What matters, the book or its contents?

800px-Harvard_college_-_annenberg_hallThe vast and labyrinthine libraries of Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA, have within their collections at least three books which are bound with human skin.

These types of volumes – though understandably rare today, given that they give right-thinking people the heebie-jeebies, were not unknown up to the 16th century. The practice even had a name – Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the executed convict for example.

It’s the most extreme example I could muster of a point where the physical book itself, rather than its contents, becomes an object of interest. A more savoury example of course would be the historic books held in the treasures of the British Library – the illuminated medieval gospels, the original Beowulf manuscript and the rest. With these items the book itself is as important as the words with in it.

Whether it’s wondering at the wonderful illustrations, marvelling at the historic value of the work or indulging in a ghoulish fascination that the binding was once someone’s skin, we would look on books like these primarily as objects in their own right rather than holders if information.

Personally I’ve always considered that the content of a book is all which really matters to me. I’ve always bought paperbacks rather than hardbacks for example, because I’ve never understood why one would want to pay more to read the same thing.

I would never be the sort of person who would collect first editions or historic books – I’d rather have a nice new one where the print was clear and the pages didn’t smell musty. And, though I keep the books I’ve read, I do so because of what’s in them rather than what they look like or feel like.

Given all this I should be a great lover of ebooks. After all, what greater statement could there be that the physical book isn’t important and its content is king than to dispense with the book altogether? And I do like ebooks. But part of me still yearns for physical books too, and I buy many more of these than I do downloads.

I don’t value the book as an object so much as I value ‘books’. I like the feel of them, I find them easier to read for long periods than a screen, I like the way they can be handed around – which you can’t really do with downloads.

I can see why a special, beautiful or ancient book deserves to be in a museum. I might even go and take a look at it (except for the skin ones) but for me the point of the book, its beauty, its truth and its value, will always be what it contains.



Reading Rule book

This is something of an ’Is it just me?’ post – and one where I expect that it actually is just me.

But, the thing is,  I have a whole range of self imposed rules regarding what fiction I can and can’t read.

I don’t know how it started or why – but there’s been this list in my head for as long as I can remember regarding what I can read and how and when. It’s a list which sounds odd to me when I see it written down – and until now I haven’t had it written down, it’s only been in my head.

If I were to analyse it I suppose I could come up with sound reasons for some of these rules, even if they sound odd to other people. They impose discipline for example, they make sure I finish what I start, they make sure I read widely and well – and so on.

This is a rulebook which only applies to fiction – I can do what I like with non-fiction.

Here goes – and in no particular order:

I cannot borrow books

– either from the library or from other people, I must buy them, read them and then put them on my book shelves.

I cannot start reading a new book until I have finished the one I am reading

– I must finish each book I start, even if I don’t like it. If it’s boring I will persevere until the end, then hope the next one is more interesting.

I will not read more than one book by any given author

There are always so many fantastic authors I’ve not tried yet, I always feel I have to move on. Sometimes I promise myself I will revisit a favourite when I have time – but there’s always someone new.

I will lend my books out to special people

– but will fret and secretly seethe if they do not give them back to me. For example, my brother, an engineering contractor, once borrowed my copy of Martin Amis’s Money. When I asked for it back he said ‘I’ve left it in the office’. When I said ‘well why don’t you pop to the office and get it?’ He said, ‘the office in Nigeria.’ I was not happy.

Once I’ve read a book I must keep it

– on my bookshelves, in case I ever need to look at it again, which I rarely, if ever, do.  If someone has left my copy in Nigeria I must buy another copy and keep that on my shelf instead.

So there we go. I think I probably have other weird reading rules as well – these are just the ones which are top of mind for me at the moment. Ebooks, I have discovered recently, are exempt from my rules plus, the rules only apply to fiction. I can do what I like with non-fiction books – borrow them from the library or a friend, read them two at a time, chuck them when I’ve finished or leave them on a table in a sub-Saharan African state. The world is my lobster.

What I would say though is that rules are made to be broken – and I have broken all of mine at one time or another. I just don’t like to.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Sign here

So – I’ve just had my first book signing. That was quite a posh moment, made me feel like a proper author.

If you weren’t able to make it you can get the book from Waterstones online here

And the Kindle version here.

The signing was at Waterstones in Gloucester, where I live. Waterstones is more or less the only show in town as far as bookshops go in most British towns these days. All the little independent ones have gone the way of the dodo and I would guess that even the mighty Waterstones is feeling the pinch what with the online revolution and the march of downloads.

Who knows, in a few years there may not be any bookshops to do signings in, or any books to sign.

But for now there is a Waterstones on every high street with its tables piled high with best sellers and its Costa coffee franchise. When you walk through the door of one you smell the unmistakable scent of new books.  So I was able to spend a Saturday afternoon sitting behind a small pile of my books with Rebsie from my publisher on hand for moral support.

It’s a curious experience this book signing business. Basically you are sat watching people do their shopping. Though I am of course keen to sell copies of my book I don’t feel it’s right to go up to people who aren’t interested and pester them – I wouldn’t want someone badgering me if I was shopping. So I waited for people to come to me – and thankfully quite a few did.

One or two mistook me for a member of staff and wanted me to tell them where the John Grishams were, but most wanted to talk about Song of the Sea God which was great. You really do need a quick way of describing your work in this situation I’ve found – it’s no use coming over all coy and saying it’s too complex to sum up in a few words – people want to know what it’s about. So I have my elevator pitch ready. I tell them it’s about a man who washes up on a small island off the coast of Britain and tries to convince the local people he is a god.

The people I talked to were very receptive and it was a fun experience – plus I sold a few copies which was great. As well as wanting to know what the book was about they asked a bit about me – where I was from, what I do for a proper job, have I written anything else, and so on. I’m quite chatty, which helps I guess, and I enjoyed the whole thing more than I expected to. With any luck I’ll get to do it again!