What did you read on World Book Day?
Just as a dog is for life, and not just for Christmas, so a book is for life, and not just for World Book Day. Praiseworthy though it undoubtedly is, this annual promotional day for the printed word is not enough to shine a light on the worlds that hide in our imagination, brought to life by the skill of authors and the comfort of our armchairs. So, what’s worth a read just at the moment? Explore these top five reads with our blogger Stuart Pearcey…
Years ago, a bookseller told me: “You can’t curl up in bed with a good computer.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? At the time, mind you, he was right. Reading a book on a screen was impossible. The screen was fastened to a box that lived under the desk in a nest of wires and fluff, and the tablet was about twenty years in the future.
And in those days’ books were smaller than they are today; the text squeezed more tightly onto smaller pages behind covers that were plainer and less appealing. But those were the days before the competition of TV, radio and the internet; when readers were more prepared to work for their entertainment, and less keen to have it laid out before them on the flickering box in the corner.
These days the proliferation of TV channels and the finite amount of quality shared out amongst them means it can take all evening to find out there’s nothing worth watching, and by then it’s too late to open a book anyway.
So, let’s pretend that the TV is broken, and assume you’re going to read a book. Radical, isn’t it? These are the ones I’d pick up; my favourites at the moment; the ones I reach for when I’m not writing about online expense management.
My top five reads
OK, I’m cheating, but my favourite read will always be the book I’m reading at any given moment, usually during the half-hour I set aside before sleep. Just now it’s A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman. Hardly an expose, but an appreciation of the professional life of the man who changed the way political interviews are conducted on television. His view of interviews on breakfast television?: “…they were the journalistic equivalent of the novelty breakfast food, Pop Tarts.” Priceless.
Cold by Ranulph Fiennes. Why anyone would want to venture into some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, on foot, dragging behind them everything they need to survive, is beyond me. Imagine your feet being so damaged that taking off boots and socks brings the skin off the soles of your feet too, but there’s nothing else to do but keep walking. Fiennes describes the experience, and the determination that drives him on in the extremes of low temperatures.
At Home by Bill Bryson. Bryson is a gifted modern storyteller, but At Home isn’t really a story; or if it is, it’s the story of our homes, and why they are the way they are. It’s in the pages of this generously-sized to me that we discover people were frequently made ill by their wallpaper*, the original purpose of a threshold**, and the way in which the Crystal Palace was designed by neither an architect nor an engineer, but by a gardener. At Home is a volume which persistently prompts that (for me) most irritating of habits – reading aloud snippets from one’s own book to someone engrossed in another story entirely, and I had to fight off the temptation to do exactly that.
Given the way the ‘new look’ Trump presidency was shaping during its first 100 days prompted me to dig out All the President’s Men, the true story of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post explored the background to the Watergate scandal and ultimately brought about Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Although it looks at the detail of another administration entirely, the book’s back story is of the power of the media to expose wrongdoing through dedicated and honest hard; of painstaking doggedness to separate fact from speculation and opinion. It’s a distinction much blurred in the media today.
Whilst looking for All the President’s Men, I stumbled across an old copy of The Peking Target by Adam Hall. First published in 1981, it’s another vehicle for Hall’s hero Quiller, a cold war British spy, and distinguishes itself because much of the action takes place inside the head of the hero. He’s the one who narrates the story, in which Hall uses clever fast-forward and rewind techniques to explain parts of the action and their consequences. Although it’s still a good read, the book (and the others in the Quiller series) have been overtaken by technology. Hall describes a world without mobile phones and email, and the consequent necessity of travelling behind the iron curtain to recover documents and bits of film. And if that doesn’t fix it at a moment in time, what surely does is that the Prime Minister is a woman…
*Because the green pigments it contained were created using arsenic; when they were damp, they polluted the air in the room. That’s why people felt better with a change of air; the change of scene meant they were no longer being poisoned by their home décor.
** to contain straw strewn liberally over floors in medieval times