Thursday 10 April 2014

We are constantly being told that independent bookshops are a rarity, and indeed news of closures outstrips those of openings. However, there is still an astonishing creativity, professionalism and flair at work in this area and they are continuing to be beautiful, inspiring places to visit - proving as much a 'leisure attraction' as a resource or commodity.

Recently on a visit to friends in the North East, I returned to the wonderful Barter Books, a secondhand bookshop in a disused railway station in Alnwick, and made a further journey across the border to the award-winning book and giftshop, deli and cafe that is Main Street Trading Company in St Boswell's.

Both had a stunning attention to detail, decorating their spaces with more than the bookshelves. Both offered food and drink for sale, and places to sit and relax while browsing. Both made choosing a book a communal experience with displays, notices, advice. And both offered souvenirs of your visit! I couldn't resist, buying a beautiful ceramic monotone mug from each.

I think all booklovers agree that there is nothing like the pleasure, the sense of anticipation, in touching, feeling, turning the pages of a book (while not denying the resource that is the e-book).

Increasingly buying a book from a bookshop will be more than handing over cash and shoving the purchase in a plastic carrier. It will also be about selling a memory, a feeling, an experience.



Friday 7 March 2014

The longlist for the Baileys (no apostrophe!) Women's Prize for Fiction was announced last night and I'm more excited than I think I've ever been with a book prize! I've already read three of the titles, three more are on my must read list and I am familiar with almost all of them. So, full of anticipation and, if I get the time, to work my way through a few more of the books in order to make my own choice against that of the judges.


Sunday 5 January 2014

There was an astonishing debate running last week. It was initiated by Ruth Rendell who told the BBC Radio Four Front Row audience that she believes reading is now 'a specialist activity'.

I heard about this when a researcher from BBC Radio Suffolk called me at 8.30 in the morning asking me to debate the point on their programme 40 minutes later.

The researcher was unable to tell me the context of Rendell's argument. Ultimately it didn't matter because the presenter didn't want to talk about it at all when I went on air. You can hear what we did discuss here.

However, yesterday in the Guardian, Philip Hensher agreed with Rendell in his opinion piece. He pointed out that, while we should be in a golden age for reading, with books being so accessible in so many formats and for such a small fee, in fact it is not the case.

Hensher argues that 'we all pay lip service to the importance of reading, but no public body seems very interested in serving it'. Just as we are told it is good for us to eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day, so, he insists, the government should recommend we each read 15 books a year.

Really? More people are reading more books than ever before, and they are discussing and sharing what they are reading more than ever before...aren't they? Look at people travelling on trains and planes; look where books are being sold; look at the reviews and interviews in any magazine or newspaper;  the adaptations for film, tv, theatre; the literature festivals in every town; the book clubs for any interest or community; the awards and their subsequent sales.

Undoubtedly some people won't be reading, but hasn't that always been the case? If we want to kill a love of reading then we should urge the government to tell people it's good for them. Now, closing libraries, that's another issue entirely....

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Well, that's 2013 over - 94 books read and an astonishing array of authors interviewed and hosted at events in Woodbridge. That sums up the year really. (There has also been a couple of short breaks to Germany and Spain, a 10k race run, coxing and sculling continued, and much enjoyed exploring the Suffolk countryside and social circles). It's been an exciting and challenging year, but how do I top it in the forthcoming 12 months?

The highlight had to be presenting Katherine Grainger to an audience of 250 in October. It had taken some eight months to set up the event to promote her autobiography and it proved nerve-wracking right to the last few minutes: I was due to be taking Katherine out on stage but she was still battling her way to the venue through traffic and terrible weather. Just a few minutes late, though, and it all went incredibly well. It was a huge privilege to meet her. What an amazing person she is! Completely unfazed by anything put before her; intelligent, funny, generous, committed and hugely inspiring.

It is difficult to see, for the moment, how I will be able to match that in the coming year. My programme of author events has also included Margaret Drabble, Kate Mosse, Deborah Moggach and Meg Rosoff, and I've met and interviewed Susan Hill and Simon Mayo. And I doubt I want to exceed my tally of 94 books read either - will I be able to remember plots or characters if I'm steaming through them at a faster rate?!

So what do I want to achieve in this coming year? Well, instead of reading so much, I think I need to up my game in writing this year. That means more blogs, more letters, more reviews, more articles, and more stories. Let's see how well I've done when I come back on 1 January 2015!



Tuesday 1 October 2013

Short stories have a high profile currently with prizes, festivals and new collections. Does this mean they now have a larger audience? It has long been anticipated that the much talked about limited attention span of today's society might mean a resurgence to this form. For myself, I know I prefer the commitment of a good novel, so I asked the Browsers Book Group for their opinion.

'A short story is rather like poetry,' said one lady. 'I'm worried when I've finished it whether I've missed the point.'

'I don't want to have to sit and think about what I've just read,' said another, 'with a novel I enjoy it while I'm reading it and when I put it down, I move on.'

Despite its brevity, then, a short story may be considered more taxing than a 600-page bestseller.