Posts Tagged ‘books’

Followers of this blog may know that I completed a history PhD. But perhaps many won’t know that I did this while battling a severely disabling neurological illness. And even less known is how badly this affects my reading. Ironic since I was researching historic reading habits for my PhD.

Reading has been a problem for me since the late 1990s. I struggle with ordinary print, finding it swims constantly, and I can’t read it for long at all. Even managing to read a single page can be too much. So there’s no way I can read for a long time, or any extended book like a novel. The only print I can read now is either diving in to specific sections (very short sections!) of an academic book, or reading graphic novels (comics),

When I was retraining as a historian my postgraduate Masters degree had hefty reading lists for each week’s lecture and round-table discussion. Obviously I couldn’t read all those. So I’d try to see which books were most relevant, and narrow down what was needed. Really brutally, to specific sections, or abstracting drastically. Most of the reading list wasn’t discussed each week anyway, so I coped. And my lecturers, including my PhD supervisors, little knew how badly my reading was affected. Even now I battle to read academic books, and rarely can. Academic journal papers also pose a significant challenge. Note many of these humanities academic books are not available in e-format, especially older ones.

But though I could work around things to a large extent in my academic life I couldn’t avoid the problems the reading difficulties caused for my recreational reading. For much of the late 1990s and 2000s I stopped reading for fun completely. It was devastating, for an eager reader like me. I tried audiobooks, for a while having a very bulky tape player on loan from a national listening library, and receiving bulky tapes in the post. But this didn’t work well, because of my memory problems, which meant that I constantly need to go back to reread sections, to remember plot and/or characters. Easy in print, or ebook; much more impractical in an audiobook, especially a manual tape player.

What turned things around for me was ebooks, firstly on my iPod touch, and then in Kindle format. I adjust the font and spacing to be huge – more like a Ladybird book size, for little children. And then I find I can read, and read, and read. Still in fairly short bursts, and I still contend with major memory problems affecting my reading. But I was reading again, for fun. Woot!

That was several years ago, and my reading enjoyment continues. As an ebook reader for a long time my local library didn’t provide any ebooks, and I couldn’t read their print format books, even large print. More recently they added ebooks, but an extremely limited selection, with little that I wanted to read. Vastly less than the range of books provided in print format to the library’s users.

So I usually have to buy ebooks. Often I’ll pick up bargains, e.g. in Amazon’s special Kindle sales for 99p. Or relatives will buy me ebooks for my birthday or Christmas. Often I pay full price for an ebook, for something I really want. But it is quite an expensive habit, since I can’t borrow free books from the library.

On the plus side many out of copyright ebooks are freely available through Project Gutenberg, and can be downloaded to load onto e-reading devices like Kindles, iPads etc. I’m currently working my way through Charles Dickens, and have also read and reread all the Sherlock Holmes books. But I’m more likely to read new books, even if I must be careful how I buy them.

But I am reading! So it is more than worth it. Each year I set myself a reading challenge in Goodreads, where I record the books I’m reading. Given there can be extended periods (weeks or even months) where I’m too ill to read at all I’m modest in my challenges. But this year, based on past successes, I set myself the goal of finishing 50 books in 2017. So far the running total is 67. For example this October has been full of spooky reads. I’ve just started Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, which I’ve never read.

I know many people are anti ebooks. That’s their choice. But my story isn’t unique. I’ve heard of other people with similar medical conditions – e.g. multiple sclerosis, ME or stroke survivors – who also struggle with print, but with ebooks can adjust the font and spacing so they can read. I think this aspect of ebooks and reading is little understood and little recognised, but for me it’s been life-changing, and remarkably positive.


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When I did my history PhD at Dundee University (“Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820”) I was plugging a big gap in the research. All PhD research should make a contribution, but it’s rare for a subject to be quite so little studied before as this one. Scottish reading habits and book history more generally had been little researched since Paul Kaufman in the 1960s. Some PhDs had been completed, but usually by librarians, without their own graduate students to inspire. And so, although Scotland has a mass of useful sources (library borrowing records, evidence of book ownership etc.), its reading and book history was largely little researched when I started my PhD in 2003.

Of course the downside of having a big gap is that there’s always a chance someone else will come along and fill it. During my PhD there was a panic moment, when I learned of another PhD student, Mark Towsey at neighbouring St Andrews, looking at many of the same sources, with a very similar PhD topic. We met up, and established our respective approaches. We still had overlaps, but not enough to jeopardise getting our PhDs. And we both completed successfully.

That was some years ago, but more recently reading history has become more popular among Scottish researchers, almost fashionable to an extent. And in the last few years I’ve watched with interest new PhD students starting to work on Scottish reading habits, for example Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell looking at childhood reading in 18th century Scotland, and Jill Dye studying Innerpeffray Library and its borrowers. It’s a slightly strange feeling seeing the field come alive like this, but in a rather wonderful way. And it’s always exciting to see new researchers approach things differently, in terms of their theoretical framework and methodologies, and in terms of the core research questions that they explore.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of these and other upcoming Scottish PhD projects in the next few years. It’s exciting to see these developments, if still rather strange at the same time!

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Two weeks ago I was in Paris, partly for holiday, partly to attend the annual SHARP book history conference. SHARP is the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. Its conferences are held each year, usually alternating between North America and Europe. I’ve been to SHARP conferences four times now, since 2005, and always find it a rewarding experience. I’ve written up my 2016 experiences below, mainly to have a record for myself for the future. In a nutshell I had a great time, and was inspired as usual, but had some wheelchair accessibility issues, and other concerns about the conference venue. If you want to read on feel free, but note it is long!

This year’s conference, per the usual format, was held over three main days, with over 100 panels of usually three talks, up to eleven panels simultaneously at any given time. In addition there was a day of postgraduate talks and activities. The conference was held at the Bibliotheque nationale de France and the university site BULAC. This conference would turn out to have the biggest attendance yet of any SHARP conference so far. In addition the conference was bilingual, including live translation in place for the audience at key talks.

I could only go to the conference on one day. I have a neurological illness, similar in day to day symptoms to multiple sclerosis, and am limited in how long I can attend any academic event. I am also very weak after any event, and need to rest, preventing any chance of attending on successive days. I usually bring my wheelchair if possible, to help me last longer. Sadly wheelchair accessibility at sites varies, but usually we manage pretty well. As usual, I contacted the conference organisers before registering. This was partly to check wheelchair accessibility, but also to ask if my husband could be admitted free as my helper. I can’t wheel myself around, and having him there to help me through doors etc. and manage meals etc. is enormously helpful. Usually conference organisers are happy to do this, and that would be the case this time too. We intended to attend the Paris conference on the Wednesday, including the digital showcase, but had to wait for the final programme, released just before the event, to be sure. A drawback for me was the conference being split across two sites, with a long walk/push between them – fine for fit and healthy people, not so great for me in a wheelchair. So we were keen to stick to the one venue. Fortunately I found enough talks I wanted to go to on one day at the main BnF site. Ideally we would have been there for the opening panel at 9am, indeed earlier to allow time to register. But with the logistics of getting a wheelchair across Paris by taxi we aimed instead to get there for 9.45, when we would meet a BnF staff member to guide us in with wheelchair, negotiating the lift etc.

The conference started on the Monday, with postgraduate sessions, before starting properly on the Tuesday. I followed the tweets from conference attendees over the opening days – many more tweets than I’d ever seen for any previous SHARP conference. From the tweets it was clear that many people were struggling with heat, in unusually warm weather for Paris (up to 36C). This made me extra relieved that I was only aiming to attend on the one day, in a modest way.

Wednesday arrived. It was another extremely hot day, but luckily we had a scary but trouble free taxi ride across the city to the BnF. We met BnF staff member Isabelle who took us into the building, including via the lift. I was quite surprised at how much security there was in the BnF building, but in the circumstances it’s sensible. We registered us both with no problems – because my husband was recorded as a full attendee (albeit paying no conference attendance fee) this meant he got an identity badge too, which was good to have. At registration we ran into a St Andrews book historian we know, which was nice, then wheeled through to the auditorium foyer where the publishers stands were, and also the venue for many coffee breaks. Here we had our first hiccup with the building: an awful lot of doors to go through, which had to be opened wide. Again I was grateful my husband was with me, not coping on my own, though other conference goers rushed forward to help too, which was extremely kind of them.

We found the Brill publishers stand and managed to buy the book I wanted – a recently published St Andrews book conference proceedings, bought at SHARP at quite a discount. It was nice to see another familiar face with the Brill rep there, who we’ve seen before multiple times at SHARP and St Andrews. Then time for a quick drink, before heading off for my first panel at 11am.

Here we ran into more problems. The BnF is a very long building, and it was a very long walk to the salle Jules Verne where our panel was. I couldn’t have walked that distance, even when I’m on my feet and coping well. So thank goodness for the wheelchair. Though it was not always easy to wheel on heavily carpeted floors. Of course heavily carpeted floors are good for sound proofing, in a library environment. There were lots of “Silence!” signs around as we travelled along, past many quiet reading rooms.

The Jules Verne room itself was problematic. I had to get out of my wheelchair to get through the door. Even more troublesome was noise coming in from people speaking outside in nearby corridors, seemingly on three sides of the room. This was very distracting for audience members, and very distracting for the speakers, who often tried to raise their voices to be heard over audible conversations we could hear and follow from outside. This was not a great setting for an academic talk. Also seating in the room was poor for the audience trying to see the slides at the front. Much of the audience couldn’t see the PowerPoint pictures being shown by the speakers, with fellow audience heads in the way. Again not a great arrangement of room for what was needed.

Having said that, the talks were fascinating. This panel was about 18th century libraries, so bang on topic for me who completed a PhD on Scottish reading habits in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I particularly enjoyed Jason McElligott’s talk about book thefts in 18th century Dublin. Partly this was for a personal reason: I have Dublin ancestry, and my ancestors would have lived in the city then. I doubt they ever set foot in Marsh’s Library, though I wouldn’t put it past them handling stolen books! But I also enjoyed it because it gave a different perspective on reading and book collecting tastes at the time. I actually commented on this in the Q&A section after the talks, suggesting to Jason that he could use the detailed lists of books stolen to reassess Irish reading tastes at the time. It’s quite likely that it would give a different picture from conventionally studied records like library catalogues and bookseller adverts.

After this it was lunchtime. So first was a long wheel back to the grand auditorium foyer where lunch was served. Here was a particular delight: individual take away cardboard lunch boxes, with handles, full of sandwiches, salad or pasta, fruit and a drink. It was a great way of giving out the food tidily, but also meant attendees could carry their lunches easily to wherever they wanted to eat in the building.

The Digital Showcase of book history computing projects is usually held on the middle day of the conference, and I was keen to get it. One project on display I was interested in had no-one there to talk to about it, and the information board was all in French, which stumped us somewhat, though we tried our best to read it, my husband even resorting to a simultaneous translation app on his iPad, photographing sections of the information board, and then letting the app try to spot the words and instantly translate. Quite magic, but a bit limited. However I was relieved to get to talk to Jan from St Andrews – another familiar face – about Book History Online. I’d recently noticed some gaps in its coverage, and wanted to know more about how the resource – an online bibliography of book and library history – is compiled. I came away much wiser. I’m sure it will be a useful resource for me to use in future. Fortunately although it is subscription only I can access it through my honorary research fellowship at Dundee University.

After this we made our way to the next room. And here problems were manifold. The next panel we were going to, about shipboard publications, was in the room designed PLK1, in one of the outside towers, outside the main BnF building. Fortunately we had studied the maps to know how to get there. But even once there we couldn’t get in the door. And the building’s security guards didn’t have a clue what was going on, or why we were wanting to get in that door. Eventually they phoned someone inside the building to come and open it from inside, but it was chaotic. And once inside we had to get to the first floor, with no lift. And my wheelchair. I had told the conference organisers in advance which specific panels I wanted to go to, but I believe there was a breakdown of communication at their end, and they didn’t move this panel to a more accessible room. Fortunately I’m not wheelchair bound, though very weak at attending a long day of academic conference. Most helpfully my husband was willing to carry the wheelchair up and down stairs, while I struggled with my sticks. So I was able to get to the panel I dearly wanted to attend. But this should never have happened. Once inside the room we were joined shortly by two of the speakers, who weren’t sure if they were in the right place, and wondered if anyone else would find the room! Fortunately more people did, and there was a good audience by the time the panel started. Though there was no trustworthy looking wifi in this venue for audience members to use, including no access to the main BnF wifi network. I ended up connecting to something that looked somewhat dodgy, but would hopefully let me live tweet. That wasn’t a great situation to be in.

Thankfully the panel was really interesting, and worth the struggle up the stairs with a wheelchair! The three speakers all spoke about different aspects of shipboard writing. I was particularly agog at the story of the New Zealand troop ship magazines being saved thanks to a Dunedin librarian with much foresight requesting in the 1920s that the magazines be sent into the library, for posterity’s sake. I also found the stories of emigrant ship magazines moving, giving a sense of community to people setting out on new lives. For example it was touching that these magazines, compiled by the emigrants themselves, referred to the ships as ‘home’. All the talks were well presented, and on time, and followed up with a lovely Q&A, with good cross-panel discussion from the panellists, as well as participation from the audience.

I had originally intended to attend a third panel of the day, on archives and book history. But what with the extremely warm temperature combined with our struggle up and down two flights of stairs I decided to leave early. So we called a taxi, and were picked up at about 4pm outside the BnF.

All in all I had a rewarding day. I’m not totally sure about the suitability of the BnF as a conference venue. Not just for my problems with wheelchair accessibility, but also due to relatively poor signage, widely spread out lecture rooms, and quite a lot of noise coming through into at least one of them. That room also had problems for people trying to view PowerPoint slides on screen. And we had wifi problems in the other room too. But we were made very welcome, and the lunch was superb. And, as usual, I found attending even the one day of SHARP incredibly stimulating intellectually. Even from just the two panels attended I have lots of fresh ideas to apply to my own research and writings, and feel inspired.

I’m not sure when I will be back at SHARP’s annual conference again. Probably when it is back in Europe. Health permitting. But I look forward to it. Meanwhile I have great memories of my time in Paris, including a day at SHARP 2016.

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Every few years I head to the Edinburgh Book Festival for a fun flying visit. Last time in 2013 was to see Neil Gaiman talk, and also the Iain Banks memorial event. This time I was there to see Ian Rankin talk about the return of Rebus, with a new novel, and a recent short story collection. Because of my MS-like illness, which means I need to use my wheelchair while in Edinburgh, it is easiest to drive down from Dundee. And because I need to rest after and before travelling it makes sense to stay in a hotel the night before and after. Which is costly, but we think is worth it for the treat. We make a real break of it.

So last night after Afternoon Tea at Edinburgh’s famous Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street we got a taxi to Charlotte Square, arriving at about 6.50pm. The site was packed, with people there to attend author talks, browse in the bookshops, and soak up the friendly atmosphere. Our first stop was to go to the two bookshops, where I bought a few books: one a Gaelic children’s book (I’m learning the language, slowly), and also two other books I’d been wanting to get for a while, on astronomy and the history of Edinburgh.

By 7.45pm we were waiting in the queue for people with reserved seats (mainly disabled people like me) and were in in good time before the event started at 8.15pm. As usual we had good front row seats, and a good view of the speakers: Ian Rankin, and Phill Jupitus who would be chatting to him for the hour.

Ian opened the event by reading an extract from his latest soon to be published Rebus novel Even Dogs in the Wild. This was interesting, and quite gripping, and made me want to read the book when it comes out. Indeed the whole event made me want to read more of the Rebus novels – I’ve read a lot of them, but not all – and also read (and reread where necessary) the short stories. I particularly liked the discussion after this opening read through about Rebus’s relationship with the gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, which Ian likened to Holmes and Moriarty. Coincidentally I’m currently reading Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty.

After this opening section there was a more general discussion. Indeed I was relieved that they didn’t just talk about the new novel, but covered a much wider range of subjects, including as the book festival entry for the event had indicated the recent short story collection The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories. As a big fan of short stories – partly for the form, partly because they are often easier for me to read due to memory and reading problems from my neurological disease – I was particularly interested in what Ian said about the joy of writing them, and seeing a new artefact as the end product in a pretty quick time, as opposed to the marathon many months writing that each new novel requires.

One of the most interesting sections of the talk for me was where Ian reflected on his breaks from Rebus, both more recently and in the past. His recent break was prompted by deaths in recent years of a number of friends, all at fairly young ages. So he didn’t sign a new contract for a new novel then, but took the chance to do fun things, including other types of writing – like scifi – that he normally doesn’t do, but likes to. This was picked up on to an extent in one of the questions at the end. It was a bit sad that even a very successful writer like Ian Rankin feels the pressure to write what will sell, and doesn’t have the time to write other perhaps more experimental works. But the benefits of his break were apparent.

I also liked his discussion of the writing process, both in terms of how many hours he works on the first draft of a novel, and also how he discovers plot and character through his writing. He spoke of an example where he had advance plotted a novel to great detail, and his agent loved the concept, but Ian felt no desire to write it after sorting out everything so much in advance! I don’t write fiction, but in my academic writing I often find that I am feeling my way through the writing process, coming up with new thoughts and ideas by writing, and it’s a process that I enjoy too. I could also relate to his reflections on the importance of getting away from modern pressures to write. He goes to Cromarty (“no wifi”) and finds that in a secluded environment the writing process can flow extremely effectively. He also knows of other writers who play white noise in their ears to chill out the sound of the modern world while writing.

Quite a large chunk of the talk was about Ian’s love of music, including his experiences being in a band. For quite a while there I thought Phill was going to try to coerce him to sing, but Ian dodged that, though he did share some of his lyrics with us – very dark and gloomy, and quite in keeping with much of his later writing as a crime novelist! He also shared some entertaining reflections on touring life from his brief experiences of that. And he mused on how he had been so tempted to buy a record shop …

Returning to the writing craft one interesting observation Ian made fairly late on in the talk was that he doesn’t like to over research books, to the extent of filling them with “look what I found out!” stuff in the say way that some other writers do, including in the crime genre. Though having said that, a constant running joke throughout the event was his struggle to keep up with the changing police situation e.g. current retirement age for police officers, location of CID units, even the terminology used. Phill joked that it was almost as if the Scottish police were deliberately trying to foil Ian’s writing.

There were only limited questions at the end, in the last ten minutes, but they were interesting, and all sparked off lengthy responses from Ian. Indeed during the talk Phill was a fairly gentle interviewer, typically providing a short starting point that Ian could use to explore an issue in more depth.

We skipped the signing at the end, though I’d brought a paperback copy of the recent short story collection just in case I decided to stay and get it signed. But we had a great time. And, as I said, I am very much looking forward to reading more Rebus on my Kindle (the main way I have to read now due to the brain damage and reading problems it causes). Though I think I’ll start with the short stories, because those are so approachable for me. Many I have read before, but a lot I haven’t, and should enjoy them all.

So thanks Ian! And Phill!

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I’m a keen reader of books, and have been since a young age. So it made a lot of sense that for my history PhD I studied reading habits in Scotland in the past. But it was often a case of searching for a needle in a haystack, with reading habits largely invisible and typically unrecorded. So when I found any record of what someone had read, or what reading meant to them, it was important to make the most of it, both for that single reader, and what it told us more widely.

So in that spirit, here’s a post recapping on my own reading over the last year. Oh if only I had something like this for more of my historic readers! I have in the past blogged about books I’ve finished each month, at my LiveJournal blog, but will probably discontinue that now, in favour of an end-of-year update. So this may be the first of more to come in future.

I record my reading progress in Goodreads, and so far in 2013 I’ve completed 72 books. Most of these were read on my Kindle, which I can manage much more easily now than in print, due to the brain damage and significant reading problems it causes.

Generally I read last thing at night, before sleep, sometimes for up to an hour, but more usually for half an hour. So it can take me quite some time to finish a book. I also like to have multiple books on the go. Typically I will be concentrating on one novel, but also have various collections of short stories on the go, and non-fiction works. Most are on my Kindle, so I can easily flit between them as the mood takes me, and carry them around, for example to coffee shops, easily. I’m long-term ill, with a very nasty neurological disease, which can mean that often for days or even weeks I’m too weak to read at all, even for a short time. So my reading lapses at times, but then when I’m stronger again I pick it up again.

In terms of genres my reading is quite varied. I like fantasy a lot, and horror, and mysteries. I’m less keen on hard science fiction, or too realistic crime. I’m also not generally a fan of literary fiction. Oh and I like historical novels a bit, and like steampunk a lot, and also graphic novels, which I find generally to be really easy to read, and rewarding.

I’m a member of an online book club. The book club members take turns choosing the book to be read each month. We have quite similar tastes in many ways, but throwing open the choice like this throws up some surprises for us as well.

In Goodreads I rate books finished on a 1-5 scale. 5 means it is the very best of all; 4 I enjoyed it a lot; 3 I enjoyed it but with reservations; 2 significant problems stopped me enjoying it; and 1, well I can’t go any lower than that.

I’m pleased to say that only 2 books this year rated 1: Alan Moore’s Nemo: Heart of Ice graphic novel, which was barely coherent for me, and Eoin Colfer’s First Doctor e-short for the anniversary Doctor Who short stories by children’s authors – bad for me, because the Doctor’s characterisation was so off. Another 4 books – including 2 more of the e-shorts – rated 2/5. And 16 were scored 3/5, moving into the enjoyable territory. And 32 at 4/5, i.e. very enjoyable.

18 books were rated the very best of all. These included Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I hadn’t read before, but was finally able to, because it was available for the Kindle. A much older book that I rated just as highly was Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop, a mystery set in Oxford, and a rollicking good read. A third memorable book was The History of the Beano: The Story So Far. It’s a history of the long-running children’s comic, and is full of old strips, as well as articles and other information about Beano history. I borrowed this book from the local university library, but was able to pick up a bargain copy for £5 at the Edinburgh Book Festival (RRP £25), so have my own copy to keep.

Another book that lingered long in the mind was Whitstable by Stephen Volk. This is a fictionalised tale of Peter Cushing encountering a real-life horror, and was wonderfully written, very moving, and quite powerful stuff. Thoroughly recommended. Likewise I hugely enjoyed Keith Miller’s 2-volume collection The Official Doctor Who Fan Club, which tells the story of this 1970s fanclub and its accompanying fanzines, including lots of facsimile reprints of the latter.

It’s been a good year for reading for me, and hopefully 2014 will be likewise. Again I expect to read mainly on my Kindle, but I’d also like to make an inroad into my academic books backlog. And if my paper is accepted for the SHARP conference in Antwerp I will also have some preparatory reading to do for that.

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The Edinburgh International Book Festival is billed as the “largest festival of its kind in the world”. It takes place in August each year, in Charlotte Square at the west end of Edinburgh city centre, and is a concentrated venue for talks by numerous authors, as well as related bookshops, cafes, bars, signing tents etc. This year, the 30th anniversary event, saw apparently 225,000 visitors to the book festival over the space of a few weeks, and a rise in ticket sales over the previous year. By any measure it is a massive event.

For me the strength lies in the depth of programming. The printed brochure, or online version, is perused avidly by yours truly as soon as it is released each June, and there are always too many things that I want to go to. Even picking a day at random would probably find events of interest. As it is I have to plan my visit more carefully. Because of an MS-like illness I need to take my wheelchair to the event, which isn’t really much fun by train or pushing it about the streets of Edinburgh at the height of festival season when the pavements are jam-packed with hordes of tourists. So we end up driving and staying in a city centre hotel for a couple of nights, to give me a chance to rest after the journey and before my time at the book festival. So it’s costly! But I think it’s worth it, for the time there, and the memories and experience.

This year I booked us into two talks at the book festival. The first was with Neil Gaiman, who was speaking four times at the event, but I really wanted to get to his talk about his landmark Sandman series of comics and graphic novels. I read these for the first time a few years ago, and was blown away by the power of the storytelling. They’re not like most traditional comics, that focus on superheroes. Instead these are a rich tapestry of stories and ideas, and myth and legend. Quite magical. My husband hadn’t read them though, and I was a bit worried that he wouldn’t enjoy the talk so much, or might be spoiled for the stories. But he said go ahead and book it. He wants to read the Sandman in future anyway.

The other talk that I booked us into was the Iain Banks celebration with Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Ken MacLeod. I’ve only read a little of Iain’s work, but plan to read more. And I enjoyed the Crow Road TV version many years ago, and again more recently. I admire Iain’s writing skills and storytelling, and didn’t want to miss this event. The Iain Banks event was immediately after the Neil Gaiman Sandman talk, in the same venue with half an hour in between. That would be fine, and worked out really well. And because of my having a wheelchair and needing husband to help me we were able to get pre-reserved front row seats, and free admission for my husband. Fabulous. Thank you book festival!

So fast forward to August 24th. We travelled down. Stayed in just about the poshest hotel in Edinburgh – if you’re going to do this you might as well do it right! Lovely meal that first night, me rest the next day, afternoon tea, then taxi, with wheelchair, at 6.30pm to Charlotte Square. That worked out perfectly. The festival site is very well laid out, in a large square formation, with tents for talks around the edge. The walkways are good for wheelchair access, and it’s generally easy to get around. The central grass area is laid out with chairs for people to sit in and drink and/or read, usually the latter whether a drink or not. And it’s just a really cheery place for a book lover to be.

We browsed in the main bookshop for quite some time. As usual I bought too many books. So many in fact that we got a £5 voucher off future sales. Hubby wondered why they couldn’t have taken it off our massive spend already! But I said no problem. We’re going into the children’s bookshop next, we’ll spend it there. And we did. I found a history of the Beano, absolutely gargantuan, that I’ve read before, via university library copy here in Dundee, but was rather keen to own for the future. RRP £25, marked down to £10, then with our £5 voucher that meant this absolute brick cost just £5. Result!

Book haul from Edinburgh Book FestivalAfter that, lugging the heavy books with us, we wheeled round to the main theatre at the festival site, to wait for the Neil Gaiman talk that was due to start soon. Because of the reserved seats we could wait by the door. Most people were queuing all round the square. We’d seen this in previous years. It gets quite funny – and difficult to manage! – when the queue loops back on itself. Anyway the doors opened about 7.50pm and we were in at our reserved seats ready for 8pm.

The Sandman talk was excellent. It was chaired by Hannah Berry, whose opening question to Neil was “How are you?” Given that he’s nearly completed a many months international book tour for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and has been extremely tired, understandably, at times, it was really nice to hear how happy he was to be seeing the end in sight (this week), and buoyed up by this. And he was delighted to be talking to us about Sandman that night, which he hadn’t been talking about for months, so wouldn’t be going over the same ground, both for his own benefit, and for the audience.

Hannah was a very relaxed presenter, prodding Neil on where necessary, though he didn’t need too much encouragement. I’m not going to cover everything that he said, but it was a wide ranging hour’s talk, particularly about the background to the creation of Sandman i.e. how he got the gig in the first place. And how he learned – starting from absolutely nowhere – how to write for comics. Some of the stories were particularly funny, for example his tale of a school careers talk, where he said that he wanted to write American comics, and the careers advisor didn’t take it too well! Anyway the audience enjoyed it, my non-Sandman reading (yet!) husband did too, and it was a great success.

Sadly we had to miss the book signing afterwards because we were going to the Iain Banks event. And because of that I hadn’t brought anything to be signed, though I’d have brought The Graveyard Book if anything. Which meant that when Neil, on leaving, dashed up to me and said that he’d arrange for me to be at the front of the signing queue I was “Aarrgghh!” inside! Anyway it was extremely kind of him. Maybe next time!

As it was we had a prior appointment. And the Iain Banks event did not disappoint. It was chaired by BBC Scotland political correspondent Brian Taylor, who did an excellent job. And as well as the three author friends of Iain’s, all Fifers, by birth or residence, actress Valerie Edmond, who starred in the TV Crow Road, was there to read from Iain’s work. The event was tinged with sadness, but was ultimately a celebration. It covered both the mainstream writings, particularly The Bridge, and Iain’s science fiction work, which Ken particularly talked about. Rather amusingly Ian Rankin revealed that he can’t read sci fi. He’s tried. He tried again when Iain’s cancer was diagnosed. But he just can’t, though he buys Ken’s books for his son.

There was a surprise guest too. Neil Gaiman ran in halfway through, breaking away temporarily from his book signing next door, to tell us all a story about a drunken Iain antic at a world science fiction convention many years ago. The audience loved it, and Neil was really glad to be able to share the story at last.

In the closing moments we saw a clip from Iain’s final interview with Kirsty Wark. I’d watched this on TV, the full-length version broadcast in Scotland, and it was very moving and powerful. The clip they chose to show at the end of the book festival talk was Iain talking about how happy he was with the different types of writing he was able to do. That seemed like a perfect choice, and a very moving point to close on. Also throughout the talk there was the crow book sculpture that had been gifted to the book festival by the anonymous book sculptor in memory of Iain. That sculpture sat on a plinth throughout the talk, for someone who’d gone away the Crow Road too soon, and would be transferred soon afterwards to Stirling University, Iain’s alma mater.

Crow sculpture in memory of Iain BanksWe left the festival site shortly after 10.30pm and were able to pick up a taxi at the west end of George Street moments later. Then one more night in the hotel, and back home the next day. It was a wonderful trip. I’m glad I made it, and I have wonderful memories. It was also nice to see a good recap of the Iain Banks event in The Scotsman newspaper the next day.

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Fascinating blog post from Glasgow University Library about a project at St Andrews that’s tracing references to lost books, using documentary evidence, catalogues, inventories etc. There will also be a conference about this at St Andrews in June 2014. I intend to be there.

University of Glasgow Library

I recall reading somewhere that books survive in greater numbers than just about any other human-made object (the exception being coins). And having passed the last couple of hours buried beneath an ever-increasing mound of hefty hardbacks searching (in vain) for the source of this claim, it certainly sounds plausible to me!  Yet despite the large number of bibliographic survivors (our Special Collections department alone holds in the region of 200,000 printed books, with the same again in manuscript items) many many more books have been lost over the years.

Stories of fire, flood and the depredations of war have engaged bibliophiles for centuries, exemplified by the lost Library of Alexandria, Maffei Pinelli’s great book collection (thrown overboard by pirates!) and the frankly Blackadder-esque tale of Thomas Carlyle’s servant accidentally using the first draft of The French Revolution to kindle the fire. Owen Gingerich, in his entertaining The book nobody…

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