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Where Or When Does A Book Begin

A photograph of a book sat on an opened book-sized envelope

“Where – or when – does a literary text begin?”

The above quotation from the first chapter of An Introduction To Literature, Criticism and Theory by Nicholas Royle and Andrew Bennett, is something that’s often mused upon in articles but not always so… bluntly. Certainly it’s a question that’s asked in so many words, but more often it’s an idea in itself, a thought that gets banded around when people talk of authors and readers seeing things differently and believing that particular aspects of books should be shown or written in particular ways.

I think there’s at least three stages of the book process – rather than the writing process to consider: the forming of the idea, writing the text, and the reader’s reading of it (which in this case is largely focused on the experience rather than the exercise).

The forming of the idea is perhaps the most exclusive part of the process. Until or unless the writer decides to share their thoughts at this stage, it belongs solely to them with no outsider influence. (I say ‘belongs’ in the context of the experience of a text, where each reading of a book and the resulting thoughts or imaginings and so forth belong to that reader.) A text does in effect begin here, with the thought, but there’s obviously no physical evidence of it and everything about it can be shared or withheld as the writer sees fit, so few would know the entirety of it. At most, in terms of a concrete beginning, we’re dealing with content akin to quotations, extracts. But for the author it is the beginning. Perhaps it’s also the beginning for fans, when news of a work in progress is shared.

However once the book has been out a few years focus largely remains on it rather than its development, meaning that it could be said that there’s a time when the idea is the beginning and then a longer time when it is not.

With the writing, it depends on your view. From the author’s point and likely their editor or friends and family, the text has begun. It’s always in mind, it’s discussed, likely a lot. There’s that interesting division of beginning and ending, where the author celebrates the launch of a book and the ending of all the hard work, and the readers celebrate the launch and the beginning of their journey into the pages. If the author has chronicled the writing process on a blog or in newspaper/magazine articles, the book may begin for readers there; some fans may view the very first mention of the book as the beginning of it.

In terms, of course, of generality, it could be said a text begins when readers start reading it. This is when the discussion between author and reader starts happening, when an unlimited number of interpretations and imaginations occur, creating new thoughts and visual imagery than the one that up to now has most if not solely been just the author’s own. If we view a book’s success by how many sales it makes, how much discussion there is about it, then there is surely a strong case to be made that the book’s release date is the date the book begins.

It’s a sliding scale of access, if you will, ever more branches of a tree that starts with the author, extends to their publishers and friends, and becomes impossible to quantity after publication.

Perhaps it’s simply individual – where does a text begin for you, whether you’re the author or reader (more likely in this case, the reader, because I think it’s fair to say an author will consider planning and the moment of the idea as the beginning)? So many different opinions… it would be impossible to state a definite time because all three periods of time are valid. For me it has a lot to do with the discussion around the book – whether the book is part of a series and therefore discussion happens long before the release date (or in the case of Philip Pullman’s The Book Of Dust, the book’s been alive for 20 years…). If there’s hype, then actually holding the book in your hands can feel like the middle of the overall story, where the hype is the beginning and the final page the end. Books I haven’t heard about or for which there’s been less discussion, that first page is it. If there’s not much information about the author’s writing progress with the book, the idea of its existence is very much that, an idea rather than any true beginning.

What do you think – when does a book begin for you?

Reading Cause And Effect: Family History

A photo of a number of scrolls in a bowl

This photograph was taken by Clarence.

I once bought a book I’d never seen before by an author I knew nothing about – so begins many happy stories. But this one is quite different. Having studied the cover I came to the conclusion that the author was somewhat known and, liking the story set in historic Britain, bought it. It arrived battered. I was peeved – if anyone should ruin a book it should be the owner; in that vein I’ve now flipped through it enough I’ve added to the ruin.

It was a defining moment; one day some months after I’d finished it, my mother entered the room, speaking to someone on the phone about family history. I didn’t listen in… until she said the surname of the factually-based characters in my book. She had a book in her hands, a different one, with one of the surnames in her family tree on it. I commandeered it when she put the phone down.

I’ll say now, there’s no awesome end to this story. When you’re dealing with family trees and a book that follows only one line, trying to find out whether your own ancestors are in the muddle can prove impossible – it did this time. But my subsequent research led to experiences I’ll remember for a long while. After the author of the historical novel replied to my excited questions, sadly unable to answer them as they didn’t know of the people I’d quoted, I realised it was best to abandon my initial port of call – the start of the chronology in my mother’s book – and study the last pages instead, try and see if I could find a link to my family there.

To that end I contacted a historic house. This is a daunting thing to do when your query is valid but you know you’re likely to appear a gold digger. Nevertheless I got a reply from the archivist. I got the phone number of the owner of the estate. I got an invitation to talk about a possible link and my mother’s book; whilst my mother had her misgivings about my taking it, I had to point out that we hadn’t been able to work out if it concerned our family in particular but that it most certainly concerned the estate’s.

In the end I didn’t learn anything and having found nothing since have not been in contact with the estate, but I did have a lovely day. My meeting was scheduled along with that of the staff of another house. We had wine and made conversation in the library, followed by a wonderful lunch in the dining room. I got to see areas tourists couldn’t access and gained knowledge of periods I love, as well as history about the house. Yes, the content of my day did match my worry – it was a bit touristy and made me wonder if I was indeed thought a gold digger.

Still, it’s not every day a book results in such an experience. Sometimes it’s the people you meet only fleetingly that leave an impression on you. They can create a spark that leads to further adventures as the things the owner told me led to – it was a conversation with him that got me thinking about university. And I went back to the first pages of my mother’s book, researching simply out of interest, going a few generations beyond the information in the introductory pages. I’ve made a couple of trips to visit places of interest but I also find myself in places I’ve visited for other reasons, that turn out to be connected, which can be quite fun as well as a bit too uncanny. Not so fun are the times I wanted to see a sight for unrelated reasons, couldn’t, and learned there was a potential familial connection only once I was back home, too far away to return.

And yes, I’m still reading the author of the historical novel, finding a whole new meaning in their books.

Have you ever tried (or indeed succeeded!) to trace your family history?

Conquering Travel Sickness On Buses

A photograph of trees in motion - the photograph was taken during a car ride

I have always suffered from travel sickness, something I expect a lot of you can relate to. It’s a major hassle when you like to read a lot, and more so when you’ve a review deadline looming. I think in my case it has something to do with the fact my parents didn’t have a car until a good number of years into my life; my journeys in cars were infrequent, they were all different (a few very old cars, too, with the requisite vintage smells which to this day I can’t stand) and it was generally the case that if we were in a car, we were going a long way, to a place without a train station or bus route. I believe my nephew’s the first person not to suffer from travel sickness at all; he’s been used to cars since he was born.

I can read on planes and on trains – the only aspect to contend with there is chatter – and I’ve tried on many occassions to read on buses and in cars but it’s always come with a sense of borrowed time. A 30 second glance at a text message? Sure, but it might affect the rest of the trip.

Recently I tried once again, on a long bus trip, and found something that worked. In researching travel sickness previously, I learned some tips, such as don’t look out the windows, and read in moments here and there, but they didn’t work. I experimented a bit and found a solution:

I sat on my seat, facing towards the aisle. I’d picked a window seat, and this is a good idea particularly as facing inwards mean you’d be intentionally blocking yourself from anyone sitting next to you were they in the window seat. (It’s also more comfortable; I’m not sure what I would’ve done if there was no choice of seat.) I made sure not to look away from my book unless the bus was stationary. When the bus jolted, I stopped reading until it was travelling steady again.

With time I think it will be possible to look up briefly whilst the bus is moving. I don’t know the effect a different direction would have – I sat in the direction of travel. I also don’t know whether format would have an impact – I experimented when I was reading an ebook so I didn’t have to worry about the slight difference in the context of left and right pages or holding a book open.

If you suffer like me, I recommend giving the above a go and seeing if you can work something out. Get that time back.

Next goal: reading when a passenger in the car.

Have you any tips for travel sickness and reading?

Reading In The Small Moments

A photograph of a watch lying on an open book

I’m not sure if there’s an established, or relatively established, term for this – reading in every available moment you have free. Reading in queues, whilst waiting for people, at stations, and so on. I recently added ‘in the car wash’ when you’re a passenger. (I get travel sick. I recently turned to my nephew, sat reading in the back seat, and asked him, ‘don’t you feel sick reading in the car?’ He had no idea what I was talking about. I’m jealous!)

I’d heard people reference the small moment ‘method’ of reading many times before but never paid it much heed as I always got caught up wondering how it could work – attention needed, time to find the book in your bag, your place, and so on. I finally decided to try it out a few weeks ago after reading about how a person who read many more books than me in a year did it. They credited reading in the same moments, a big factor.

First thing I learned: it takes practise. Starting out, you have to remember it’s something you can do. You also have to be prepared to look anti-social.

There’s a learning curve I’m still on: the thought of ‘is this going to be enough time?’ takes time – unless your answer is an immediate ‘no, because they’ve taken one step away to throw something in the bin’ this self-questioning isn’t productive in any way.

You’ve got to work out how short a moment of reading is your limit in terms of retention. A two sentences read moment is likely pointless – better to add the two to the three pages you’ll be getting to whilst your friend pops into the store to get a coffee. In a similar vein, it works best when you’re with people you know or when you’re at a place you know fairly well. Is my friend likely to spend time chatting at the counter with the barista? Yes. Will this queue of twelve people at the hardware store take time? No, because there are eight cashiers on duty and everyone has one item. (I don’t encourage tracking things in this detail, but it works as an explanation.)

Easy going books that you’re enjoying work best. You’re pretty much primed to step back into the fiction or non-fiction quickly, which again means more time used effectively. Anything heavy going is possibly going to be hard to fully comprehend.

Ebooks work best in terms of finding the book in your bag and getting to your page, but only if the device is already on. (I’m still working through the ‘sleep mode uses a lot of battery when I don’t know when I’ll be picking it up again’ conundrum.) Bookmarks in physical books are a must unless you know you have a fair amount of time.

You’ve also got to remember to take the book with you. Everywhere. It’s going to be the times you don’t that you’ll find would’ve provided the most time. I do find now, having got into the habit, that when I don’t take my book (at this point that’s an active decision), I regret it.

So reading in the small moments has been cited as a reason for having read many books in a year; I don’t think it’s as much a factor as people might lead you to believe, but it does definitely help. For me, my August stats will show that, combined with the big effort I made to make up for less reading in June and July.

There can only be one question: do you read in the small moments?

Musings On Notebooks

A photograph of three notebooks and some pens

I’ve a lot of notebooks lying around and have filled many more that have been thrown away. All have been used for various purposes; the basic idea is to use them for reading notes and blog post drafts but inevitably at some point they also get used for ‘what to take on holiday’ and gift lists and so forth.

My view or almost relationship with notebooks has changed over the years. First I bought anything, mostly refill pads, and also used scraps of paper, to make notes on the books I wanted to review, including notes I actively wanted to include and thoughts and quotes I knew probably wouldn’t make it. I’d throw the notes away once the post was up, because why would I need them?…

Then I realised my error – I did need those thrown away notes, particularly those I’d made for general purposes; I bought notebooks with the intention of keeping them, and gave myself the ‘choice’ to slim the books down later on (if they were spiral bound).

Thirdly, I realised there was no rhyme or reason to this, and I was still using scraps of paper – often notes were split across scraps and books – and they got lost. I reverted to refill pads.

Keeping quotes I want to remember is a sort of compromise I’ve made with myself – I’ve often thought of starting a commonplace book, but putting it into practise strikes me as overwhelming. Where to start, exactly? How to categorise? And would I actually end up using any of the notes or quotes? This new refill pad that I’m not tearing pages out of – as I did all the others – is a way round that. I’ll probably digitalise them all with the caveat that they get kept – I’ve deleted lots of digit notes, too.

This refill pad is almost full so I’ll have to make a decision soon.

What do you look for in a notebook, and how do you go about using them in the context of what you need them for?


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