My determination to mug up on the authors I’m meeting is overpowered by the lure of a little row of paperbacks
Is beginning a piece with “is it just me …” the worst cliche in the history of first-person journalism – or is it just me? Whether it is or no, I have to ask: is it just me, or are the contents of other people’s bookshelves/bedside tables/desks/whatever ALWAYS more interesting than your own?
Let me explain. I’m up in Hay-on-Wye to cover the Guardian Hay festival, and we’re staying in one of those B&Bs whose owners have thoughtfully left a collection of reading material in each of the rooms in case you find yourself stuck without a book to hand. I arrived yesterday, bearing a stack of hardbacks by the five or six authors I’ll be interviewing while I’m here, as well as a couple of extra books (Scott Turow, since you ask, on the insistence of our own Alison Flood) on the off-chance I run out of reading material. All of these are good books; they’re interesting books; more to the point, as far as I’m concerned, they’re necessary books. But as soon as I walked into the room and saw the little row of paperbacks over the bed, my heart sank.
Other people’s books are one of my great weaknesses. Over the years, your own bookshelves come to resemble the rows of chocolate bars racked out at the front of the the local newsagents. Tasty, yes; still tempting, on occasion – but more comforting than exciting. Find yourself staying the night in a room with a bookcase however, and it’s like opening the door on Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: a riot of riches, of untried delights, all the more alluring because they’ve been assembled by an individual, whose history and personal taste lingers in them. And I’m powerless to resist. I’ve spent a glorious weekend at a friend’s house rereading the What Katy Did books (all three, What Katy Did at School being, of course, the best of the bunch). I packed a bag full of much-anticipated books for a holiday to Scotland and ended up picking my way through the cottage’s collection of Wodehouse.
Which brings me back to the present. What I ought to have been reading when I went to bed last night was Outside of a Dog, Rick Gekoski’s memoir of a life lived by, with and through books. It’s lively, readable, informative – and more to the point, essential reading for me, as I’ll be interviewing him on Tuesday. What I ended up reading was A Perfect Spy by John le Carré. Le Carré is not, as far as I know, making an unscheduled appearance at this year’s Hay festival, but should he make a last-minute decision to do so, I’ll have plenty of questions for him.