Saturday, 6 January 2007

Opening Blog

This Blog will be, or is intending to be, about books I have read and am intending to read, and films I have seen at the cinema. I hope it will be updated regularly and will be of some interest to people other than myself. I have been reading other people's blogs over the past few days that have had to do with books, and I picked up some ideas about what I found interesting and what I would like mine to be like.
I have never kept a diary or journal before, so this has something of a New Year's Resolution about it. I have been doing a lot of reading lately but when I look back and try and remember some of the books and my opinions about them I find it difficult. So this blog will be in the form sometimes of an aide memoire. Reading of people who get through one hundred plus books a year I wonder how they manage it. In fact, I wonder how they manage to read more than one book at a time. To me that it is strange. I like a book to envelope me, to absorb me completely to the exclusion of everything else. I can't get to grips with the idea of switching between novels, it seems too much like using the remote-control to switch between two movies when one movie has an ad break.
So, let's make a start. For Christmas I received Alan Bennett's "Untold Stories". I had never read any Alan Bennett before this and I approached it with a sense of slight disdain. All I had ever come across of Alan Bennett's seemed to be plays starring aging actors, the majority of them female, in face-to face conversations with the camera. The plays were not so much depressing as vaguely irritating. The characters were all from the North of England and seemed to deal with the minutiae of living, gossip and growing old. At first glance "Untold Stories" seemed as if it would follow this line. But as I read the opening piece that deals with his Mother and Father and Aunts I was strongly reminded of my own parents. At a certain point, his description of the old people's home where his Mother spent her last years moved me unexpectedly and deeply. My wife was reading it out loud (she was alternately reading extracts from her own book and this one) and had to stop as she was choking up with emotion. It's strange how that can happen. Anyway, we came to the end of the first part of the book and I decided not to continue with the diaries. "Untold Stories" is a big book and seems to be a compendium of various writings Bennett has done over the years - as such it does not need to be read as one continuous work. So I have put it to one side; possibly to be resumed, possibly not.

I used the first of the book tokens I received at Christmas to buy Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter". I had read some good things about this writer and this is the first book in a trilogy he has written. The other two books are "Independence Day" and "The Lay of the Land".
The book seems to grab me in fits and starts. Some chapters are really good, whereas others I am finding drag slightly. I think that the chapters that deal with the present time are more interesting whereas the chapters in which the main character, Frank Bascombe, tells us about his past, seem less engaging.
Over the weekend I spent some more book tokens on four books to which I am really looking forward: William Boyd's "Restless", E.L. Doctorow's "The March", Georges Perec's "Life: A User's Manual", and David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas".

Enough about books for now. As far as movies are concerned I haven't been to see anything yet and I must say that it seems a pretty poor start to the year as far releases are concerned. I didn't fancy the Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima movie nor the Ben Stiller Museum one. I was looking forward to "Perfume" directed by the guy who made "Run, Lola, Run", but the reviews were so mixed I just couldn't summon up the enthusiam in the end. The subject matter was such that I needed unanimously good reviews to prompt me to go. Also, my wife (I will call her 'C' from now on) was not too keen on going in the first place, so it was always going to be an uphill struggle to get her to go with me.

Just after the New Year I went, with great anticipation, to join the local library near where I work. I love libraries - in fact, my first job after leaving school was in a library. So in I went, armed with my utility bill, which seems to be for us Brits the equivalent of the identity card. The signing-up procedure was very quick and while the library assistant tapped away at the computer keyboard entering my details I looked at the stacks in the distance and envisaged myself wandering for hours on end choosing what to borrow.
The formalities over, I was issued with my card and my PIN number (to be used if I wish to reserve or renew books over the phone). I then entered the library proper and - what a disappointment! The fiction hardbacks and paperbacks are arranged on a circular perimeter wall which means that A and Z are a long way from each other. Now I am the sort of person who does not go into a library with a clear idea of what to borrow. I remember the names of authors and books as I wander around. This is a random remembering, so while I am browsing in the T's I think of a book by Margaret Atwood that I would like to look at. In this library that involves a whole trek from one end of the library to the other. And then there is the question of the tables that seem specifically set aside for the use of students of all ages to use. These tables leave very little room between the back of the student sitting studying and the stack that I am intent on browsing. As a consequence I feel inhibited squeezing my way along looking at the top three rows of books and conscious that if I try to bend down to view the books on the lower three rows I will probably bump into the chair behind me and disturb the student studying. I have nothing against people using the library for the purposes of study but when they sit on the floor in front of stacks scribbling into notebooks or leave their coats and rucksacks on the floor behind their chairs so that it becomes an obstacle course walking from one stack to another, I confess that I become somewhat frustrated.
There is no one browsing the stacks and there are no chairs separate from tables where people can just read books. Bookshops can provide armchairs, so why can't this library? It doesn't seem to be laid out for the benefit of the book-borrowers. There are large floor areas filled with racks of compact discs and DVDs. Special racks advertise book promotions: Arabic writing, Britain in the 60's etc. and no one seems interested. Have libraries forgotten about what their role should be: allowing people to borrow books and read for free?
I then had a look at the selection on offer, and it was pitiful. Browsing for books on Chess, I see that half the books on the shelves are not available for borrowing. They are treated as reference books, for some reason which I cannot understand. How can a book of chess games not be allowed out of the library? In order for this book to be of any use it needs to be used in conjunction with a chessboard and how many readers are going to bring that into a library?
I looked in vain for books by Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Salley Vickers, and Chekhov's Seagull. Is everything that I am interested in out on loan?
The City of London library in the Barbican was so much better than this that I am almost tempted to make the long underground journey on Saturdays in order to see a decent selection of titles, decently laid out. But this is not going to happen - I will just continue buying paperbacks and every now and again visit my new library to see if the situation has improved.

No comments: