The lockdown has brought a greater appreciation of simple things, like brown bread, English butter, Cheddar cheese, McVities Digestive biscuits, Yorkshire tea – and books. Overseas travel has become practically impossible, as a consequence of which, everywhere in England has become overcrowded and overpriced, leaving few options other than sinking deep into an armchair and reading.
Books were always a means of escape. Even in childhood years, they offered an avenue into worlds different from the one one in which I lived, the world in which I was a pale, underweight asthmatic reclusive who was frequently too shy to go out to do even things that he enjoyed. Books presented a different reality. Well-written, they had the capacity to create a feeling of being completely detached from life in a small, unremarkable village deep in rural England. Sometimes, even chores were performed with a book in one hand, a few lines being read each time an opportunity presented itself.
Books have assumed a new significance, perhaps it is because they are tactile. Given the choice between reading from a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone or a book, there is no question about the choice I would make. There is something reassuring in the feeling of a book: there is a sense of permanence, a physical weight, the smoothness of the cover, the crispness of the pages.
Reading academic books, I am noting are details of which I would never have been aware in my younger days. There are dates and places of publication and the names of publishers. There are footnotes and tables and indexes (should that be indices?). There are careful and considered structures, chapters with sub-headings, points that are bulleted. There are books that seem works of a very skilled craftsman.
It was a childhood ambition to be a journalist and a writer, to see my name above a report, or a column, and then to see it on the spine of a book. I slowly came to a realization of what an intimidating prospect that would have been, to have work that has taken many hundreds of hours dissected in minutes by reviewers who are quick to pick up on any weakness or failing. It became an ambition that I was glad passed unfulfilled.
On a grey day in a dull August, in a time that is out of joint, a pile of books sits on the floor beside me. Some date from the 1960s, but are as fresh in their wisdom as when they were published. There are few situations that cannot be remedied by more books.