Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Books and libraries

I can't remember the first book I ever had.  I do remember that quite early on I had a book made of cloth rather than paper, and then there was a bible stories picture book printed on thick cardboard. It had a funny smell!  After that I had the usual kind of alphabet picture book - you know the kind of thing - a is for apple, b is for boy, c is for cat, d is for dog. But not with the sounds that you can get from modern books of this kind.

Books have been incredibly important to me over the years I can't begin to think how many I have read over the years.  Just looking round my study now there are literally hundreds. And I have even managed to write a couple although maybe it should have been more. Maybe it can still be!

I have to thank my mother for my love of reading. From an early age she would sit down and read to me and I then managed to read on my own from quite an early age. She always had at least two library books on the go and she took me to the local library in Croxley where there was a wealth of lovely books for me to read. More on libraries and librarians later.

I can remember reading a lot of books on family holidays in the fifties and sixties.  Where ever we were it always seemed to be raining and there I was in the beach hut with a book in my hand. And taking loads of books with me on holiday has stayed with me.  I haven't got into eBooks though. I prefer to have a physical copy in my hand. I can read stuff of a screen, but not for long periods of time.  I also like to have a book by my bed. A chapter or two and I am off to sleep!

Thinking about the books I have read you could categorise them in a number of ways.  Fiction and non-fiction of course.  On the non-fiction side there were text books, but also reference books.  Two books I especially remember from the sixties were an iSpy annual and a book about ancient civilisations.  The iSpy annual included a section on animal and bird footprints in the snow and I can remember trying to identify tracks out in the back garden and in the woods during some of those snowy winters back then.  The other book had fascinating material on the Mayans and the Aztecs, the Egyptians, Greeks, Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Hittites and others.  I am so glad that I have managed to follow up this interest with many visits to ancient sites in Greece, but also to Mexico and a few years ago to Syria before its dreadful disintegration. I should have loved to have got to Iraq too.

I also went through a bit of a biography and autobiography phase - sporting heroes mainly.  The one I remember best was Richie Benaud who was a particular hero of mine.  On the music side I loved Ralph McTell's Angel Laughter.  More recently I have read everything by and about Patrick Leigh Fermor who lived for many years in Kardamyli, one of our Greek holiday regular places.

On the fiction side the books can be divided into "worthy" books and easy reads.  On the easy read side I seem also have into the habit of devouring everything in a series.  In my early teenage years it was the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge. Then, after reading The Gun by C.S. Forester at school I discovered the Hornblower novels and worked my way through them.  Next it was John Buchan and Graham Greene. I have re-read some of these again recently and realised how much I missed first time round.

Going back to sport for a moment, I don't think I am missing any books about Watford FC from the likes of Trefor Jones, Oliver Phillips, Lionel Birnie and Matt Rowson. I share their fanaticism!

In my early twenties I went through a Science Fiction phase, starting with the Isaac Asimov Foundation series. I think it was sparked by hearing a radio adaptation of the books, which opens up another line of thought, namely the interaction between reading the books and film, TV and radio adaptations of them.  I prefer to read the books first and then see the adaptation (as has been the case with Andrea Camilleri's wonderful Montelbano series recently) but I think I  was turned on to Simenon by the Rupert Davies portrayal of Maigret on TV.  I have always liked crime novels - thinking about it I read most of Agatha Christies books by the time I was sixteen before moving on to Sherlock Holmes.  More recent favourite authors include Kinky Friedman, Anne Zouridi, Amanda Cross, Mike Nicol and Deon Mayer. Michelle Giutarri . That sparks another thought - I might not have come across some of these authors but for Amazon's recommendation system. I also have to credit radio programmes like A Good Read and book reviews in the Guardian and Observer.

Having mentioned Amazon I am a bit conflicted over them. On the one hand I love the fact that I can just sit here at my computer and order a book which will pop through my letter box in a matter of days,  But I also love real bookshops where you can just browse the shelves and stumble across something really interesting. I also wish Amazon would pay more taxes so that more libraries could stay open!

It is time to move on to libraries and their impact on my reading. As I have already said I  was a member of the Hertfordshire Library service from early on, and I have kept that up down here in Hampshire. The library at school was good too, and in the sixth form I also made use of the library at Wall Hall college where my mother worked as a librarian. At university some of my happiest hours were spent in the library, particularly in my second year as an undergraduate when I was in digs with nowhere suitable to work. Coming down here to Portsmouth at first the library was just a couple of floors of books in Mercantile House until the wonderful new library was built in Ravelin Park. My teaching and research has benefited so much from this library, and the wonderful librarians that work there. I should like to give a special name check to Judith Stamenkovic who was a great help to me and my students over the years. I have no doubt in saying that I found the library to be the best part of the university - I can think of nothing I  can criticise it for. And Inter-Library loans are wonderful.

In the 1990s I was lucky enough to be involved in the management of the International Biblography of the Social Sciences (IBSS) project at the LSE. as the database went online.  Again, working with the librarians there I realised how much a library was not just the books and journals but also the people working there.

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