I work in a city, and I’ve worked in that same city for 20 years. It’s a small city which has changed little despite the time that has elapsed and the impact of the bombing seventeen years ago which shattered glass and buildings but left the essence of the city intact. In that time I have come to know the city well and consequently there is little left to surprise me. This is proving a problem for me. As part of my desire to adopt a more ‘writerly’ life, one of my goals is to walk more frequently. There is much to be said for leaving the office for a little while during the day, even twenty minutes away from the desk can be restorative. Walking comes highly recommended as a writerly kind of activity, as the body is occupied and the blood is pumping but the mind is free to wander. So I made myself a deal, and that deal was that I would go for a long walk at least three times a week. This is easy at home where open green fields, country paths and shadowed tree-lined walks are within easy reach, but the city, sadly, I find quite boring. There are shops and there are streets. The architecture is very familiar to me. There is a sad absence of green space and what green space remains is shrinking. I have walked this way and that and, though I try, I find it very difficult to see the beauty in so much steel and concrete. I can walk, of course, simply for the sake of walking. I can set myself a time limit and tromp around and pay little attention to where I am and the quality of my surroundings. There is something quite soulless in this kind of walking, the kind that is just about the exercise. For my walks to work, for me to gain true benefit from them, they have to offer something more than just the distance from A to B.
In the past I used to spend a lot of my lunch breaks in the library. There were lots of books and lots of nooks and crannies I could hide in and read a chapter here or a poem there. Then the library closed and three and a bit long years later it re-opened. I waited until the second day to visit, and since that day I have been trying to get my head around what exactly is wrong with it. There is a deplorable absence of books, but that alone isn’t it. Ostensibly it is the same building, but it is like they have taken the shell of it and scooped out all the warmth and humanity and left a lifeless husk behind. I imagine it like being confronted with a loved one suffering from amnesia or dementia: you look into those familiar eyes only to see a stranger staring back. Perhaps that sounds a little dramatic, but it is a fair representation of how this new version of the building makes me feel.
So walks to the library are to be done sparingly, which leaves me with a glaring lack of motivation to get away from my desk. The promise of books, their fine-leaved loveliness, is enough to get my feet moving. This is why I hang around in bookshops. I am lucky to work in a town which has a huge book shop, three floors with shelves and shelves of books and lots of chairs and sofas where you can haul up and read the first few pages of something. I have discovered that I can take a long walk, the leisurely way around, and end up at the bookshop somewhere towards the end of my walk. It is a nice place to take a rest, to have a browse and indulge in one of my other favoured activities: future book collecting. I love making lists of books I’d like to read.
I recently discovered an interest in nature writing, and books about travel and journeys. This discovery surprised me; I have always been a staunch fiction reader but my encounter with Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence changed everything. These days I hang around, often, in the nature or travel section, both of which are upstairs which adds neatly to my exercise quota. Consequently my ‘to read’ list is growing, with lists of titles like ‘Otter Country’, and ‘Gossip from the Forest’ and ‘Eight Feet in the Andes’ slipping their way into my wish list. I find these books surprisingly meditative, peaceful. the literary equivalent of lying in the warm sun by the banks of a meandering stream, listening to the bees buzzing, caressed by the long grass with the smell of wild honeysuckle in the air. You know what I mean. I remain focused on reading books by women writers, though sometimes I find my mind playing tricks on me. I see a book by ‘Sarah Gartfield’ only to take it from the shelf and find it is, in fact, Simon, but despite these little deceptions I have found a wealth of new books to read. Names like Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy, Olivia Laing and Jean Sprackland will soon be as familiar to me as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, Helen DeWitt and Tove Jansson. Old friends, side by side on the shelf. Last weekend I was lucky enough to find a copy of Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen for £1 in a secondhand bookshop, and despite the fact that I’m not buying books it found its way into a little slot in my library.
I can’t afford to buy any more books. I can’t afford it in many ways. It is not just the money, though that is a consideration of course. I don’t have the space. Neither do I have the time to read them all. I have managed to accumulate a lifetime’s worth of reading material already. Sometimes I wish on myself some kind of debilitating illness which keeps me in bed all day for a year so that all I would have to do is lie there and read. Of course I know that is silly. I would be bored within a week. But there is something infinitely pleasurable in the idea of having nothing else to do in the world but read and read and read.
So I will continue with my walking, I’ll carry on hanging around in bookshops. I will continue to graze the shelves and make my lists and finger books and read first pages and not, not buy anything. Well, mostly.