When I was a teenage arsehole you would mostly find me in dodgy pubs, shithole council flats, playing football and spending the night in the varied cells of Shropshire Police stations. I’d been kicked out of school, had no qualifications, less ambition and was generally a miserable fucker with an appetite for destruction and a chip on each shoulder that could feed the 5000.
It was all too easy to lose myself in booze, drugs and meaningless sex, but when the highs had gone the aching lowness would return. Back to me being sat in the no hope caff with no way out. During this period, that in truth stretched from the moment my parents split up when I was 11 to pretty much the time I went to University aged 24, the only thing that kept me feeling like a human being, reminded me that maybe I did have a chance and that I wasn’t destined to marry a conquest and move into the local council flats were books.
Everytime I devoured a book of an afternoon, when I was either too financially broke to move or mentally broken to face anyone, I’d feel properly alive. Like most people, I’ve read plenty of bad books, but it was the good ones that got me through. Finding Bukowski remains the most thrilling experience of my life, reading Burroughs, Thompson, Salinger, Hiassen and Kerouac lifted my whole soul and being introduced to David Sedaris just made me fucking laugh. Quite simply, if I’d ever have stopped reading, I’d never have left, never have had found another way and never made a career out of writing. Books didn’t save my life, they don’t float very well for a start, but they made sure I changed it.
Books didn’t save my life, they don’t float very well for a start, but they made sure I changed it
So it was with a heavy heart that I sat on the Bakerloo Line on the first working day of January this year. Lined up on the seats opposite me were five people with no attachment to each other apart from their shiny new e-readers. Now I’ve never been one for material jealously. Ok, I might rip your head off for an original Black Sparrow copy of Post Office, but I couldn’t give a fiddler’s fuck about what you have and I don’t. It was the ease I was jealous of, there I was, pulling my hardback out of my bag and ripping the dust jacket as these fuckers balanced their contraptions on one finger while drinking a coffee and twirling their moustaches. My book did smell nice though. Musty, a bit woody from the old shelf it had been on and slightly damp.
I realized there and then I need one. Not want, but actually need. Like most people who love to read, I’ll take between five and eight books for a seven day holiday and 10 plus for a two-week jaunt. You need a mix, you want a few good novels, a ripping thriller, some short stories, a couple of good factual ones and, if you’re like me, a collection of fine sports writing. I’ve got no problems with sacrificing clothes for books, I rarely come out of shorts when I’m away anyway, but I do hate paying for excess baggage, or faffing about re-packing at the check-in desk, or rowing with my missus because I had to pack that Mike Hammer trilogy that could take out a Great Dane if aimed properly.
So why can’t I just buy one? In every other area I’ve embraced the change. I haven’t purchased a CD for years, don’t bother with box-sets anymore and wouldn’t dream of buying a DVD. I love music and watch far too many TV shows and films, but I have no desire to see any of those things cluttering up my shelves. With books its different.
And it isn’t only the romanticism or the fact that books helped me out of a very black hole. After my parents split up, I had a tempestuous relationship with my Dad (and Mum for that matter) but beyond sport, booze, fags and recreational drug use, it was our shared love of books that became the one tie that bound us stronger above any other. I remember every book he’s bought me, from the copy of to Kill a Mockingbird to Naked, and when we speak on the phone the longest stretch of the conversation will always be about what we are reading. We support different football teams, have a different, if overplapping, taste in music but can rabbit on about books for ages.
I remember the stains and torn pages, the fag burns and creases. I remember who I was when I read them, or where I was in the world
When I used to go to his house on Sundays in my early teens I’d spend hours rifling through his books, some I’d read in an afternoon, others I’d take away and forget (and still have) and some I’d sneakily read and make a mental note that I’d be buying it on the sly. And I suppose I want my kids to do the same, I want them to have a voyage of discovery in their own living room, to be catapulted to far way lands, to see the world the eyes of the protagonists, to solve crime right there on the sofa.
I know that I can have both. I realise that it can be mutually exclusive, but I’m scared that when I start buying the cheaper digital versions that I will never stop. The only books I’ll buy will be massive hardback Taschen’s and the like, beautiful to look at and lovely to hold, but essentially vanity purchases that tell people who you are (or want them to think you are) as a person.
So the situation I currently find myself in is this. Since making the decision to buy an e-reader, I’ve read purchased and read three books with another two lined up. I am no closer to buying one but think about it everyday, wondering if it will be easier, worrying that I’ll drop it down the bog or spill my tea or pint on it. I’ve got nine weeks until I go on holiday and I wouldn’t be surprised if my Missus just buys me one. Saying that, I’d be less surprised to see her and the boy sharing it while I lay by the pool navigating the tattered and nicotine-stained copy of Bukowski’s Women that I’ve had for 19 years.
Apart from my family and football team, my relationship with books is the longest, and most fulfilling, of my life. I love the way they smell and feel, I love picking old ones up that I haven't read for ages and seeing things I've written in them, I remember the stains and torn pages, the fag burns and creases. I remember who I was when I read them, or where I was in the world. Each book has as many memories as pages and often more. I've lost myself in those books when I've been depressed, ranted about their brilliance in pubs and lent them to people I love. For £89 all that will be gone, and I'm not sure I'll be able to look myself in the mirror when it happens.
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