I love reading. It is an escape, an adventure. It provokes ideas and is entertainment. I am catholic in my taste enjoying literary and historical novels, fantasy, myths, crime, history, philosophy, art books, reference books, and poetry.
A recent feature article by Frank Furedi (The Age, Spectrum, 5/12/15) reflected on the importance of books, reading and the messages we send when we display our literary tastes. He quoted Seneca on the ostentatious display of books.
Many people without a school education use books not as tools for study but as decorations for the dining room.
Seneca’s cynicism about the display of books does not stop with what seems to me a snobbish reflection on the unschooled;
it extends to the collector of scrolls.
… you can see the complete works of orators and histories on shelves up to the
ceiling, because, like bathrooms, a library has become an essential ornament of
a rich house.
I think it still is. If you are wealthy you may have books with finely tooled and lettered leather jackets and first editions; if not, then quite likely there will be a display of hardbacks and/or paperbacks.
I confess to be a great displayer of books, although their display is very haphazard. When I bought my house I was delighted with the beautiful wooden bookshelves in the living room. There was ample room for all my boxes of books.
While they are books that are mostly read or referred to, and the shelves are essentially storage spaces, there is an element of ornamentation and, dare I admit it, a desire to display an aspect of myself. I want visitors to be somewhat admiring of my bookshelf and to consider that such a wide range of subject matter is a reflection of my intelligence, learning and refinement. As Feredi suggests
Reading was always regarded as a source of prestige and a matter of refinement
and culture. With so much at stake, reading is not simply about absorbing a text
but often also about putting on a performance.
I recall years ago a friend talking with some envy of the wonderful home her friends had built. She described it as modern with clear lines, large windows looking across the ocean, open spaces where children could play, its uncluttered
simplicity. I wondered how comfortable it was to live in. Where were the spaces to be messy, to read and listen to music?
“Oh, the music is piped so you don’t have the clutter of records and CDs. The walls are totally clean relying simply on their clear surface and colour.”
“So where are the books and music kept? Do they have a special room? – a reading room?”
“No books! But don’t they read?”
She looked at me somewhat condescendingly. “You don’t have to have books to read. You use digital readers.”
Now it is not all about ornamentation and vanity in my sitting room library. I like it when people go to the shelves and comment about the books either sharing their enjoyment of a particular book that they too have read or enquiring about the
book or simply choosing to enjoy dipping into one of the dippable books. Any conversation that may develop from is can be further insight to the book. In other words, another adventure may be enjoyed from the book.
I have a Kindle. I bought it because my shelves were overflowing. I had a huge clearance of books that I did not think I would reread or refer to again. I decided I would buy all novels as e-books.
The Kindle has only had limited success as a tool for reading. It is no use for books with illustrations. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is a case in point. Somehow his illustrations did not seem as sharp as I would have expected. But worst of all, I found that I wanted to flip backwards and forwards, not simply because of the illustrations but also
because of the narrative. Trying to find a solution to this problem distracted me from the fluency of his writing and the absorption of the story.
My books often have sticky notes to enable me to return to an idea or to a particular phrase that resonated. I haven’t found a successful easy way to do this with a Kindle so if, in discussion and I want to quote or refer back or help someone find the page, I can’t. The pleasure of sharing is lost.
So, guess what? – my shelves are once more overflowing and while I have a number of books on my Kindle, there are not as many as I had anticipated and nobody knows what they are and we are therefore denied that chance conversation.
Now I had better start saving my pennies to buy The Flowers (Dr. Lisa Cooper), a book that marries floristry and philosophy. Right up my alleyway! And if I improve my flower arranging in the process of dipping into it, all the better. Oh, and I do hope a friend of mine who I know is interested in flowers and floristry will notice it and together we can
enjoy pouring over it and discussing the ideas that emerge from it.