In the swim with Dr Sacks

I had intended to publish a review of John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway, but I find myself travelling and without my notes. Another time. Instead, as I have a copy of Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life (which I am reading with great enjoyment), I think I want to encourage you to get in the swim with Dr Sacks.

Oliver Sacks On the Road cover imageFriends and followers will know that I enjoy swimming and have written a number of posts about it over the years. (Most recently here at Stops and Stories.) One of the positive features of swimming I find is that it clears my mind in a way that allows creative thought. One of the disadvantages, though, is that I have to train myself to hold in my head the great ideas I have while I’m swimming until I can get to either a notepad or a recording device. I was delighted to read, in On the Move, that Dr Sacks had exactly the same problem, though he solved it differently.

In the chapter called “The Bull on the Mountain” he describes a period in the 1970s when he used to spend weeks at a time at a sleepy lakeside resort in upstate New York called Lake Jefferson (Lake Jeff). He writes:

Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic… [I]n the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically – a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that – would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.

I’m not really sure that riding around on a bike all day slightly tipsy from regular sips of cider is best described as “monastic”. (Although, to be sure, the monks of Belgium do make their world-renowned beers.) However, Sacks goes on:

…the greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a row boat but no motorboats or jetskis to threaten the unwary swimmer… Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.

As a result, these notes for Oliver Sacks’ book (it became A Leg to Stand On) were handwritten, blotted, and almost illegible.

Jim Silberman, my editor and publisher in America, was disconcerted when I send him the Lake Jeff section of the book. He had not received a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, he said, and this one looked as if it had been dropped in the bath. He said it would have to be not just typed but be deciphered, and he sent it to one of his former editors… My illegible, water-stained manuscript with its ragged incomplete sentences, arrows, and indecisive crossings out came back beautifully typed and annotated with wise editorial comments.

I can’t help but think that Oliver Sacks’ earlier success – Awakenings – helped. His editors and publishers knew the quality of his writing and were prepared to tolerate a little eccentricity in manuscript submission. If I – or any unknown author – were to submit to a publisher a handwritten manuscript that had been composed poolside, I think I would be guaranteed a rejection.

By the way, reading Oliver Sacks’ book I find myself wondering if he ever met John Cleese. Neither one mentions the other in their respective books, but they were of more or less the same age and they both knew Jonathan Miller. Sacks went to school with Miller in London and they were friends throughout their lives. Miller and John Cleese were both undergraduates at Cambridge University and both members of the Cambridge Footlights, though at slightly different times. Cleese describes how he first saw Jonathan Miller when Miller performed in Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Later Cleese himself performed with Miller in sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the series of comedy shows put on in aid of Amnesty.

There is no reason in the world why Cleese and Sacks should have got to know one another and the only reason I associate them now is because I’ve just read both their autobiographies (which both include photos of the respective authors with Miller). But I think they might have enjoyed one another’s company. I imagine them both swimming in Lake Jeff, coming up with ideas at the same time and racing one another to the lakeside to be the first to reach that yellow pad.

Ah the magic of imagination, eh?


The illustratons are borrowed as follows: The partial image at the head of the article is of the cover of the US hardback version of On the Road, the smaller intertextual illustration is of the front cover of the UK paperback edition. The latter is loaned from Oliver Sacks’ own website, the former from the review of the book on the website of the New York Times

A New Blogging Policy

Earlier this year I completed 52 weeks of blogging At the Quill as part of a year-long blogging challenge (#Blogg52). It was a good exercise and a good discipline, and I have transferred the effort to my new blog about travel, Stops and Stories. However, although it is possible – just about – to blog once a week without much forward planning, there is always the stress of trying to find a topic and writing about it in time and the results are not always satisfactory. Clearly I need to be better organised.

Now, one of my fellow Blogg52-ers, Anna Hellqvist, is using her blog to present aspects of good practice for other bloggers. She has written some very good articles over the weeks. I don’t always agree with her as I feel her perspective on blogging is rather skewed towards the commercial, and for me that tends to devalue what she writes. Also, as someone who has been blogging on and off for about 14 years I have a residual feeling that I know it all – even though I patently do not.

I know that I don’t know it all not only because I get into such a sweat when I haven’t planned ahead, not only because I am disappointed more often than satisfied with the blog entries that I write, but also because a number of Anna’s tips have been valuable reminders of things I’d forgotten. And occasionally she has taught me things that were quite new to me.

So, I decided to swallow my pride and smother my resistance to being told what to do and try to follow some of her advice. My hope is that it will help me blog more frequently, both here and on Stops and Stories, and perhaps improve the consistency of my blog entries.

To begin with I have been looking at Anna’s blog entries for Blogg52 from June this year. As Anna’s blog is in Swedish (Blogg52 is a Swedish challenge and at present I’m the only person following it who’s writing in English), I thought I could give a summary of the steps I’ve taken so far to organise myself better. Below is my plan for Stops and Stories.

I can say that while most of the points in the plan come from Anna’s suggestions I have added one or two of my own.

Depending on how successfully I can follow the plan for the next couple of months I may post an adaptation of this on the Stops and Stories website. Just at the moment though, because Stops and Stories is about travel while At the Quill is about writing, it seems appropriate to discuss this here rather than there. If you’re interested, I’ll be revisiting this in future articles here At the Quill.

What is the purpose of Stops and Stories?

  • A record of my travels now I am based in Brussels.
  • An exploration and expansion of my ability to write about travel.
  • Foundations for (a) future travel book(s).
  • A cross-platform link with Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, (Freesound), (YouTube), TripAdvisor, (GoodReads), Ello…
  • Development of a network of readers (and listeners).
  • An archive that future readers will be able to explore.

Who is your target audience? Who are you writing for?

  • Myself and…
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel who either travel themselves or are armchair travellers.
  • Literate adult readers interested in travel writing – in (fictional/semi-fictional) stories about, and (“true”) accounts of, travels both contemporary and historical.

Who is your inspiration?
Patrick Leigh Fermor (http://patrickleighfermor.org/)
Jonathan Raban (http://jonathanraban.com/)

(I expect to be extending this list.)

What are your goals?

  • To write an illustrated text – if possible including a sound recording of the same – once a week for at least a year.
  • To attract readers and returning readers/listeners. The initial target is to build up from the handful each week who read my texts at present to 100+/week.
  • To enter into a conversation with readers/listeners either in the comments section of the blog or on social media.

What are you going to write about?

  • Places visited
  • Stories heard and overheard
  • writing (reviews)
  • The urban and rural landscapes
  • Seascapes
  • Soundscapes
  • Scents and smells
  • Photography
  • Modes of transport
  • Maps and guidebooks
  • Art and architecture
  • Food and drink
  • History and future visions
  • Museums and exhibitions
  • Events and celebrations
  • Action and adventure
  • Poetry and literature related to travel
  • Memory and memoires
  • Philosophy and meditation
  • Humour

How often and when will you publish?

  • I aim to publish at least one article a least once a week, hopefully including a sound recording published on Soundcloud.
  • The day of publication will be Wednesday.

In order to publish on Wednesday I need to organise myself as follows:

  • On Thursday or Friday brainstorm articles for Stops and Stories – choose one or two. (By choosing a couple of articles each week I hope to build up a bank of articles so that, as time goes by, the process I’m describing here will not be quite so hand to mouth.)
  • Over the weekend carry out research for the articles, take photos, record ambient sound and make notes.
  • On Monday choose one article for publication.
  • On Tuesday draft the article.
  • On Wednesday, edit the article, illustrate it, record it, publish it.
  • If it wasn’t possible on Wednesday, on Thursday publish the recording on Soundcloud.
  • Begin again

In praise of ABE Books

…and in praise of Antikvariat Faust, Geijersgatan 5, Göteborg.

Post from ABEBooks

Look what the post just delivered!

Here I am writing my historical novel, Elin’s Story about a Swedish woman and Sweden in the mid-1500s – and I’m living in Brussels. I’ve previously had a huge amount of assistance from the library of Gothenburg University, but moving here I thought I had brought with me all the information, copies and references I needed. I hadn’t. Suddenly realising I really needed some reference books, I also discovered… they’re not to be found in Belgium.

Aaargh!

If I’m trying to borrow a book from a library that’s also a sign it’s out of print so I can’t buy it new, and most often it isn’t available in electronic form either. Buying books on line is easy enough, but buying second-hand books, especially ones not written in English and not available from an American supplier used to be really tough. But that was before ABE Books. What a fantastic resource. Yes, I’ve used them before, but not for a while and I’d forgotten how good they are. But here, now, let me go on the record and recommend them.

ABE allows me to search for the book I want by title, author, key word, ISBN, publisher, and a whole lot of other parameters. It does not confine itself to books in English or bookshops selling books in certain countries.

Through ABE I was able to find the main book I needed, but more than this, ABE also allows me to carry out another search limiting myself just to the books available from this one bookshop. So I was also able to buy a couple of others I needed from the same supplier, Antikvariat Faust, in Gothenburg. (After all if I’m going to buy on-line I’d prefer to support a local bookshop back home.)

I placed my order, had it confirmed and saw “Delivery time: 25-45 days”. That was a bummer – so I might get the book in time for Christmas?

Not a bit of it. They arrived – in two parcels as you see above – within a working week.

And here they are unwrapped…

Post from ABEBooks unwrapped

The book I was most keen to get a copy of was Karin Tegenborg Falkdalen’s Vasa döttrarna, the only decent modern study of the five daughters of Gustaf Vasa. (Well, actually the only study, full stop.) But I was also pleased to get the other two volumes – Alf Sundberg’s Svenska Krig, and Lars Eriksson’s Johan III.

Now I can go on.

Writing Elin’s Story

There has been a bit of a hiatus here At the Quill. I’ve been busy getting my travel blog up and running at Stops and Stories, but I am returning now as planned to publish occasional pieces here. And my first piece must be about Elin’s Story.

Elin’s Story is an account of the adventures of Elin Ulsdotter, sometimes called Helena Marchioness Northampton, sometimes called Helena Snakenborg, in the period from about 1563 to about 1578. This is a true story, though I’m writing it as an historical novel.

Elin was born in 1549 or 1550 – probably in January or February 1550 as an uncertainty about years of birth in the period is usually tied up with those months. She was born in Sweden, in all probability at her father’s estate of Fyllingarum in a Östergötland. In 1565, when she was about 15, she was taken to England in the train of Princess Cecilia Vasa, and left there as a maid at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. When she was 21 she married the Queen’s step uncle, William Parr, Marquess of Northampton, and on his death five months later returned to the Queen’s Court as the dowager Marchioness Northampton, a lady in waiting.

In 1576 she made a second, secret marriage to Thomas Gorges, one of the Queen’s Gentleman and very distant relative of Queen Elizabeth. The secret was uncovered and she was banished from Court accused of high treason. Her husband spent time in prison, possibly in the Tower of London, while she was placed under house arrest in his London home. However, this dark cloud passed, the couple were reinstated at court and Elin lived on into her 80s, outliving the Queen by a good 20 years. She and her second husband are entombed at Salisbury Cathedral.

I began writing Elin’s Story seven years ago, and it’s gone through a number of transformations along the way. This year I started outlining the first and second books (working titles The Long Way to London and London: Credit and Debit) and am now trying to apply the NaNoWriMo methodology to get a first draft written.

For readers who are unfamiliar with it, NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month) is an international “let’s all try to write a novel” exercise which takes place in November every year. The objective is to write a 50,000 word novel within the 30 days of November. Participants post information about their progress and pep one another and at the end of it, if they’ve completed their effort, they can get a certificate. I know some writers use it as a device to help them focus and get the first draft of a novel written. (Others go straight from writing for the NaNoWriMo to self publication with barely a pause between, with all the quality that implies.)

I am absolutely sure that November is the worst possible month for me to get involved, and so I’ve never even considered participating. However I do like the idea of trying to force myself to write daily and copiously simply in order to tell the story and get a beginning-to-end draft written. So, I decided that this September I would focus on Elin’s Story – and in particular on The Long Way to London – and see what I can achieve.

My target is to write 2000 words a day for Elin and my ambition is to write daily throughout September. Both these targets are necessarily flexible. I managed to fall ill soon after the beginning of September and let myself off writing for three days as I was running a temperature, which means it wasn’t until yesterday that I completed my first seven days of writing.

So far, my best day (Wednesday 9th) saw me write 2722 words, my worst day was yesterday (Thursday 10th) with only 735 words. My running total stands at 11,228 which means my daily average is 1600 words. Not so bad.

I’ve covered introducing my heroine, the death of her father and her relationship with her family especially her sister Gertrud. I’ve got an appointment for her to meet Princess Cecilia and encouraged her to say goodbye to her home. Elin’s sections of the story are told in the first person, but to give a variety of perspectives I’ve also introduced a secondary character, George North, an Englishman working for Princess Cecilia, whose story is told from a less intimate point of view. George is in Stockholm at the moment, waiting to meet King Erik XIV.

I’ll report more here later on, but if you’re interested in a day by day account of words written, you can always follow me on Facebook.
🙂

The Blogg52 challenge

This is my 52nd entry At the Quill tagged #Blogg52 and want to spend a little time meditating on this blog challenge and the value of blog challenges generally.

I came to Blogg52 after an invitation from Susan Casserfelt, one of the two curators (the other being Anna Hellqvist). It wasn’t a personal invitation, I think Susan sent it out to all the members of Egenutgivarna, but it came at just the right time. I was looking for something to give me a reason to blog on a regular basis, but the Blogg100 challenge that some of my friends were taking part in seemed far too demanding. Blogg100 encourages participants to post blog entries one a day for a hundred days; by contrast Blogg52 calls for one blog entry a week over a year.

I started blogging with the hashtag Blogg52 in March last year (here’s my first entry). Clearly I didn’t quite manage one blog entry every week or I’d have finished in March 2015. However, counting backward from today this is my 52nd entry.

On balance, I’ve enjoyed participating and the discipline has been very good for me. I’ve tried to follow the rules set out on Anna H’s website and have read, I think, the majority of all the entries that everyone taking part in the challenge has posted. I’ve also managed to comment on at least one – and often more than one – blog entry every week, though as I’ve been reading many of them on my mobile phone it’s often been easier to post comments on Facebook rather than on people’s blog sites.

It has to be said that I haven’t found all of the entries interesting – some have been written on subjects about which I am indifferent others have just not caught my attention – but many have been interesting and most weeks I think I have learnt things. And I’ve certainly been entertained.

I’ve also “met” some really nice people here – people whose comments on my own writing I have looked forward to receiving.

From the beginning I was aware that, as the only person blogging in English in a Swedish challenge, I was putting up a barrier between my writing and potential readers that went beyond subject matter and style. I know from personal experience in the reverse situation that, however good my receptive skills in Swedish may be, reading longer texts – especially more literary ones – requires a greater effort and I remain “tone deaf” to many of the nuances and references. I presume this is the same for Swedish speakers coming to my efforts. Yet I have been delighted to see (with the help of Google analytics and WordPress statistics) that many people have come to my blog posts over the months, even if not so many have been motivated to leave comments on the website or Facebook. (For links to the most popular entries see below the bar at the bottom of this entry.)

Of course, I greatly appreciate the comments I’ve received from everyone who’s made the effort, but especially from my more regular commentators: Kim, Eva and Pernilla.

In fact, at the very beginning, I was concerned enough at the thought that other Blogg52ers might think I was an English-language imperialist muscling in where I was not wanted that I actually asked the curators if it was okay for me to join in as an English-language blogger. I’m grateful that they were so welcoming.
#blogg52
I’ve already mentioned discipline as one of the most important values I think taking part in a blog challenge has. Even though I missed a number of weeks on a couple of different occasions throughout the year – mostly when real-life intruded – just knowing that on Wednesday I was going to try to publish a blog entry, that some people would be looking out for it and that I might disappoint them if I didn’t manage were powerful motivators.

Some days – as today – I have found myself composing the entry actually on publication day. More often, recently, I have managed to plan my entry a couple of days in advance and draft the entry beforehand. Even today’s piece I’ve actually been turning over in my mind for a couple of days now, though as I write this sentence it is 12:59.

Along with the discipline, motivation and planning, following a blog challenge has also helped me to better compose my entries.

I had an idea at the beginning that I should restrict myself to a maximum of 800 words. It was Kim who asked me, Why? And as I had no good answer I gave up that idea. Instead I find myself writing pieces that run naturally to about 1200 words – sometimes a couple of hundred more, sometimes two or three hundred less. Within this length I’m learning how to pace myself – to tell a story when I’m telling a story, or to present an idea when that’s what I have to share – so that there is a rhythm to my writing. I try to compose a good introduction, something to hook a reader’s interest. I follow it with a couple of higher and lower points along the way and a solid conclusion. I know I haven’t achieved this with every piece that I’ve written, and I know that some weeks I have been considerably more successful than others, but it’s my impression that I have become a better writer (if only of blog entries 🙂 ) as the challenge has gone on.

So where do I go from here? I see two ways forward.

First, I’m going to start looking for English language blog challenges and if possible find something which has a similar pace to Blogg52. Once a week for a year, or once a week for a quarter for example. I still don’t think I’m up to attempting a blog entry a day. Blog challenges are not so easy to find in the great Ocean of the Internet – it looks like I need to be a member of a writers’ group – but if any readers out there would like to recommend something, please do so!

Second, as I really don’t want to give up my contact with my Blogg52 friends, and as it seems as though the Blogg52 challenge is rolling on, I’m looking forward to continuing here. However I think I need to change gear somehow. Unless there are howls of protest, from next week I’m going to respond to the challenge from more than one of my websites. Specifically, I’ll keep on writing an occasional piece about writing At the Quill, but I want to introduce you to my new website of travel writing, Stops and Stories. I mentioned it in an earlier entry and it’s just about ready to go public so I hope that next week’s Blogg52 contribution will be on that website.

So, there we have it, just about 1200 words and my fifty-second Blogg52 entry. Thank you for reading.


These are the ten most popular posts At the Quill tagged #Blogg52.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Bibliomania in the family

My grandfather was a bibliomaniac. This is my mother’s father, Charlie – Charles Bradlaugh Warwick. My grandmother threw him out sometime in 1939, just around the start of the war, and although my mother met him once more during the war and there were family sightings of him to the 50s, by the time I was born we’d lost contact and I never met him. However I heard a lot about him, growing up.

He had a number of habits and qualities, some of which were positive, but overall the stories tended to dwell on the negative ones. His philandering, his ego, his bibliomania.

One story has him coming home to the cottage at Wilmslow on the outskirts of Manchester, where my grandmother and he lived in the late 20s and early 30s, opening his coat and taking out the two or three books he had stolen from bookshops on his way home.

Charlie worked as an accountant for various employers, but as a committed socialist and paid-up member of the Communist Party of Great Britain he may not have kept his jobs very long as he was always agitating for workers’ rights. His political convictions may also have helped him justify his book thefts.

According to Mum – and to my grandmother because she told this story as well – Grandma was always nervous about Charlie’s thefts, fearing he would be caught and arrested.

Debbie, Charlie and Elsa in 1925
Debbie, Charlie and Elsa (Mum) in 1925.

My grandmother, Debbie, was born Jewish in Odessa which is now in Ukraine but between the wars was a part of the Soviet Union. Her parents brought her with her elder two brothers to England at the turn-of-the-century, fleeing poverty and the pogroms. Grandma always insisted that she had been taken to see Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege, so I place their immigration sometime around 1900 as the old Queen died in 1901. I suspect though that they were illegals as I’ve been unable to find them in the 1901 Census.

As a Russian immigrant, Debbie was always worried about the police showing up on her doorstep. A marriage certificate with a British citizen was a fair security to have – but how would it be if he was a convicted criminal? I believe she went through a second residency legalisation after 1941 (when Britain and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side in the war).

I don’t really know whether Charlie ever stole more than two or three books. Perhaps one theft was enough to generate the story, but I suppose it’s more likely that it was a habit. In a way, I hope he was a bibliomaniac and did steal books on regular basis because only stealing two or three would put him on about the same level as me. Oh, don’t worry, I haven’t done it for a long time, but when I was a poverty stricken student and reading matter was not nearly as easily available as it is today, when books I needed to read were all borrowed out from the library and bookshops were more common and far less security conscious than today, I stole my share.

I never told Mum or Grandma of course. That would have only provoked a retelling of the Charlie stories and accusations of incipient bibliomania, which I already had a reputation for with all the library books I had overdue.

Grandma didn’t throw Charlie out because of his bibliomania but because of his philandering. As a 1920s Communist Charlie believed in “Free Love” and would have been perfectly happy not to lock himself into a “bourgeois relationship” (marriage), but he got Debbie pregnant and with the help of his parents she shamed him into marrying her. Not the best start perhaps.

Charlie full lengthIt didn’t stop Charlie continuing to act on his convictions, however, and for fifteen years or so he seems to have taken up annually with one new sweet young thing after another. My grandparents lived in or near Manchester, but when Charlie was having an affair, Debbie used to take my mother and move home to her parents’ in the East End of London. After Charlie’s affair had burned itself out, he would come down to London, plead with her to come back and they would all return to Manchester together.

This went on until Debbie got a job of her own. She became the warden of the Ivinghoe Youth Hostel just north-west of London in about 1937. According to my mother Charlie settled down for a year or so, but then took a shine to a guest at the hostel with whom he left. Later, he came back as in previous years to plead with Debbie, but now she had a degree of independence and she refused to take him back, so he returned to Manchester alone.

As I mentioned earlier, Mum did meet him once more during the war. She was in the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Air Corps) and apparently he tracked her down and wrote to her commanding officer asking if she could be given permission to come and visit him. She was then about 22. So she travelled to Manchester by train and went home to the address she’d been given. Her abiding memory of that visit is the books. Charlie was uninterested in spending money on bookshelves and had simply constructed walls of books – a row standing upright on the floor, a row lying down on top, a row standing upright on top of them, and so on right up to the ceiling. They were also good insulation, he said.

“That was an odd meeting,” Mum says, “I never knew what it was he wanted. I have a sort of feeling there was someone else there, one of his women, and that he was meeting me because she wanted him to.”

Many years later, quite recently in fact, Mum learnt that Charlie remarried (bigamously as he never divorced Debbie) and had a son. Mum’s new interpretation of her strange meeting is that Charlie had got the invisible woman pregnant, was going to get married (history repeating itself) and that the woman had twisted his arm to get him to try to reconcile himself with his first family. That didn’t happen.

Having learnt about the existence of her half-brother, Mum tried to get in touch with him. She wrote and then as he didn’t reply she eventually phoned him. They talked and she learnt a little bit more about him, but he was “not interested” as she says.

I’m not at all surprised. The poor fellow must be in his early 70s and this crazy old woman writes to him out of the blue and then phones him to tell him she’s his sister and that his father – now long dead – was a bigamist and he’s a bastard. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mum also told him about Charlie’s bibliomania. In his position, I doubt very much that I would be interested in pursuing a relationship, but Mum gets a little tearful about it now. She says she would have liked to have had a brother.


Another slice of family history this week, gleaned from my ongoing interviews with my mother (see here). The title of last week’s entry – Bibliophile – set me off thinking about bibliomania and the the only (if putative) bibliomaniac in the family.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Bibliophile

Over the last seven days, following my last entry for Blogg52, I’ve run a bibliophile’s — a book lover’s — questionnaire. One question a day here At the Quill, and on Facebook and Twitter. I come out of the experience with a slightly increased respect for all those people who create “click bait” questionnaires on the social networks. It’s not quite as easy as it looks. (Which isn’t to excuse the poverty of effort put into some of those Facebook questionnaires.) Anyway, having got to the end of my seven days it seems appropriate to sum things up.

First of all I should thank all the people who took time out of their days to respond to some or all of my questions. Thank you Agneta, Aleks, Anna, Eva, Kate, Lena, Miranda, Monica, Pernilla and Silia. The overall average of your response suggests you are all delightful, well-balanced people who are nevertheless passionate about books. Not an entirely surprising result.

If your responses say something about how you feel about books, the questions — and the way the alternative answers were formulated — gave you pointers towards my feelings. To be sure, I was trying to be light-hearted, but I think there are undercurrents.

I tried to strike a balance between questions about the physical object and the content of books. For good or ill, I am — as it seems all of you are — still wedded to the book as a collection of printed pages bound up between covers.

My first question had to do with books on shelves – the space available, the decorative quality, the dust trap they constitute, the challenge from the e-reader. “You sit in your sofa and look at your shelves and think…” No one chose E, my fifth alternative response: “Now all my books are on my e-reader I have much more space for my collection of porcelain plates with pictures of kittens.” Because, after all, you’re book lovers – not Dolores Umbridge. The results here were 7 As, 8 Bs, 1 C, 2 Ds. What I didn’t do was identify the sense in which people looking at their shelves were thinking: “So many books, and so many I’ve not yet read” (B). I hope it was an expression of delight and anticipation.

The second question was to do with giving away books you have enjoyed. It seems we’ve all done it and that none of us are unaffected. I clearly share the experience of waking in the middle of the night crying “Oh, no! What have I done?” And going on-line to replace the books I’ve given away. However none of you seem to have sunk to the level – as I have – of going to the charity shop and trying to buy back the books you’ve given them. (I didn’t succeed – someone else was ahead of me.)

Question 3, on Friday, had to do with our reactions when we see people reading books on public transport. Six out of seven of us find ourselves trying to identify the book by squinting at the cover or casually leaning over the reader’s shoulder. The seventh, it seems, is happy to actually ask, “What are you reading?” And strike up a conversation. In reply to some comments on Facebook I reminisced that for a period of time I was taking photographs of people reading books in public – till I saw a cartoon in our local paper in Gothenburg where a man reading a book on a park bench was surrounded by people taking photographs of him with their mobile phones. I decided my photographing of readers was a cliché, and stopped.

Question 4 was the question I feel most viscerally about. “You are watching a film and a scene comes up in which books are burned, torn, drowned or thrown. What do you do?” I was a little disappointed that only four people responded, but perhaps that’s indicative of something in itself. (Okay, it might just be indicative of a lack of time on a Saturday for silly questionnaires.) When I wrote this question I was thinking exclusively of my reaction to seeing physical books damaged or destroyed (“Wince, shudder; Cry out.”) Some of the responses reminded me that another perspective is to think about what the books contain and what reasons may be given for the destruction. This was the question I had not thought through as thoroughly as I might. However, I still feel that physical books have a value that may be greater than their contents. Is this rational? I’m just now thinking of that scene in the TV series Homeland where Brody the putative terrorist and traitor, lovingly wraps and then buries his copy of the Koran after his wife has thrown it on the oily floor of his garage. On the one hand this feels emotionally appropriate – the book has been damaged, is dead, and should be buried with respect. On the other hand, burying a book puts it as completely beyond use as burning it, so how is it better?

Question 5 came on Sunday. This one was about book series for young people that have become film series. I think I may have inadvertently skewed part of the response here since one of the series I chose to mention was the Fifty Shades series by EL James. Here’s what I was thinking.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) sparked a phenomenal interest in reading among a generation of young people, and for all the criticism the series received from the literary establishment (the likes of Harold Bloom – “Harry Potter is stupid crap”), both children and teachers were delighted with the series though for different reasons. The children loved the stories and the characters; the teachers said “It’s fantastic how this series has caught young people’s attention and introduced them to the delights of reading.” (Which was also the most popular option in my quiz.)

Harry Potter started out as a series for older children, but grew over the seven episodes to become a Young Adult series, taking up some darker themes not usually seen in books for a younger audience. Susanna Collins’ Hunger Games series (2008-2010) and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005-2008) were both aimed at a Young Adult/New Adult audience. Although both certainly developed their own unique readership, it seems to me that they may well have benefited from the success of Harry Potter and inherited some of that series’ readers as they grew older and started looking for more books that spoke to an adolescent’s spirit of enquiry or resistance, filled the sense-of-wonder/fantasy void and/or confronted awakening sexuality.

How does Fifty Shades (2011-2012) fit into this context? Well, it started life as amateur fiction created within Twilight’s fan base. For all its trappings of explicit sex and rose-coloured BDSM it is a romantic fantasy. I can appreciate that enthusiasts for Potter or Catniss are uncomfortable finding their favourites yoked to what is effectively soft porn, but I think the link holds.

Although none of my respondents ticked the D box (“What? Are they books? I thought they were films!”) it was apparent from the comments that most people are familiar with these series as films rather than books. As all my respondents, “you”, are adults I’m guessing it rather depends on how old the children are you associate with, which series you have met met as printed books.* (Declaration: I read the first five of the Harry Potter series because my niece Caroline was reading them, and the first one of the Hunger Games series because my friend Lena translated it. I’ve seen all the Potter films and the first two Hunger Games films. My knowledge of Twilight and Fifty Shades comes exclusively from YouTube trailers and Wikipedia.)

Let’s move on to Question 6. This was about film adaptations. I was interested to see that while some people were prepared to behave stoically in the face of the compromises (aka butchery) always present when films are adapted from books, others were prepared to admit to outbursts of ranting “to your friends and work colleagues about how the director has ruined the book” and enumerating “in detail in which specific ways the film fails to follow the book.” There’s passion for you!

Finally, Question 7 was to do with the disappointment one feels when a friend’s book recommendation turns out to be less than satisfactory. I’m not sure whether it’s a positive thing that no one admitted that a disappointing book recommendation might lead them to doubt their friend’s judgement and the basis of their friendship. Or perhaps it’s just me who is unhealthy in this respect. Having gone through this once – some years ago now – I’ve schooled myself to try to react according to my A answer (“Toss the book aside and get on with your life”) but it has to be said there is always a sneaking concern, given that the recommendation came from a close friend, that I may be “just too dull to appreciate” the book’s qualities.

Well, there you have it. My questionnaire and its analysis are complete. I promise not to do it again… at least not very soon.


*Hmm. It occurs to me that although you are all adults some of you may still be young enough to have met at least Harry Potter as teenagers. I sometimes forget my own advanced years. 🙂

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.