Tag Archives: second-hand books

While the Sun Shines

And so, just in time for July, I’m back from a busy weekend spent at the inaugural Hay Festival Kells. Happy new week, happy new month, and hope you’ve missed me a little – but not too much. How’ve you all been? It’s great to be back.

Thank GOODNESS you're back! Image: ourpeacepath.com

Thank GOODNESS you’re back!
Image: ourpeacepath.com

You know, I used to think that being surrounded by books would be the best thing ever. I mean, ever. Better than being surrounded by piles of money or rivers of gold or whatever else you might want to think of. Lakes of beer, possibly. Anyway, now, I know it’s true. From Friday morning to yesterday evening, that’s pretty much exactly the situation I found myself in. Except it was even better than I’d imagined, because my husband was there, which always makes a fun thing even more fun. Also, as well as all the books, we had plenty of historical-stroke-archaeological things to look at, too, on account of Kells being well over a thousand years old, all told.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more amazing, do you know what the most exciting and wonderful bit, out of all the exciting and wonderful bits this weekend held, was? We got to see this lady here:

Lesser intellects (i.e. everybody!) cower before her! Image: guardian.co.uk

Lesser intellects (i.e. everybody!) cower before her!
Image: guardian.co.uk

I still can’t quite believe I managed to find myself in the same room as Jeanette Winterson, for it is she in the wonderful image above. But it happened. And all for the rock-bottom bargain sum of €8.00. How cool is that?

Jeanette Winterson gave a talk on Friday evening, one of the definite highlights of the festival overall, where she spoke about her writing life and her childhood and read some sections from her recent novel ‘Why Be Happy When you Could Be Normal?’; my husband, who has never read a word of her work, was pretty much won over by the charming warmth of her presence and the power of her prose (well, at least he was on Friday evening – I’m not sure how long the effect lasted.) I think he may even read one of her books, but whisper it in case he gets spooked. He doesn’t generally ‘do’ fiction, so I’ve tried to sell ‘Why Be Happy…’ to him on the grounds that it’s pretty much an autobiography, and largely non-fiction. I’ll wear him down, never fear.

After the dizzy heights of a Jeanette Winterson reading, then, the weekend had a lot to live up to – it managed admirably, of course. Saturday was spent going from pop-up bookshop to pop-up bookshop, wherein several gems were unearthed; most of the bookshops were selling second-hand books, however, which you may remember me spouting off about only the other day here on the blog. I managed to keep my purchases to a minimum – for me, at least – and I did my best to buy sensibly and with conscience, bearing in mind that all the money raised through second-hand book sales was going to some form of charity. I hope I managed to strike the appropriate balance, most of the time.

Hay Festival Kells also showed me an important truth about my marriage, believe it or not. I’ve never really had cause to wonder whether my husband and I are a good match, but just in case there was any chance that a hint of doubt could ever start to grow in my mind, this weekend put paid to it. We are, of course, two peas in one pod. Nothing tests a union more than spending hours doing something that other people would probably find deathly boring, and not only enjoying it, but completely losing track of time while enjoying it – and not even caring. We spent hours trawling through books, completely happy to beaver away – he in the non-fiction sections, I up to my eyes in the children’s, usually – and topped all that off with trips to each of the town’s historical sites. Kells was founded by monks in the eighth or ninth century, so it has plenty of those. We spent time in the house of St Colmcille, rebuilt in the eleventh century (and absolutely amazing to look at – the stonework is mindblowing), and we gazed upon the huge Market Cross, a Celtic cross probably made in the tenth century and re-erected in the seventeenth by no less a figure than Dean Jonathan Swift. I didn’t learn until after I’d visited it that it was used as a gallows during the 1798 Rebellion; on reflection, I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.

I may never have mentioned this before, but I’m addicted to cemeteries – not in a ghoulish way, but in a historical-enthusiast way. My husband isn’t always as intrigued as I am, but he’s usually happy to let me have my fix. This weekend he showed great forbearance and patience, for Kells is full of historical burial grounds; he didn’t once complain, but just dived in and joined me in my explorations (further proof that he is the man for me, I think.) I love looking at old tombstones, admiring the workmanship of the lettering, marvelling at the age of the burial, wondering about the people who’ve passed away and what their lives were like. I do, admittedly, tend to get quite emotional at times, particularly when I encounter graves wherein entire families are interred, and/or a list of children’s ages are spelled out on the headstone. Sadly, this is not uncommon, particularly during times of plague or famine, to which Ireland is no stranger. One of the sites we visited was a Famine graveyard – I’m using the capitalised form because I’m talking about the Great Famine of the 1840s here – and it was, pretty much, a blank field with a stone cross memorial in it. No markers exist for individual burials, no gravestones, no names. I admit I wept, and I prayed for the souls of those who’d died.

It’s amazing to think the Famine happened something like 170 years ago, but the pain of it still sears across the heart of Ireland. Anyway.

So, we trudged home yesterday evening with our books and our thoughts in tow, and now we’re facing into another week. My husband has a few more days holiday from work, and I’m trying to spend as much time with him as possible while still thinking about everything that’s on my schedule for this week and this month – more competitions, more entries, more agency submissions, more ideas to sketch out, more dreams to form and shape and plan for – more amazing things ahead, I hope.

I hope you’re looking forward to July, and that you’re planning holidays or thinking of taking some time out. I recommend going to a book festival, you know, just in case you’re looking for something to do…

Image: rte.ie

Image: rte.ie

Reality Check

I’ve written before on this blog of my passion for encouraging literacy, particularly among children; if I had my way, every child on this planet would be exposed to books at as early an age as possible. If there was one thing I could do – given unlimited power and funds – it would be to equip every child in the world with their own mini-library, and with the skills to read it. I truly feel that one of the most useful things we can do for our future generations is to ensure they can read as well as they are able, and that they read as widely as possible.

Of course, there are children who just don’t like to read – that’s sad, but it’s a fact. However, they should, at least, be given the opportunity to read, and encouraged to try, and exposed to as many different types of book as possible, just in case something might engage their imagination and spark off their interest. I have a belief – and it may be a naive and silly belief, but it’s mine just the same – that there is a book for every child.

A sight that gladdens my heart... Image: shannonbrown.typepad.com

A sight that gladdens my heart…
Image: shannonbrown.typepad.com

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to put this belief into practice. I was in a bookshop – one with which I’m long familiar, and which I can never resist dipping into if I’m close enough to visit it – and I was, of course, browsing intently in the children’s section. A young mother approached me, her six-year-old daughter in tow, and asked me my opinion on what she should purchase for her little girl to read.

I’m not sure if she thought I was a staff member, or if it was a case of ‘once a bookseller, always a bookseller’ and she caught the whiff of enthusiastic knowledge from me, but whatever the reason for her question, I was happy to help. I learned this lady was the mother of a ten-year-old, the six-year-old I had the pleasure of meeting, and a four-year-old, all girls. The eldest child was a strong and enthusiastic reader, she told me, but the others struggled. They found it hard to emulate their sister, and found themselves bored by a lot of the books they’d tried in the past. They liked ‘funny’ books, and were growing tired of the princessy-type, pink and glitter books that they had once loved.

I threw my eyes around the shelves, and came up with a few ideas. Andy Stanton’s ‘Mr Gum’ books were my first suggestion, followed by Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ series (enthusiastically grabbed by the six-year-old); for the older girls, I thought of Jeremy Strong’s ‘There’s a Viking in my Bed!’ and the wonderful books of David Walliams, which are funny but also sweet and uplifting, with a comforting focus on love and friendship and family, so important to young readers. I think the lady was touched by my efforts and glad of the suggestions, and I certainly appreciated being asked for help.

Image: waterstones.com

Image: waterstones.com

However, as pleased as I was to have helped these young readers to find something good to exercise their brains, there was one aspect of the situation that has been on my mind ever since, and it centres on the fact that the bookshop we happened to be in was one that deals exclusively in second-hand books. The reason I like to go there so often is because I always find new authors to follow and new series to start collecting, and it’s fantastic to dig around in the piles of books and uncover some lost classics and rarities. It’s also wonderful to be able to pick up a book for less money than it would be if I bought it new – but with a view, always, to purchasing the writer’s back catalogue in a ‘proper’ bookshop if I like what I buy second-hand. I discovered Catherine Fisher this way; I got heavily into Kate Thompson by browsing the shelves of this very shop. The same thing applies to Jenny Nimmo, who I adore, and most of whose books I have subsequently purchased new. Sometimes, I don’t mind buying books second-hand if the author is deceased, or if their work is out of copyright – then, I don’t feel like I’m dipping my hand into a fellow writer’s pocket and taking their earnings from them – but normally I try to purchase books new as often as I can. Not everyone feels this way, for a variety of reasons – some of them excellent, unassailably logical reasons.

The mother of these young readers, for instance, was enthusiastic about second-hand books not because they were a gateway to new writers and their back catalogues, but because of their cheapness and relative ‘disposability’; it’s always easier to give a book away, or not to mind if it gets wet or torn or dirty, if you didn’t buy it ‘new’. I can’t blame the lady for thinking this way – as important as it is for children to read, it’s also important for them to have shoes and clothes and school uniforms and food, of course, and I can completely understand why new books would slide down a parent’s list of priorities. But, as an aspiring writer, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pain at the thought.

Every book bought second-hand benefits, in financial terms, nobody but the person selling it; the author gets nothing. If a book is borrowed in a library, at least the author gets a tiny fraction of a payment for it. It’s tough, realising that something which benefits readers so much (i.e. second-hand book purchasing) can be such a bad thing from a writer’s point of view, but that is the reality of the world we live in. I do not judge the lady I helped for her choice, particularly because I also frequent second-hand bookshops (though I do try to support the authors I love as much as I can); I just hope that, perhaps, encouraging children to read when they’re young will turn them into not only enthusiastic consumers of books, but also enthusiastic supporters of writers when they grow older, thereby ensuring there will always be a flow of new books to read. I also hate reducing the whole ‘book creation-book consumption’ thing to crass economic terms, but that’s a reality, too. Writers need to earn a living, however meagre, and that’s becoming harder and harder with every passing year.

It’s important to clearly state that of course I believe it’s more important to encourage children to read than it is to ensure they only read from brand-new books – literacy concerns trump all else – but thoughts of ‘what will become of writers?’ have been playing on my mind since my encounter with this lady, nonetheless. I’d love to hear your opinions on this, if you have any. If you buy your books in hard copy, do you like to browse in second-hand shops? What’s your thinking on the economic issues I’ve laid out here? Do tell.

Happy Tuesday! And, naturally, I hope you’re reading, no matter where you bought your book.