In Praise of Books! In Praise of Libraries!

Daisy Chapter and Verse

Daisy is one of the Chapterhouse directors. She loves libraries, family sagas, and children’s fiction.

When the first lockdown came along in March 2020, I’d just finished reading the books I’d been given for Christmas and for my birthday and was planning a major trip to the library. Alas, the books I’d reserved waited for me on the shelves for many long months, and in the meantime I started rereading old favourites.

Where to start? Some favourite writers, obviously. Comfort reading? Definitely yes: some of the choices I made were comfort reading, but not always, except in terms of my having already read most of the books at least once, but not always in terms of the subject matter.

Kate Atkinson’s long been a favourite of mine, and I rapidly worked my way through all the Jackson Brodie novels, revelling in her attention to details and ability to weave together highly complex strands of plot, all with a light but deft touch, an elegant use of language and gorgeous sense of humour. As I said, not exactly comfort reading in the conventional sense, with some pretty gruesome deaths being investigated by the apparently fearless detective, who must surely have the complex private life of any fictional private investigator. While I was still in Kate Atkinson mode, just for good measure I reread Life After Life – definitely on my personal shortlist for Desert Island book.

Moving through the alphabet, there were a couple of Helen Dunmore books I couldn’t resist rereading (Burning Bright and Mourning Ruby) before alighting on Penelope Fitzgerald’s fabulous books (The Bookshop and Human Voices are particular favourites of mine).

Moving down the bookshelves, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet series of novels was my next major project; dealing with the fortunes of the members of the Cazalet family:  “elderly” parents, three brothers, their wives and young children and their sister, starting in the between-war period and moving over the course of the series to close in modern times. Again the author handles a huge range of characters, their lives mingling together, in London and at their parents’ home in the country, the difficulties they face trying to keep the family business going in increasingly turbulent and challenging times. The Radio 4 adaptation of the series is a delight, too, if you can find it!

Delving back into children’s books, I was tempted to reread the Harry Potter books, but stuck mostly to older classics including my old favourites by Frances Hodgson BurnettThe Secret Garden and A Little Princess; the former is the better known of the two and has been adapted into classic films (four times, no less) and various television versions, including a new film released in 2020 (which I revelled in watching) starring Julie Walters and Colin Firth in the central adult roles as Mrs Medlock, the housekeeper, and Lord Craven. To be honest, though, A Little Princess is my favourite of these two Hodgson Burnett books, and the sad tale (riches to rags and back again) of little Sarah Crewe never fails to move me.

Having started to work my way through children’s books, modern award-winning books like Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War called out to be read again, as did some of my really old favourites: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was another must-read (there was a fabulous television version in 2007) as were E Nesbit’s Five Children and It and The Railway Children. (Cue more re-watching of the much-loved filmed versions of these.) 

Interspersed with all the children’s fiction, I read psychological thrillers by writers including Nicci French, Minette Walters and Clare Mackintosh. When the library re-opened partially and I could reserve books, I discovered new works I’d never read before by writers like Claire Fuller, Fredrik Backman, John Banville, Emma Donoghue, Anne Enright, Deborah Moggach, Colm Toibin – what a delight to find books by contemporary writers I’d not previously read.

Now the library here has fully re-opened, there’s a whole new world of books out there, just waiting for me to chance upon them as I walk through a safe new one-way system (I never knew there was a back door!). The librarians are marvellous too and know which authors will be likely to appeal to which of their readers. I can’t sing their praises highly enough for their patience and understanding of their customers, whether it’s the families whose children are just being introduced to the world of reading or the 90-year-olds who love having the latest large print and audio versions of books old and new put aside for them. Thank goodness for books and thank goodness for librarians!

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