The Beauty of Books

Like so many souls at the commencement of lockdown in March, I envisaged my indoor life being one of understanding that doing so would keep me safe, alongside a vision of spending time devouring the delicious books on my shelves to feed my soul.

The luxurious concept of curling up with warm cuppa and dog-eared books for months was one of the few positives I had hoped for…spoiler alert: it did not happen.

Where did the minutes, the hours, the days go? I have scoured the bathrooms, cared for my family, kept my head above water and continued to breathe. The purpose of locking down was decidedly not to fall ill, but any restorative respite for my busy brain never happened.

Yes, I have read a couple of books: I savoured each word of Hamnet and revisited Steinbeck, I breezed through first chapters of many new mysteries and launched into the most recent Tana French. But I’ve hardly completed an entire book in nine months. That was not the plan. That I have neglected to take advantage of this rare opportunity, a chunk of time to sit still and whisk my brain away from tough realities at home, renders my heart heavy with self-shaming, non-reading guilt.

Does this sound superficial? Do you understand? Have I a kinship with others?

Presently, I hear friends speak of their dashed plans to tackle the grandest domestic designs, sketched and plotted in the spring and now, as winter lurks, their homes consist solely of unopened IKEA boxes and misplaced Allen keys. Neighbours whisper to me over the back fence that their six-month diet and exercise adventure has not only gone AWOL since spring, but their dreams of six-pack tummies by Christmas have dissolved into six-pack lager binges at the weekend, forcing them to purchase festive jumpers two sizes larger than last year’s.

We are all so very different. Humans. That is no insightful claim for me to declare. But I have heard and witnessed a camaraderie amongst the many folk I know, friends I speak to, colleagues I connect to via Zoom, and shop assistants I shoot the breeze with during these challenging months: apart from uncertainty as to how our health may be affected during lockdown, each of us formulated visions half a year ago of positives we could balance against our daily fears, financial concerns and determination to remain virus-free.

After nine months, I am privy to others’ confessions that, apart from the day-to-day living and ‘simply surviving,’ most personal aspirations to improve one’s life has mostly gone amiss. Or unachieved. Or still idling at the ideas stage.

A few weeks ago, I made the bold decision that acceptance is the best tonic for what ails me. Stop chastising myself, cease moping about time wasted and flip the negative to positive. After all, I did begin writing again over the summer and, with only a handful of submissions sent to potential publishers, I have revelled in acceptances, elated to see my words in print again. That’s a positive, right? And, although the word-count of my novels have inched up slower than molasses running down one’s chin, the books are taking shape and readers’ feedback has proven a glorious bonus. Life in lockdown, therefore, has not all been a bust.

But what about the already published books, so many books, the over-indulgent library that mocks me from every wall in my house? I refer to my previous revised approach to book neglect: foster acceptance.

I have decided to regard those thousand accumulated books as my friends instead of a possession to-do list to conquer. Beckett, Baldwin, Blume and Barrett Browning. They speak to me–or have spoken to me at one point in my life–as a storyteller beckoning my imagination into their world. I consider my books–many I read at university and have been hefted from country to country, others I treasure from my youth or purchased recently, still boasting their purchase receipts for bookmarks–as nuggets of gold awaiting my discovery. They are bound, paper passports offering to transport me from what has oft-been my home, comprised of one part sanctuary and two parts haunted house. I know those stories are my cache of get-out-of-jail-free cards, collated and waiting for the next time I require a respite bail-out from this sometime looney bin.

Apart from the millions of type-set words contained within, I have adapted a fresh perspective about the aesthetic beauty of books. It is not just my delight at reading the spines, my heart-connection with the authors, the sight of their names stirring my soul and reminding me of times I was moved to tears, to laughter, to snap aloud that the protagonist is a wishy-washy femme fatale who should be rendered to the remainder table by her more vivacious antagonist. Rathers, it’s the overall gorgeousness of the spines that entice the eye, their colours, dimensions and artwork. It sounds ridiculous but, for all the years I have plastered my walls with teetering tomes, I never truly regarded their collective, dazzling display as art itself. I hang framed prints, I toss vibrant, velvet cushions on my sofas, all to embellish my interiors. But it took lockdown for me to discover that the technicoloured books atop my shelves are, themselves, a design dream.

Alas, on this grey December day, I sit and ponder what next awaits, as lockdown eases ever so slightly. I am conceptualising what Christmas will look like–a more muted family affair yet one which still demands the annual hauling out of cluttered boxes, the scuffed ornaments, the strands of lights that no longer twinkle, the tree-topping angel with a broken wing. I have survived to see Christmas 2020 and I am grateful.

So I sit here, reflecting on this post and noting that it strikes as rather self-indulgent folly. Books, books, you didn’t read books…what’s the big deal? However, beneath this rambling about my unsatiated literary appetite, lies truth. My truth that, in lockdown, I have shifted yet again from reader to writer. And, whilst I revel in the momentum of my publications, I counterbalance with the acceptance that I am imperfect and, without my sketchy lifetime spent shifting through dark and light shadows and the stacks of novels I have absorbed over decades, my writing would grey. I have sometimes lived a life of grey and do not wish to return there.

I crave colour now–in abundance. My collection of muted sepia-spined books brought to life on the shelf aside Hamnet‘s take-your-breath-away book jacket–I regard now with fresh eyes. I recently added Rónán Hession’s brilliantly written, slow-burn book of kindness to my bookshelves, the yellow cover of Leonard and Hungry Paul cheering me as I espy it next to Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper (both of which I have indeed read). Even if I do not pluck one of my books from its sandwiched home between two others this month, that is okay. The books will be fine. I will be fine.

There will be days–one day–when I fold my angular body under a duvet, select a book off the nightstand and feel the balance of its weight shift in my hands as I flip pages from right to left, mentally escaping this place. Books read in the ideal moment. That tonic. The best medicine. The cure for what ails me has been here all the time. Beautiful medicine propped on shelves, with invisible tags affixed to their glorious spines, saying:

So I raise this toast to delicious reading–and writing–how ever it arrives to your table. May surrounding words and the beauty, perhaps lurking in the most unlikely of places, sustain you through these unprecedented times.

[Note: I took this (top) photo of beautifully artful books at The Tate in London. Worth the visit!]