Just One Book – supporting the independents

When I was growing up the internet didn’t exist. There was no Amazon, no eBook, no literary website publishing short stories and reviews. The only way I knew to find what I might read next was to go to a bookshop (forget the library – I’d read that by the time I was 13). My local bookshop was a Waterstones, well stocked and bizarrely laid out, as it was based in an old building of the university city I lived in. I spent a lot of time stroking the spines, taking down a book, reading a few lines and putting it back. I was poor, you see, and the net book price agreement was still in force.

“The net book what now?” I hear you youngsters cry. Why, this was just a little thing that said a bookshop had to charge the exact price on the back of a book, with none of your fancy modern discounting, thank you. This protected a publisher’s profits, and I imagine the author’s income. But as with all things, the consumer was eventually found to matter more and the agreement was dismantled in the late nineties.

Now I am torn into bits about this, selfish bits and other sadder bits. Firstly, I like books a lot, and I like being able to buy more of them, and yes, I have spent a good deal of money at Amazon. It’s so lovely getting a book through the post. Secondly, without the NBA, supermarkets started selling books, and celebrity memoirs had to be published to subsidise the fiction (I imagine – I can’t see much other need for them). Thirdly, the combination of discounting and the internet enables websites to vastly undercut your local independent bookshop, with the result that so very many of them have closed.

The other day I realised that I was exceedingly lucky. I live within a stone’s throw of several well regarded and *still open* independent bookshops. We obviously read a lot, south of the river. Then I tried to remember the last time I’d been to one, and actually it turned out to be December, but before that…well, who could say?

So I went to one. I was tootling past in the car, saw it, decided to park up and drop in to Dulwich Books. Just like that. No fuss. And while I spent twenty blissful minutes browsing their fiction section, and admiring their well thought out displays, I realised that a good bookshop does a marvellous thing – it narrows your choice. Ordinarily we are against narrowing, especially since we’ve become used to the idea that we can have anything we like as long as it exists on Earth. But how do you choose from the entirety of the published world? How do you discover a new author? How do you wander off piste, avoid the reviews, the mega hitters and find an author that is true to you, on that day, at the very hour?

You browse the well-edited shelves of your bookshop.

Whether you buy a book or not, speak to the bookseller or not, you are still making a connection with another book reading human being just by looking. I can still remember the moment fifteen years ago when I picked up The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, and the moment eleven years ago when I picked up Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell. Both books were in the staff picks section, and both authors have played a big part in my reading life. In a smaller bookshop, every book has been chosen to fill the limited space. It’s a bit like choosing from a private library, one selected for the potential clientele that will come through the door, eager to find something new, transporting, transforming.

A plan formed in my mind as I gazed at the spines, feeling once again like the optimistic teenager I was in that Waterstones. In addition to my read more, see more, do more resolution, I am going to set myself a monthly budget of £10 to spend in local bookshops. It’s not much more than the cost of one paperback, but I can roll over the change. My inspiration was the publisher Salt, who ran a campaign to get their website visitors and twitter followers to buy “just one book” from them. If we all bought just one book a month from our local bookshops, instead of succumbing to the click of a mouse every single time, they’d be in much better shape, and with any luck still there when you need them most.

So there’s your challenge, dear readers. Just one book.

This post appears to need footnotes. :

  • I would ordinarily have linked to the books in this post, but felt wrong doing it to an online bookshop. I will probably go back to linking to things next post, especially given that I’m not going to close my Amazon account or anything. I just want to even things out a bit. It just feels weird for this one post, is all.
  • The book I bought was Lorrie Moore’s A Gate on the Stairs. No, I haven’t started it yet.


I think the second must really be the first day of the new year. On the first everyone is too busy negotiating hangovers, or visitors, or fractious children who’ve been too long without routine. In Scotland they’re all still languishing with their extra bank holiday but across the border we’re all secretly relieved to get back to normality sooner rather than later.

Are you resoluting? I say I don’t, but I make them every year. Vague notions that rattle around my head, globulous, slippery things that amount to whispering “be better” repeatedly. Why do we consider ourselves to be failing so consistently, so catastrophically, that we try to amend ourselves every year?



This year I’ve decided to focus on what I’m lacking in my life, things I miss, things I would like more of. Tangibly this comes down to more reading, more cinema, more theatre. This past year I have berated myself as worthless for not reading even half the books I would have liked to, and it’s not so much a problem with personality, as having forgotten how to clear out some space for these things.

I am also skint though, as we all are, so I’m having to be creative about it. I do have a fair number of books bought in a frenzy at past Hay Festivals, which could be read, and there are untold numbers of classics available for free on Kindle. I also have a couple of unlistened to audiobooks (the rediscovery of audiobooks was a highlight of last year, and made painting 37 spindles a lot easier). We have a few months left of a cut price lovefilm subscription, and I have friends who will happily lend me dvds. My only stumbling block is theatre, but there’s always the Globe for a fiver, and hopefully the summer season at the National with cheap seats. It’s not impossible to absorb more words and more art, but it is going to take some planning.

The plan then, is to finish a book & watch a movie every week of 2013. It will be harder than it sounds, I know, but here goes.

Small successes in the discipline of Discipline

Earlier this year I took up running. When I say running I mean jogging fairly slowly on a treadmill, since I have knees that make very odd noises when I do things like walk down stairs or bend down to pick things up. Creaky knees. They’ve been bad for years and I’ve always used them as an excuse to avoid any physical exertion. One day I decided to ignore them, bought proper shoes, and got myself on a treadmill, figuring that the shock absorbers in the machine would give me a hand.

And so it turned out. And of all things, it also turned out that I liked running. I went from being knackered after a minute, to running for 25 minutes without trouble. You’d think I’d conquered it, wouldn’t you?

So I stopped going. My husband began to make noises about the ‘stupidity tax’ I was paying to the gym. My trainers reproached me whenever I moved them around the shoe house and I shoved them to the far end where I wouldn’t have to touch them. I felt my successes draining away from me, my stamina receding back into the sofa.

And then, after a two month break, I started running again. I felt like a beginner again, true, but the improvement was faster this time, and I felt I could push myself to do more. I knew I could do more. I had my past success to draw on, knew what it felt like to push my body forwards for just another “thirty seconds”. I’m covering 5K again, and I think I might want to do a race.

Lately I’ve been sitting down to do a writing exercise every night. I feel much better once I’ve done it, though my fingers are still creaky. But it’s getting easier to make the words come, and I know I can do more. All I have to do is keep showing up.

Routine Schmootine

There’s a lovely curated post over on Brainpickings, about the daily routines of famous writers. It’s fascinating to see how other (successful) writers make their marks on paper, and what superstitions and rhythms they create to shortcut themselves to the work. Some, like Kerouac’s, seem affected and contrived. Others, like E.B. White’s, barely exist at all. All of them are effective, because each is particular to the writer in question. There is no magic formula to producing work – you have to find your own way. Nothing is universal.

Except perhaps this, from Don De Lillo: “A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Narrative, character, and the business of falling in love.

I’m in love with two people other than my husband. Not that I’ve told him. He doesn’t need to know and by next month it will be someone else.

The amount I fall in love has everything to do with the amount that I’m reading. One memorable summer I only fell in love the once, but I fell hard and I’ve never got over him*. Fictional people are so wonderful to moon over. It’s not the same as falling in love with a real person, because it’s not always the case that you’d want to move in, marry and choose white goods with the object of your affection, but you do feel that delicious pull to be with them as often as possible. Your eyes race over the sentences to find out what happens next, you sigh as you close the last page of the book and immediately open it again at the beginning, unable to stand the idea of being without them. And you are never going to be disappointed by the socks on the floor, the dishes left in the sink or the anniversary forgotten.

I love a byronic hero. I love an underdog. I love flashes of honour, loyalty, brains, compassion, self-sacrifice. I love the character on the sidelines with wit and arched eyebrows. I love the girl who gets the boy without sacrificing herself. I love the boy who sacrifices everything except honour, and then gets the girl anyway.

I love these characters, because I want things to be better than they are. I want people to be the best extremes of themselves, to rise above our ordinary concerns of bill-paying, commuting difficulties and food buying, and be more noble. I want to be more noble through living with them for a little while.

This month I’m mooning over two characters from different centuries. Firstly, Eugene Wrayburn, in Our Mutual Friend. No spoilers here, (yes, even for Dickens – be careful what you google!) but Eugene has wormed his way in to my affections, from playing the disinterested, silent cad on the outside, to being … well, better on the inside. I have about 17 hours of this to listen to yet, so please, no elucidation. I hear his name and I perk up. It’s quite something.

The other character lives inside an app. His name is Sam, and he lost someone close to him recently. To zombies. I’m learning to run so I can help him (the app is called Zombies Run! 5K training, just in case you need to learn to run for the apocalypse.) It’s quite something in a completely different way.

Story is the thing. Everyone has one, and once they start unfurling, once you see how your characters start behaving when life is thrown at them, it’s hard not to form some kind of attachment, positive or negative. And this, my loves, is why my novel started failing. I loved everyone, except my narrator. He was just a blank to me, whatever I tried. I suppose it’s what you might call a fatal flaw.

Can I fix it? Perhaps. But I’m not sure I should. What I need to do is something I used to do all the time when I was younger – dream up someone I do love.

*Sherlock Holmes. Obviously.

A diversion

Bixby deftly caught the art deco figurine before it hit the ground.

“Put that down.” Reynolds was standing behind him, holding a tray.

“I’m sorry,” said Bixby. “I just backed into-“

“I saw what you did. It doesn’t matter. Just put it down.”

Bixby closed his mouth, set the figurine back on the little table and went and sat down next to Benjamin on the sofa. Reynolds sat in the chair on the other side of the coffee table, putting the tray down as he did. The tray carried a coffee pot, milk in the bottle, three cups and a handgun.

“Don’t mind the gun,” Reynolds said. “It’s not for you.”

“Forgive me if I stay a little uncertain around it,” said Bixby.

Benjamin leaned forward. “Was it your wife’s?” He looked towards the figurine, her elegant hands reaching up to the sky, her lithe body draped in fluid ceramic cloth.

“Yes.” Reynolds poured the coffee, handed out the cups, sat back in his chair. “But we’re not talking about that now. We’re talking about you, Vasco. Why does nobody call you that?”

“My mother calls me that. When she’s sober enough to remember who I am.”

“And who does she remember?”

“A boy. A boy who didn’t know any better.”


Benjamin frowned. “I’ve come for your help. My girlfriend-“

“Is going to leave you,” Reynolds finished.

Bixby laughed. “Oh they said you were good, man.”

Benjamin stared at him, giving the proper question a chance to bubble up into his lips. “Why do you know that?”