These are my answers to a fairly random and unserious set of questions, culled from Norm and Tiberius Gracchus. I can’t help thinking that they are most aimed at exactly the kind of reader that I hate most of all – you’ll see what I mean. Nevertheless I’d be very interested to hear your own answers, or answers to whichever of the questions you find interesting, in comments.
Private habits can be revealing. I’m not sure that this particular private habit is. But I’ve done my best.
Do you snack while reading? > It’s more that I don’t really snack per se, but even if I did, most of the books I find myself reading are too large or too delicate or too heavy to leave me a spare hand. I’m one of those people who tries to avoid splitting paperback spines – a hangover from an admired teacher’s advice in primary school – and that’s not something you can do with one hand. (If I’m going to be using a particular paperback heavily, I won’t put off the inevitable – that book gets properly roughed up early on, just to get it over with).
What is your favourite drink while reading? > Coffee, or Coop orange squash in the evenings. I’m not really a pub reader: pubs are for talk, music, friends and people-watching, and anyway, I prefer wine bars. I did get through a Wordsworth £1 “Middlemarch” and a four-pack of Flowers Best Bitter at the same time once, on an overnight ferry to Dieppe. It was as unglamorous as it sounds.
Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? > I worked in libraries for years and just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I have one or two friends who are superb self-footnoters of books (I remember a Louis MacNiece Selected and Lyndall Gordon’s biog of Virginia Woolf which had been made much better for the same person’s pencilled attentions, and then there are the fabled Amis/Larkin scrawls from the 1940s), but in general I’d associate writing in books with nutters and the green ink brigade.
How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? > I keep torn paper slips in a bulldog clip on my desk. Over time I must have owned at least a dozen souvenir leather bookmarks, but they were all gifts and I can’t remember ever having used one in anger. Library call slips are probably the authentic solution, if one exists. But in all truth, unless it’s research and I’m juggling 15-20 books, journals and papers at once, finding my place just isn’t a problem and never has been.
Fiction, non-fiction or both? > Almost entirely non-fiction. Obviously, a lot of non-fiction reading has gone into More Than Mind Games, but my reading’s always been that way. It’s more likely to be poetry than fiction (I follow modern poetry – including journals etc and most of the Bloodaxe/Carcenet/&c. output as it comes out – but poetry I re-read is unlikely to be any later than “High Windows“). Although I buy and read hardback fiction from time to time – most recently Martin Amis’ superb Pregnant Widow – I’ve a gut dislike for the kind of book-lover who reads mostly fiction, “loves books”, jokes lamely about e-readers not catching on, thinks that because they live amidst piles of rotting, unsorted volumes that they are the salt of the earth, the last of a breed, and isn’t it terrible about Iraq?
Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? > This isn’t really a non-fiction sort of question, is it? Whether or not it stems from my having read Tony Buzan in the ’80s, but I read books backwards, or from the index, or “first and last chapters”, or picture credits first, or jumping in at random, as often as I’ll go straightforwardly from front to back.
Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? > I have thrown books. David Winner’s “Those Feet” was the last one to get it, a real shoulder-and-elbow job – brought on by his snide, stupid and ill-informed chapter on “Sexy Football”. It’s not a bad book, really – but it is stupid to judge Victorian sexual mores as if Kinnaird and company had penicillin and the pill.
If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? > Without being unbearable about it, I don’t really come across unfamiliar words any more. But I do come across words that I’m interested in, and I’ve reference works and a good ISP, so yes, I will stop. The word “fan” is an americanism, for instance, but “soccer” isn’t – it’s been borrowed there and forgotten here. “Fan”, like the idea of a league structure, has its roots in 1860s American baseball.
What are you currently reading? > “The Thirties: an Intimate History” by Juliet Gardiner, “England Expects: a history of the England Football Team” by James Corbett, “Blood, Iron and Gold” by Christian Wolmar, “Does God Hate Women” by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, “Towards the Light: the story of the struggles for liberty and rights that made the modern west” by A.C.Grayling, and “Eleven Minutes Late” by Matthew Engel.
What is the last book you bought? > Jonathan Miller’s “States of Mind: Conversations with Psychological Investigators“, found in a Stockbridge charity shop. Raeburn Place in Edinburgh must be one of the best remaining “strips” in the UK for non-fiction second-hand books. I’ve a first edition Kipling that I found in Shelter. Its late-Victorian first owner bowdlerized Gunga Din with spectacular style and humour: Kipling’s later poems are written out in the same hand and pasted in, but there’s been a change of heart, and they’re left unintefered with.
Do you have a favourite time/place to read? > On long-distance trains, late at night. Something about looking up from Gunther Grass to find you’re doing 180mph and heading for Berlin. But I tend to do most of my reading of whatever kind on a bed with the books spread around me, pens, notebooks, paper and laptop at hand, Radio 5 on in the background and, ideally, hot afternoon sun seeping through the curtains.
Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? > Eh? Is this something to do with fiction? If it is, I don’t want to know.
Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? > It used to be “Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis and “Right Ho, Jeeves” by Yer Man. But this is the Golden Age of science and sport writing, and could claim to be one for history: there is too much out there at the moment to focus down on just one or two writers. For practical, running-your-life purposes, David Allen’s commonsensical but revelatory “Getting Things Done” has saved my life on more than one occasion.
How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)? > By collections. Antiquarian, Amis/Larkin books and papers, Sport,Psychology, Fine Art, History, Poetry, Reference, Oversize, Bound Serials etc. on a series of mission-style folding bookcases. I keep past notebooks (mix of Moleskines, Rhodias, Filofax pages and latterly BlacknReds), accounting/finance books and the 1912 Boy’s Own Book of Outdoor Sports and Games in my office. In the bathroom, Wodehouse, Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Stephen Fry. There’s a shelf of cookery in the hall. My wife keeps 4-5 shelves of working material for her research, and we’ve a cupboard of boxfiled ephemera (some of it real ephemera, most of it maps and guidebooks). We’re hoping to have everything catalogued on Librarything by the end of the year. Both of us spent 10+ years working in libraries – good places to develop a grouch against the sandal-wearing brigade who love libraries and think they’re terribly important (once something’s become THAT, it’s doomed for sure) – but, like restaurant kitchens, libraries aren’t bad places to pick up a kind of discipline around certain things.