Virginia Barton

Books, traditional and electronic, are a joy to behold

THE EAGLE, February 2013


Which was the first book to impress you? Was it one that was read to you as a child? Or one you were given when you first learned to read for yourself? Being read to as a child has always been one of the best memories in my life, and I still enjoy listening to a good story on the wireless.

Vanity_Fair_D164 (929x1024)When I was young (a hundred years ago), my mother would read us what­ever she happened to be reading her­self, and since she was a broad-minded woman, you never quite knew what it might be. There were only a few books she wouldn’t allow in the house: Madame Bovary, anything by Anais Nin, and one or two Roman authors. She read beautifully, and her rendi­tion of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was so effective it is still my favorite book and I re-read it regularly.

We four sisters were recovering from measles one snowy winter at the end of the war. We shared the same (freez­ing) bedroom, and the greatest treat was not the Doctor entering the room on all fours pretending to be a tiger, but Mummy reading to us. She “did all the voices,” never muddled them, and always stopped on a cliffhanger. How we despised poor Amelia, and how we enjoyed the rise of Becky Sharp!

Reading to myself came rather later – when, of course, I read Nin, Flaubert, Seutonius et. al. Back in those black-and-white days of the Fifties (which, in fact, were just as Technicolor as today), being pregnant meant resting. Far from hurtling about in minimal tight cloth­ing and carrying on as usual, the mum-to-be ate for two, took as little exercise as she chose, and (dare I say it) carried on smoking until D-Day. Some of us, anyway. There have always been and always will be mums who can make no concessions to pregnancy and have to work, run a family single-handed, and take care of an aged parent or a drunk­en, violent husband.

I was one of the spoiled and lucky ones. I pottered about getting larger and larger, enjoying almost all aspects of this weird condition and, as well as learning to knit, discovered the joy of reading. Novels at first, recommended by my mother, herself so avid a reader she read jam jar labels or chocolate wrappers if there was nothing else at hand. From the frothy easy-to-read stuff it was but a short step to the weightier Victorian novels familiar to me from school days. I still reach for them today, to Tess and Jane Eyre, to Middlemarch and the Pallisers. Everytime I re-read them there is something new that I missed the first or third time round. About a thousand books rest on my bookshelves. A modest collection, but every single one has been (cross-my-heart) read at least once – except for Gibbons’ Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, which stumped me. I even finished Moby Dick out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

Today, a writer of sorts must have his pencil on the pulse of the latest lit-tech, and these last few years the tech has piled in one on top of the other. The jump from the quill to the notebooks and iPads via the foun­tain pen and the typewriter, is a leap of seven league boots, and most of the changes have been concertina’d, as it were, into the last five years or so. I’ll be quite frank: I LOVE IT. I can’t resist a new gizmo. If I can’t afford to buy it I’ll read about it, price it, compare it, size it up, then put it in the “Save for Later” box. I waste quite a lot of time on this – hours, if truth be told.

Albeit I still use a clunky old mobile phone to thumb text and an ageing desktop PC, I may say quite honestly that Bluetooth changed my life. Se­rious illness affected my sight, my mobility, my lifestyle. A few years of R ‘n R were vital to some sort of recov­ery. Sleep, never a strong point, was elusive. Waking in the early hours (we’re talking 2-3 a.m.), the wireless was a godsend.

In the early 90’s, on the BBC World Service, I heard an item about Blue­tooth and all that it would mean. I was riveted and enthralled. Sharing this as­tonishing news with an American bio-engineering chum, she lent me an old laptop which I could play about with in bed in those early pre-dawns. Suf­fice it to say I was hooked. Computing classes followed as soon as I was able to get to them, as did the purchase of my first sturdy Dell.

So much for gizmos. Gifts now come in the shape of eBooks for my Kindle and, yes, the first to be downloaded was Vanity Fair, swiftly followed by War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Middlemarch. Now I have Bede’s His­tory of the English Church and People and The Confessions of St Augustine to tackle this new year.

Alas, many of the books I would like to read on my Kindle are not available, such as the Jerusalem Bible or the new translation of the Sunday and Weekday Missal. Some geeky friends perform cunning maneuvers with cutting and pasting, but by then I’ve reached for the Real McCoy and found the page. So there are downsides.

You can’t smell a Kindle – well, you can but it won’t have that slightly mus­ty, fingered odor of a favorite old vol­ume. And you can’t make comments like “How could you?” or “Oh come on!” in the margin. Or blank things out with a pen so the children don’t read it. But it’s invaluable for a few days’ stay in hospital, or for traveling. And you can delete your whole “library” and start again! Which I certainly would never do with my “real” books.


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