Better read than dead

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced an extension to the couvre-feu (curfew) here in France. For the next 15 days at least, we all have to stay indoors from 18.00 to 06.00. One consequence of this, which I suspect Monsieur Castex hasn’t taken into account, is that it makes these weekly postcards increasingly difficult to write.

More and more, there is less and less to say. I go out in the morning to buy croissants and the newspaper. In the afternoon I go out for a stroll down by the river or around town. I take my camera and click away happily enough for an hour or so (the two pictures here are from the beautiful church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in the market square). And that’s about it. The rest of the time, I am confined to barracks. A little treat used to be a trip out in the early evening for a hastily quaffed vin chaud at one of the stands that the more enterprising bar owners had set up. Now this too has gone. Nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to report. I will soon have to start producing recipes, horoscopes, or ‘useful household hints’.

To alleviate the boredom, I’ve taken up a challenge/invitation offered on Twitter by Ian Leslie of the New Statesman. The aim is to read 50 books in a year. I’ve been slightly handicapped at the outset because, just before setting out on this project, I’d started reading Martin Amis’s Inside Story, which comes in at a hefty 522 pages. Once I’ve finished this, I aim to quickly read a couple of short books to get back on track – I can get through a Maigret or a Morse in a day or so.

For the last few years I’ve made a similar resolution – to try and read at least one book a week. Normally I do quite well till around the middle of March and then, with the arrival of warmer days and lighter evenings, things start to slide. In the summer, a month can go by without a book being finished. By the end of most years, I will have done well to get through half the target amount. The Twitter challenge is an attempt to formalise things a little and keep me at it.

While thinking about this, I’ve done a very quick, very rough stocktake of the books in the house that are waiting to be read. I’ve excluded ‘dipping-into’ books: reference works, anthologies, and books bought for study that were never going to be read all the way through. I stopped counting when I got to 250. There are lots more. Many of these came with us when we moved from the UK. Some have been accumulated over the years, to be read ‘when I’m old or retired’. Well, I suppose, to paraphrase the Walrus, the time has come to read of many things. If I stick to my new regime, I have the next five years’ reading lined up and ready to go. Plough through them steadily, one a week, and the backlog would be cleared. But of course it doesn’t work like that.

I now keep a record of books bought, and there have already been three this year. Ian Dunt’s How to Be a Liberal, PD James’s The Mistletoe Murder (a 99p Kindle special offer), and The Last Word (a collection of Graham Greene short stories, bought because it contains ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, on which the film Went the Day Well? is based). Last year I bought 38 books, 15 hardback and 23 paperback (I don’t count the Kindle 99p ones – these are often books I’ve already got and the Kindle versions are handy for reference-searching). Most of the books bought were second-hand, and quite often the postage cost exceeded that of the book itself. As addictions go, it’s not an expensive habit.

Of the books bought last year, I have read 19. Thus the ‘waiting to be read’ pile gets ever larger. Does this matter? I don’t think so. The gloomy philosopher Schopenhauer once said, ‘Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.’ He’s probably right, but a more cheerful view was presented recently in the Guardian by Giles Oakley. He said that Jonathan Miller had once defended the piles of unread books in his home by explaining that he absorbed the contents ‘by osmosis’. For Mr Oakley, this was ‘the perfect excuse for me to buy more books’, and I’m happy to agree. Many people I know buy more books than they are ever going to read. Book-browsing and book-hunting may be secondary pleasures when compared to reading, but, for many of us, pleasures they undoubtedly are.

Moving to France has changed my perspective slightly. I accept that part of the price one pays for living here is that the prospects for pleasant book-browsing are significantly reduced, but that never quite removes the pang of staring blankly at shelves of interesting-looking covers in a second-hand shop and not recognising the name of a single author. This will, I hope, gradually diminish with time as my knowledge of French literature slowly improves, but the likelihood of discovering a hidden gem is small. Trips to Paris offer some solace. There are a couple of very good English-language second-hand bookshops, quite close to each other on the south bank: the Abbey Bookshop on rue de la Parcheminerie in the 5th and San Francisco Books on rue Monsieur-le-Prince in the 6th. I avoid the more famous Shakespeare and Co. nearby, because it is full of tourists taking photos of each other. For the rest of the time, there is always Abe Books, the online second-hand store, though this has lost some of its appeal since it was taken over by Amazon.

When I told Madame of my new challenge, she thought it an excellent idea and said immediately that she would take it up herself. ‘The more the merrier,’ I declared, with a sinking heart. The little swot will no doubt reach the target sometime in mid-June … unless of course some deeply unfortunate accident were to befall her reading glasses.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In boxing, the original Queensberry Rules forbade the use of boots fitted with springs.

The Sami people of northern Finland use a measure called poronkusema: the distance a reindeer can walk before needing to urinate (around 7.5 kilometres).

In the novel that the film Pinocchio was based on, Jiminy Cricket was brutally murdered, and Pinocchio had his feet burned off and was hanged by villagers.

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