would leave with a great tower of books. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, magazines – whatever I could get my hands on.
In both libraries, reading gave me a sense of freedom and it took me far away from that small Scottish town. I found books that I loved dearly – books that I returned to time and time again – and the fact that I was only borrowing them rather than buying them did nothing to diminish that.
Then as a teenager, I began to buy more than I borrowed. I still used the library, but by that stage I had exhausted most of their collection. I would save my pocket money until we visited the city and would easily spend hours browsing the shelves of Waterstones. I was lucky that my parents were fairly relaxed about what I read. The only book I can remember them forbidding me from reading was Trainspotting – but of course I bought it anyway, and read it in secret.
I still have my copy of Trainspotting. Perhaps because it was forbidden, I remember loving it more than any other book I read as a teen. And because I owned it I did something to that copy that I would never have done to a library book – I sellotaped the front two pages together. I disliked the photo of the author Irvine Welsh so much that I had to hide it. I didn’t want his face coming between me and the story every time I opened the book up.
The only other book I loved as much as Trainspotting was The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger. When I bought that book it felt like the beginning of my adult library. I didn’t know anything about it, there were no clues on the cover, no blurb. I just knew it was a book I was supposed to read.
When I pick up my copy of The Catcher in the Rye now, I feel like I’m fifteen again. I remember the warm summer when I first read it. I remember reading it a second time, almost immediately, trying to get my head around all that symbolism and all that imagery. I remember writing an essay about it in my English class… There are none of my notes or markings in the book – I was never one of those people to scribble in the margins – but holding this book in my hands is almost as evocative as reading one of my own teenage diaries.
Fourteen years ago, when I first met the man who is now my husband, he had only been living in Scotland for a few months, after moving there from the United States. He told me that all his books were still in boxes in the spare room of his apartment. I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, we can keep having dinner and going for drinks, but I won’t be visiting that apartment until you unpack your books.’
I knew that seeing what books he owned would reveal as much to me as many months of conversation would.
I needed to see which childhood favourites he had hung on to; which travel guides would prompt stories about previous holidays; and which poetry collections he would pull down from the shelf and read aloud late at night. Until he made that commitment – unpacking the books and sharing his most treasured words with me, how could I know that he was staying?
Well… eventually he did unpack. And I did visit his apartment – occasionally at first, and then for good.
Since then, we have moved house several times. First within Edinburgh, then from Scotland to England, and finally from England to Tasmania, and every single time I have seen the look of despair on the faces of the removal men as they see yet another enormous box labelled ‘Books’.
When we arrived in Tasmania, we accessed for the first time in three years some books that had been in storage. Our house in Edinburgh had been full of built in shelves. Our house in Hertfordshire barely had room for any.
It was a real education, opening those boxes – some books were old friends and I was delighted to see them. Others I had no memory of, and could not understand why I’d paid to have them shipped across the world.
I think since that experience, books have started to mean something different to me.
I buy and borrow more than I ever have – I read somewhere between 150 and 200 books every year – but now I only keep about one in ten instead of keeping every single one. A book has to really touch me – really speak to me – in order to stay on the shelf instead of being passed on, and I pass my books on in many different ways.
I very rarely sell them, but I love giving them away – even my favourites. The thought of sharing a book and someone else loving it makes me happy. My first choice is always to give it to a friend. I send them to friends in the UK, even though the cost of postage is usually more than the book itself. When friend or family come and visit us they’re always looking for something to read on the aeroplane, so I give a lot of books away to them. I leave books in free little libraries, I post them on my social media accounts to see if anyone wants them, and as a last resort I’ll give them to the op shop.
Since I’ve started keeping fewer of my books, it has become more important to me to record what I read. I do that in two ways – I keep a very basic notebook, just the name of the book and the author, divided up into years. And I have an Instagram account – @ruthreadsbooks – where I post a photograph of the front cover of every book I read.
I’ve just read a wonderful memoir called My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul, who is the editor of the New York Times Book Review – Bob is her reading diary, her ‘book of books’, which she has kept since she was a teenager – and I found it really interesting what we have in common. Like me, she has found that simply recording the names of those books allows her to access the memories associated with them, without needing to hold on to the physical object.
The other thing that has changed my attitude to books and reading is that I now have a 10-year-old son. My son loves books wholeheartedly. All books. He loves classics, like Charlotte’s Web and Goodnight Mister Tom, but he also loves biographies of Formula One drivers, joke books, Dalmatian fact-files, and all kinds of awful things.
I really admire the way he reads, because it’s purely for joy. He doesn’t choose books because he feels he should. He doesn’t hold onto books out of guilt, or because they have any value beyond how interesting he finds them. He reads them again and again, until he doesn’t want to read them anymore, and then he passes them along to his friends, to his classroom teacher, or to a free little library.
My son has taught me how to love – truly love – books. And he has shown me that there is no one single, correct way to do that.
So, to answer the question – ‘do you need to own books to love them?’
No, you don’t. A book can pass through your hands in a matter of days and still make an impression on you that will last for years. Sometimes the feeling that is evoked by the memory of a book is much better than ownership of the book itself.
But – if you do own a book, or indeed many books, you should love them all.
That doesn’t mean that they all need to be happy stories. But their presence on your shelves should bring something to your life. When you pick up a book that you own, it should make you feel something. Otherwise, I think you should let it go… and let it find another owner who will love it.
Thanks so much to ABC Hobart for inviting me onto Paul McIntyre’s Evening show to talk about the festival and my favourite books. You can listen to that here – I’m on from about 1 hr 36 onwards.