The tor.com blog has a feature on book browsing today and it reminds me that I so very rarely get to browse real books on real shelves any more. I’ve always been drawn to look at that tightly packed collection of spines whether in a bookshop, a library or on a friend’s bookshelves.
My book browsing began early. I joined the library at six, which was the age you were allowed to have library tickets in those days and my first borrowed book was ‘Orlando the Marmalade Cat’. I still recall the pictures, though for the life of me I can’t remember the details of the story.
From then on I borrowed my maximum two books a week until I persuaded my parents to part with some of their library tickets and I graduated to five. I loved my library books, and the choosing of them was a long and pleasurable task each Saturday morning. I had to check every single shelf on every bay of (fiction) shelving throughout the whole children’s library. From picture books I quickly moved to chapter books and by the age of seven I was reading every pony book I could find, books by Monica Edwards, the Pullein-Thompson sisters and Ruby Ferguson. They were easy to browse for. A horse’s head on the spine, right?
While looking for pony books one day I found: The Horse and His Boy and that was my introduction to Narnia. I’m not sure how I made the leap from there to science fiction, but Hugh Walters featured heavily on my reading list and I ate up the stories of Chris the boy astronaut, implausibly sent into space because it was an emergency and rockets were not large or powerful enough to carry a full grown man. (Obviously no small women capable of flying a space ship in those days!)
Eventually I became the children’s librarian in Barnsley – looking after the library that kick-started my love of books, but that’s a post for another day.
When I could afford to buy books I browsed in W. H. Smith – the nearest Barnsley offered to a bookshop.
Browsing was important. It introduced me to many authors I would otherwise never have found, Moving on from pony books to John Wyndham and from Day of the Triffids to the Gollancz yellow jackets on the shelves of the mobile library. (We’d moved out of town by that time and had books delivered to the village every Monday evening by the well-stocked library van.)
These days I rarely shop in town centres. When I do I’m usually with someone who doesn’t share my book-browsing habit. Now I browse on the internet, usually Amazon or Goodreads or Netgalley.com. I read reviews before I buy, and I love my Kindle with a passion (hey I can carry as many books in my handbag as Hermione Granger!) BUT – and it’s a a big but – it’s hardly a substitute for the randomness of browsing. On my rare trips to York one of my guilty pleasures used to be spending a couple of hours in the much-missed Borders book shop opposite Betty’s Café (the SF section, of course). That’s where I found Joe Abercrombie (or at least, his books) amongst others.
There’s a tiny independent bookshop in Denby Dale, just five minutes drive down the road from where I live. The chap there is most obliging and he’ll order anything and get it within a few days, but his SF section consists of a few Stephen Kings and the odd Tolkien.
I miss my browsing.