Throughout my life books have remained amongst my most loyal friends; they are, thankfully, totally indifferent to change. I realise that I’ve been exceptionally lucky in my career, for which I’m extremely thankful. I love my work and, on the whole, have few misgivings. That said, over the last twenty-five years, as opportunities presented themselves to me, one of my biggest regrets has been losing contact with people I once considered friends. Lamentably, as the seeds of my writing career grew and blossomed, the attitude of a few old lags changed.
I guess this shift in attitude (by some) wasn’t entirely unexpected. Indeed, back in 2000, when I began working in television, I was advised that this move more than any other would seriously test the bonds of friendship. And so it proved. Besides, I’m not altogether naïve, I’m sure we’ve all heard stories of people who have achieved a certain success, in whatever form that may take, only to see (once) close allies fall away; resentment, envy, who knows the petty reasons why? Such things go with the territory, I suppose. To deny that would be foolish.
Anyway, real friends are exactly that: real. They stick with you through thick and thin simply because they are firm friends. No other reason is needed. Real friends treat each other as equals, they take the time to write or to call; to chat about nothing in particular.
Genuine friendship is a constant.
This heartfelt sense of genuine, constant friendship is exactly how I feel about books, too. The authors we admire, the stories they write and that we so cherish, they are always there for us. And for this reason our favourite books remain lifelong friends. I have perhaps ten books that I would never want to part with. I happily read them over and over. With each turn of the page I know what’s coming but that just adds to the anticipation of reaching a particular passage.
Three Men in a Boat still lifts my spirits, on a bad day Jerome’s uncle Podger always makes me laugh. Nineteen eighty-four still makes me pause to take stock ( “… If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”) to realise how fortunate I am to live amid the freedom and liberties that much of our world extends to us. And, when reading The Old Man and the Sea, I always find myself rubbing my palms, feeling for telltale signs of those old calluses gained from twenty years of working with my hands.
There is something very special about a book, of its relationship with the reader. Something incomparable, almost magical happens when you select a book from the shelf, hold it in your hands and physically interact with it. First, there is the weight of it, how it sits in your hands. Then there is the touch of the paper, its quality, its texture, its feel to the fingers.
There are the fragrances, too, of course: the paper, the ink, and the distinct smell of the book’s very age. Old books smell different to new books, naturally. Books age just as we age. The passing years leave them ever more fragile, always more susceptible to injury. Collectors talk of marking and bumping, of foxing and fading. The terms of time.
A curious thing about my own book collecting: no matter how many books I acquire over the years, there never appears to be very many of them, collectively, I mean. When you see some posh private libraries, with endless mahogany shelving, yards of brass railings and one of those really cool ladders on wheels, there are literally hundreds, if not a few thousand volumes on display.
Personally, I have twenty old wooden wine cases stacked one atop another, three rows high, all roughly uniting to form a crude bookcase. And that’s it. All my books are stored in them, from my earliest Doctor Who paperbacks (bought from Loughborough’s W.H. Smith’s in the mid nineteen-seventies) to my most recent addition, which, at the time of writing, happens to be an Everyman’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And there’s plenty of room for more books in those wine cases too. Perhaps the difference between my own rather frugal collection and those infinitely more grandiose libraries is that I only buy books that I intend to read, not display.
As a total aside, Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars, by Terrance Dicks, was the first book I ever read, cover-to-cover, in one sitting. I remember putting the book down, gone midnight, with sore eyes and a long-lasting sense of achievement.
Oh, and a final thought on the subject of display books: should you happen to own a pub or a restaurant (with one of those rather curious faux studies): I once heard that it’s possible to buy old books ‘by the yard’ to help fill the shelves. “Yes, I’d like twenty-three yards of your finest second-hand books, please, mixed colours. Ta very much.” Bizarre notion.
Anyway, I digress. This idea of actually reading one’s books is, I believe, worth a little further exploration: How many times has someone asked if you have read such-and-such a book, only to then receive from them a bemused, if not totally flabbergasted look when you reply that, no, in fact, you haven’t. “What!” they exclaim, aghast. “How can you possibly not have read blah-de-blah? It’s totally brilliant, awesome!”
Well, quite likely their recommended title is just that, if not more so, but the bottom line is that there are simply way too many books in the world (even just the totally brilliant, awesome ones) to be able to read them all. It’s quite impossible. And by a very, very long chalk, too. The reality is we all have to be decisively selective in what we choose to read, ultimately life is too short to take any other approach. To me, collecting books merely to leave on a shelf, knowing full well that I shall never get round to reading them is a nonsense.
Let’s assume that the average person lives for eighty years and begins reading seriously at age ten. Let’s also assume that an average person reads one book each week. That means he or she will read, at best, 3640 books throughout their long and fruitful life. Alright, let’s be generous and up that total to 5000. No, let’s make it 10,000 (perhaps they read a lot on holidays?). Without question, absorbing that much material would certainly make for a very well read individual.
Now, ponder this: Oxford’s Bodleian (arguably the grooviest library on the planet) currently stores over eight million books on its shelves. The British Library, meanwhile, plays host to a staggering twenty-five million titles. And, believe it or not, the Library of Congress houses close to thirty million. And that’s but three of the umpteen thousand significant collections that are scattered around the world. It is, therefore, utterly impossible for any of us to do more than scratch the collective surface of what, over the ages, has been written, printed and bound for our reading pleasure.
All of which brings me to this near overwhelming position: Considering the plethora of diverse subjects to which authors devote their time, and the countless titles that have been published on those myriad topics, the odds are, quite literally, way in excess of several million-to-one against you choosing to visit this site, to delve a little deeper into the trilogy of books that I’ve added to the mix. That you have chosen to do so, that you may already have read one, two, perhaps all three of my books, well, in all honesty, I’m beyond flattered. I can’t tell you how absolutely thrilled I am.
Now, let me state right here that although I’m rather pleased with how each of them turned out, I’m under no illusion, I know the books I’ve written are no great works of literature. I’ve told you how much I enjoy books, I always wanted to write, and these three titles are the results of that desire. They’re books about race cars and of my involvement in the often surreal world that is Formula 1. And that’s all they are. I’m not imagining for an instant that reading them will be a life altering experience for you. Well, unless you consider having a better understanding of the differences between push- and pull-rod suspension to be life altering. If so, then prepare for your soul to be reborn.