Last spring I spent two weeks in London for a work experience placement at Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. While I was there, I took the opportunity to invite myself for a meal at the lovely flat of a busy copywriter and mother. Lots of good food was had, including a very tasty cheesecake made by the eight-year-old son, and the wine flowed freely. But one of the reasons for the evening, was to talk about writing.
As many of you will know, getting any sort of work as a writer is very difficult with or without the relative experience. My host, having been a copywriter for about 12 years, is the perfect person to give advice about how to make it in this competitive industry.
I was pleased to discover that not only is this fab mother good with words, she also enjoys reading them. So while she was clearing away the remains of our delicious Coq au Vin, I sneaked off, wine glass in hand, to check out her bookshelves.
The fun began in her son’s bedroom, which is creative, colourful and, as every kid’s room should be, absolutely crammed with books!
I felt very at home in this room! Luc’s taste is varied and he has books of all different types; adventure, comedy, poetry, football. When I took a look at his bedside shelves, I was very happy to see favourites from my own childhood, such as Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling.
Mixed in with old classics such as Goodnight Mister Tom and The Phantom Tollbooth, I also found a lot of contemporary fiction by authors that I am not so familiar with. I have only recently heard of this series of books by Jeff Kinney, but Luc has a lot to say about Diary of a Wimpy Kid. He sympathises with the main character, saying “my mum and dad try to limit my video game time, just likes Greg’s mum in the story”. I suppose back in the days of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, parents didn’t have to worry about video games! Not that these books aren’t fun, as Luc says “the story is very silly and funny, in real life there is nothing really like the book”.
After a spot of reminiscing about my favourite childhood books, I thought it about time to get back to the adult world. So I soon found myself in the more grown-up looking living room with leather sofas, dimmed lights, flowers, a piano and, of course, some very full bookshelves…
Taking a closer look at these shelves, and I can see books that I have read and loved; Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, The Beach by Alex Garland and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, to name just a few. There are also books that have been on my ‘To Read’ pile for ages; Emma by Jane Austen, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniere and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
Venturing to the second set of shelves, on the right hand side, I found a very large non-fiction section and some very interesting, if obscure, titles. Books such as Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? might make you giggle, but taking a closer look, there are some much more serious themes going on on these shelves.
My host is clearly deeply into psychology, feminism and spirituality with titles such as Women Who Run With the Wolves, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, How the Mind Works and Why Love Matters. A small travel section with phrase books, dictionaries and guides, shows that not only does she enjoy travelling, she also likes to learn about the places she visits.
Browsing the shelves, I made a lot of mental notes for interesting sounding non-fiction reads. I have felt for a while now that I should read more non-fiction and some of these books would be a good place to start. But for the rest of the evening, with a bottle of wine to drink, maybe a nice photography book would be suitable to flick through…
After having a good look around, I thought it about time to ask my host a few questions about her relationship with books…
What are you reading at the moment and what do you think of it so far?
I tend to have three books on the go. One for work, a factual book on a subject that interests me, and a novel.
I‘ve just finished The Web Content Strategist’s Bible by Richard Sheffield. I’m a copywriter and digital content strategist and I can vouch that this book is a superb potted guide to writing for the web. A must-read for anyone tentatively making moves from print to digital media.
I’m also reading the Lonely Planet’s Discover California guide in preparation for a road trip with my eight-year-old son, Luc. I prefer Lonely Planet to other travel guides because they don’t make assumptions about the reader. Whether you’re backpacking or looking to stay in a lavish five star hotel, it caters for all folk. I also like LP’s tendency to have at-a-glance content. Discover California’s first chapter is entitled ‘California’s top 25 experiences’, which is essentially what I was hoping to find out when I got the book.
My current relax and unwind novel is The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. I was inspired to read it by my mum who said it was one of the best books she’s read. It’s a massive tome and with the constant, more pressing distractions of the books above, I’m sadly only a tenth of the way through it after six weeks. I am enjoying it however. It strikes me as an entertaining, clear snapshot (from a female perspective) of the 1950s-60s when, post war, the nuclear family was fast transforming into the familial beast we are more familiar with today. I mean beast in a good way – mostly!
How do you organise your bookshelves? Is there any particular order?
At the very least, when it comes to organisation I am verging on boring. At worst, worrying! I have two sets of bookshelves: One for fiction and another for fact and theory. The top shelves of fiction are for hardbacks and the rest are paperbacks that are, needless to say, alphabeticised by author. The fiction shelves are divided into sections of interest: literary theory, politics, feminist theory, history, travel, psychology, health, gardening, music and reference texts – all in alphabetical order within their sections. Yawn. If someone should happen to put Nick Hornby in the feminist section, I would be quite upset. Worrying.
What percentage of the books you own do you think you have actually read?
If you’d ask me this a couple of months ago I would have said 70 percent read and 30 percent unread, but space issues and a local jumble sale prompted a ruthless cull of my books. I got rid of everything I have read and didn’t enjoy, all the books I have never managed to finish and those I know I will never read even if the only alternative were to stare at a blank wall. My lowest bookshelf (one tenth of my books) houses all the books I plan to read. It’s a holding area, so no book will survive there unread for any more than a year before it’s jumble.
How do you go about choosing a book? And where do you buy / borrow them from?
Most of the fiction I read is through recommendation from a few trusted sources. I also tend to stick to authors. If I read one book I love, I will read all the books by the same author. I would love to say that I spend hours sifting through dusty second-hand bookshops, but I can’t. Most of my prospective reads get added to my Amazon wish list, then once a month (or two) I order a bulk batch to save on delivery. I know it’s not great to line the pockets of the giant A, so I sometimes make a sympathy/guilt trip to the local bookshop – usually at huge cost!
Which one book do you treasure above all others?
My thesaurus. I started a new job a few weeks ago and on the third day my boss tentatively enquired what I was reading. She was visibly relieved when I told her it was the thesaurus. She said she thought I was reading the bible. I couldn’t help but wonder why she’d watched me sit there for two days not doing any work while I read the bible and hadn’t mentioned it before!
And finally, what book should I read next?
You’ve read so many it’s difficult to know what you’ve read already! So I’ll give you my top five suggestions:
1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers – A beautifully crafted story of two orphaned brothers (one teenager and another much younger) making a life in San Francisco. It has footnotes and sketches (I like that kind of thing).
2. The Accidental by Ali Smith – A clever, creepy story about a strange woman who infiltrates a dysfunctional family.
3. Anything by Ian McEwan – he’s a genius!
4. Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss – A good book for any writer to have by their side when they aren’t sure whether they are writing about ‘Nude Reader’s Wives’ or ‘Readers’ Nude Wives.’ As Truss says, the former conjures up an interesting image of a naked, polygamous man!
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison – quite possibly my favourite book.
Thank you for letting me snoop through your bookshelves!
After a lovely evening I have learned a lot about writing and been given a new motivation to read more non-fiction. So maybe you will be seeing some non-fiction reviews on the blog in the future!
To snoop through more bookshelves, click on the link below!