Category Archives: IMHO

Rants, raves and my not-so-humble opinions

100 books and now a slump

100 books and now a slump

My last Big Read review, Thief of Time was the 100th book I read and reviewed off the BBC Big Read list. I am pretty chuffed about that, and now I’m sick of all the Big Read books I have available so I haven’t finished one since.

I’ve picked up several, usually on a Thursday when I realise that Friday is going to follow on whether I like it or not, but none stuck. I’m looking for light and fun things when I’m reading at the moment, and what I’ve got on Kindle for The List is either apocalyptic SF (Brave New World1984) or dauntingly long and of unknown quality (The MagicianDune). So I simply haven’t been reading anything off the list, and as a result I haven’t been posting any reviews, and so I haven’t been posting anything at all. I was aiming for a book review each week, but that’s out the window. I think I might gorge myself on fun books while I’m at my childhood home next week and post a whole bunch of reviews around Christmas. Or I might not, because even if I quit now (which I’m not going to) I still have something to celebrate.

100 books!
Half way through!

What can I tell you about the books so far? Let’s update the post I published at 50 books. Out of the most recent 50 books:

  • Only 6 books came from the library (30 overall)
  • 14 books came from Project Gutenberg (21 overall)
  • I paid for 10 books (14 overall)
  • None cost more than £2 (most expensive over all was under £6)

The rest of the books I borrowed from friends or family, or had in my own collection before I started the challenge. I actually had a few of the books I paid for already, but as we don’t have space for a library, I’m happy to rebuy favourites on Kindle. Particularly when a flash sale means I can get The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and four sequels for 99p.

  • 36 different authors (64 overall)
  • 17 books I’d never read before (37 overall)
  • 3 books I’d never heard of (7 overall)

Classics and borrowed books mean I haven’t been reading that many new titles for the challenge. I’ve bought rather more books than I’ve read, and next year (2014) I plan to dive into some of them. There are an awful lot of long books on the list, like Gone with the Wind and The Pickwick Papers so I’m planning to tackle some of them.

  • 5 Dickens novels (the most shocking statistic so far, truth to tell!)
  • 5 Roald Dahl books (to balance up all that Dickens)
  • 3 Pratchett books
  • 3 Austen novels

I’m pleased to have made it this far. I’ve ticked a lot books I’d never quite gotten around to reading off my list, like Great Expectations and now feel justified in making disparaging remarks. I’ve discovered some books I didn’t used to like have grown on me, like Bridget Jones’s Diary, and that some I didn’t like 10 years ago I still don’t care for, like Memoirs of a Geisha. Thank you for sticking with me along the way, and let’s see what the next few books bring!

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Ruthless minimalist gets rid of all the things

Ruthless minimalist gets rid of all the things

I believe that there are times when you accumulate stuff and times when you get rid of stuff, and times when you shouldn’t do much of either. We moved repeatedly (five times in five years, I think) so even before we got the van I was so sick of schlepping boxes that I was determined to pare them down. As a result, I’ve been in a getting rid of things phase for several years now. I’m also sentimental, frugal, crafty and a just-in-case hoarder, so in some ways getting rid of things is contrary to my nature. I go at it in lots of different ways.

Start small, take it slow
For me, getting rid of stuff started small. Take books, for example. I read a lot, and usually buy a hundred books a year, sometimes more. At uni, I decided (in radical contradiction to my pack-rat childhood) not to keep books I didn’t like. Then I joined Bookcrossing, and started giving away books I did like, once I’d read them. Sharing is fun! The tipping point was getting a Kindle, when I could, for the very first time, picture a house without a wall of books. I started getting rid of book cases, and now we pretty much only have library books and caravan books with us. Plus the thousand books on my Kindle, of course.

Do it in a big rush
Slow and steady doesn’t always work. We got rid of all our furniture in a rush, giving most of it away or selling it within a couple of weeks. Once we’d decided not to store everything, we asked friends what they might want. Some of them suggested things we hadn’t thought to sell, at which point we sort of went ‘huh’. In the end, we got rid of of everything, leaving a couple of precious items on long-term loan where they would be used.

Set up an Amazon seller or eBay account
Sometimes, when you realise how much money you could get for something, you realise you’d rather have the money than the thing – or you may see how cheap it would be to replace. Once you’ve decided to sell something, it’s easier to give it away (I think) as you’ve mentally detached from it. It’s stock, not a part of your image. We screwed this up slightly, and wound up posting our final items from France, a move that lost us most of our profits on those sales, but we did manage to turn a box of never-be-played-again games into a week or two of site fees.

Start a ‘to go’ box
I usually have a box or a bag of stuff to go to charity. When I try on a shirt and hate the way it looks or K finds a kitchen implement that drives him crazy, or we find something in a cupboard we never use, it goes straight in the bag. If we need it, it’s there, if not, when the bag is full, we take it to a charity shop. I don’t have this in the van, and it means I’ve hung onto, and hidden in a nook or cranny, some things I don’t need or like any more.

When you could lend, give
If you’re lending someone something, consider giving it to them instead. Then you don’t have to worry about getting it back, or getting it back damaged, and when they’re done, they can pass it on.

You can buy it again
If you have too much stuff, whatever that means, then you live somewhere and somewhen that stuff is easy to come by. No one complains about too much water in a desert – you do that in a flood. So remember how easy it was to get all this stuff, and tell yourself you can get it again if you need it. Give yourself permission, even a budget.

Just one box
If you’re crafty and frugal, have small kids, do DIY or any of a hundred other hobbies and projects, there’s a lot of almost-rubbish, like empty washing up bottles for Blue Peter projects, or scraps of yarn, that accumulates and seems like it would come in useful. Most of it doesn’t. My strategy, and I mostly stick with this, is to pick a good volume – one kitchen drawer, one plastic box, one shoe box, one crate – and get rid of anything that won’t fit.

Throw things away
I am really bad at this. I hate putting things in land fill so I’ve delegated this entire section to K. I sort stuff out (particularly childhood clutter) merrily (and delusionally) thinking ‘oh, this would be good for craft’ or ‘someone can use this’ and he ruthless bins all of it, saving about 2 things for the charity shop. And this works, as long as he doesn’t tell me about all the crap he’s just thrown out.

Put things in smaller boxes
There is no way I’m getting rid of my yarn stash. No way! Not happening. But every few months, when I sort through it, I find that it nearly fits in one less box. So I usually get rid of a few things, until it does fit in one less box. I do this with clothes, too. It’s a good way of getting rid of a few non-essentials by focusing on making space for the things you want to use. I think it would work well in the kitchen, but that’s K’s domain so I haven’t tried. He does not share my enthusiasm for putting things in boxes.

Go slow on things that can’t be replaced
I’m softhearted about old toys. About books I loved when I was a kid. About things I’ve made. I keep these things. I tuck them into boxes, or display them on shelves. I take photographs of them, when I remember, because I don’t want to lose them and sometimes I cry or rage when they break or get damaged. I know it’s not smart to tie your heart to little bits of plastic or wood, but for me it’s also impossible not to.

Be ruthless with things that are sentimental traps
Try not to attach importance to everything you’ve ever been given. I love my mum to bits, and she has a great taste in clothes, but when I physically or mentally outgrow something she’s given me, I get rid of it. Otherwise I’d have a whole extra wardrobe of things I never wear. Actually, right now, I do have a whole wardrobe of things I haven’t worn in at least 3 months, as I left a whole bunch of clothes at Mum’s when we came away in the van again. But it’s my glass house and I can throw stones if I want to.

Take lots of photos
Maybe you won’t need to keep that faded sundress if you have a photo of yourself, smiling, in the sun that faded it.

Do what feels right
It’s hard to follow your own right path. It’s easier to follow a set of rules, or to feel bad about not quite following them. There’s no right about of stuff, no adventure kit that suits everyone on the planet. Even at the most basic level, whether you prioritize food or medicine or shelter will depend on whether you’re hungry or ill or living somewhere cold. The golden rule, if there is such a thing, is don’t let your stuff bring you down.

I want it, I need it, I have to have it

I want it, I need it, I have to have it

I don’t think you can need something unless you know what you need it for.

There’s a temptation to divide stuff into ‘things everyone needs’ and ‘frivolous wants’. Sometimes this is for a good reason – the NHS, for example, can’t fund every request so they make blanket decisions, some of which sound quite cruel, about what’s a ‘need’ (perhaps sight in one eye) and what’s a ‘want’ (sight in both eyes). While it may be a useful schema for large organizations, I think it’s entirely unhelpful for individuals (or at least this individual) as your unique list of ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ are going to look decidedly odd to others. I’m all for being frugal and decluttering but you won’t help me by reducing my yarn budget to zero or tossing my stash out.

Don’t ask ‘do I need this?’
Most minimalist or decluttering or frugal blogs suggest you divide your purchases into ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. You should buy needs, but you shouldn’t buy wants. Many of them have a clear cut list of what counts as a need, and this is where it gets messy. It’s fairly uncontroversial to say ‘No one needs a £200 bag’ and ‘everyone needs food’ but that’s not really good enough because it’s too hard to apply. I’m vegetarian, so I’d say ‘no one needs meat’ but I definitely count cheese as an essential, which my vegan friends don’t.

‘Do I need this?’ is a hard question to answer on the fly as by the time you’re asking it you’re already in the mood to buy something. And the true answer is, if you take it to an extreme, that you don’t ‘really need’ any of the things you’re going to buy today. Most people can even put off eating or taking prescription meds for a day or two without suffering an enormous harm (I am not saying this is a good idea) so it can be hard to justify buying anything. My brain tends to fail to answer this question sensibly, either going for ‘don’t buy anything, ever’ and walking out of the shop without, for example, shoes which keep the winter out, or going ‘nothing’s a need so you may as well buy it’ and walking out with the shop with shoes that don’t keep the winter out.

Do ask ‘what do I need this for? does it help me meet my goals?’
As an easy to apply rule to help you stick to your budget or keep your home clutter-free, ‘what do I need (or want) this for?’ is a good question to ask, particularly paired with ‘does it help me meet my goals?’ Friends and family can ask you this without sounding (too) judgmental, so that’s a plus. For example, faced with the shoe buying situation described above, I might say ‘I don’t like having wet or cold feet, I want/need shoes that keep wind, rain, snow and slush out. Oh, and I want to stick to my budget, and the shoes must be veggie.’ It’s easier to put the pretty but impractical / deeply discounted but uncomfortable / practical but overpriced shoes back on the shelf after that.

Using this method I might go shoe shopping and walk out of the shoe shop with no shoes, then straight into a yarn shop and buy yarn. That’s OK. The point is to buy things which meet my personal goals, remember? So if I can (truthfully) say: ‘I want to knit a present for someone / socks for me / a hat for K / a knitted uterus and I need more yarn to be able to do that’ then buying yarn makes sense. The idea is that you have the goal or the value, the plan for your life, and you buy stuff to suit those ideals rather than walking into a shop and letting the shop tell you what to do with your life and money.

You already know what you value
You might not be as explicit about goal setting as I am, but I’m sure you already know what you value. The problem is that in the heat of the moment, tempted by a great sale or a pretty ball of yarn, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the false sense of urgency, and make decisions that don’t match those goals or values.

Sure, this system can result in some odd conversations, but it does mean that when I buy something just for pretty, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. K and I both have goals or values that might seem frivolous to other people but that’s OK. They’re not things I’d spend the rent money on, but  I definitely want to have lots of yarn from lots of countries (and knit some of it, occasionally) and it makes me happy to have pretty new clothes. I value those things, so I spend money on them. But I also value sticking to my budget and buying ethical, local and/or hand made products, and if I remind myself of those three things when faced with a sale, then I’m more likely to make a smart choice. And to have more money for yarn.

Online sabbatical, week one

Online sabbatical, week one

Well, if you’ve been following on the blog or Facebook, you may not have noticed much change from normal. It started off well, but we’ve been in Brighton for three days, without any internet access at all. Stupidly, I even managed to press ‘safe draft’ not ‘schedule’ on the Big Read post for last Friday. I’ve corrected that now, but not a great start!

Two things have come out of the project so far. First, I’m deliberately spending a little more time online, and that’s been good. I’ve been working to reply to personal emails and tweets and whatnot quicker. So that’s good. It does take time though, and more time than I think. An obvious lesson, perhaps, but one I seem to have to learn over and over again.

I took a couple of days offline entirely, not even checking email, which is the complete antithesis to the project. Now that we’re back in the UK where I typically have at least email on my phone, there’s the temptation to check it every five minutes, but never actually reply to anything as replying on my phone is a pain. I hadn’t thought that culling this little bit of internet use out would make a difference, but it does. Every time I check my email, I think about work, things to do, people to call, all the stuff that clutters up my brain because I can’t action it now but it does need to get done. So if I check my email every hour, which makes me think about work for 10 minutes, I think about work all day, even when I’m not doing any. And that’s a waste.

Laura Vanderkam described a concept she calls ‘uncontaminated free time‘, and I think that’s what applies here. Uncontaminated free time is, in her description, time where you are completely free to do what you want to do. So if you’re stuck in the house, waiting for a delivery, that might be contaminated free time (particularly if what you really want to do is go for a run). Or if you’re watching TV while making dinner, then maybe you did get to see your show, but you couldn’t fully focus on it.

It’s a useful way of measuring equality in a relationship, whether it’s at home or at work. Time to focus, whether on a personal project, TV show or work can easily be contaminated by a ringing phone, children needing things and other running interruptions. It can even, I’ve discovered, be contaminated by interrupting yourself, checking email, tweeting or otherwise snapping yourself out of what you want to be doing (sitting on the beach, enjoying the view) by doing something you don’t need to be doing (checking email on a Saturday).

Online sabbatical

Online sabbatical

There’s a bit of a trend for switching off and getting away from it all, whether it’s going dark for Earth Hour or taking a digital sabbatical. The thing is, I live in a caravan – the default is that we don’t have running water, we have limited electricity and no internet. So I want to switch on for a month. I want to get online lots, blog more often and spend time on Facebook.

What?
In September, my goal is to spend more time online. This will probably involve:

  • Checking Twitter every day or almost every day (I’m @yarnnewsuk).
  • Signing into Facebook at least a couple times a week, to post something, check out some walls, say hi to friends.
  • Send more emails, and hopefully find out if people I care about have, you know, moved or got married or had a baby since last time I emailed them.
  • Post a blog post every day, or 30 in the month. Because I have a lot to talk about.
  • Comment more, both replying to comments here and on your blogs. Because reading is easy, but replying hard for me and I want you to know I’m here.

Why?
Because I miss people. I have all these wonderful people in my online life, some of whom I only know through blog comments, and although I’m still reading along, when I can, I’m not telling them I think they’re awesome enough. I’ve also got lots of things I want to write about – my list is at 50 posts, without getting into all the travel photographs – and I’m not managing that.

Care to join me?
Maybe you’re online all the time anyway – I’ve certainly had periods where that was true – in which case, switch off! It’s great to have whole weeks where your total online time is less than an hour. But if you’re struggling to find time to do the things you care about online (like keeping in touch with friends) then maybe an online sabbatical is for you. Try it all out, use your social networks, send those emails, prioritise your online life – and then see what’s missing, what doesn’t pull its weight, what you need to ditch. Find out if too much screen time makes you twitch, or none is not enough.

Got questions?
Now is a great time to ask, if there’s anything you want to know about me or living in a caravan or where we’ve been. I’ve got some ideas for posts, but do throw your ideas my way, too.

Tourist or Traveller?

Tourist or Traveller?

I’ve been thinking about travelling harder since I read The Beach. I finished the book sitting on the Channel ferry, waiting for the White Cliffs to appear, dirty grey from the rain. It seemed fitting.

The White Cliffs of Dover looking murky grey in low cloud or high fog with two container cranes in the foreground

We travelled some 3,000 km on that trip, but I wouldn’t say we were either tourists or travellers – we didn’t go see any sights, really, just rushed from pillar to post getting things done and trying to see some of our favourite people.

Travelling is complicated – logistically, socially and ethically. Even travelling around in the UK or Switzerland, places where I’ve lived for years, I still find myself having to make crap decisions – you have to make so many decisions each day that it just isn’t possible for them all to be good ones. Travelling means compromising – usually on frugal efforts and environmental efforts. It means eating in McDonald’s because it seems to be the only thing open at 11pm, and then finding out that all the bars offer food. It means, with the caravan, filling up on petrol more than once in a day, rather than less than once a week. It means paying more for a service because you don’t have time to shop around. It means paying more for 2 hours of internet access – directly or in coffee – than you would in a month at home.

There’s an odd dichotomy as well – people clearly want to travel (as I write this, there are over 16,000 goals on goal-tracking website 43things.com related to ‘travel more’, and only 15,000 relating to ‘money’) and yet both tourist and traveller often seem to be used pejoratively. Tourists are frivolous, camera-toting dorks who get in the way of busy people moving around their own city while travellers are gap-year-kids, people with no sense of responsibility treating another culture as though it were a combination of amusement park and bar.

What’s the right way to travel, then?

Blue car and a caravan with a mountain behind

I think this is a pretty good way to travel, with a caravan, and a good way to live, too. It’s not easy though – everything needs a permanent, fixed address. Travelling with a caravan, the tourist/traveller divide takes on a new menace. Tourists with caravans are welcomed but Travellers, as the Roma and other nomadic groups are called in the UK at least, aren’t. Amnesty International has a section on Roma rights, which I seriously recommend you read. If you cross the line, it’s suddenly not just about whether your experience is deeply meaningful, man, or only superficial garbage, it’s serious.

It’s not just the Roma who get stick for being mobile or semi-mobile. A knitting designer I follow lives in an artist’s commune that seems to be regularly threatened with closure by the local authorities. Under her designing name, Woolly Wormhead, she sometimes writes about what’s going on and has an interesting post about being a New Traveller.

Italian road runs straight into the distance on flat land under a huge sky with scattered clouds

I don’t have any connection to previous generations of travellers as Travellers and New Travellers seem to. I’m happy wandering around a foreign city with only K to talk to, perhaps trying out my few phrases on hapless shop staff, so I haven’t developed a community of friends of the road.

For me, at the moment, the road is open – and well travelled. I’m not looking for an island untouched by human hand, like in The Beach - on the contrary, I’d like mine with Wi-Fi and plumbing, if you don’t mind, and if I’m only here for a day or two, I’d be grateful if someone’s already made a list of the best yarn shops and top ice cream places. Last year K and I visited 10 countries (a good proportion of them were tiny city states, but still) and this year we might well do it again. It’s getting to the point where travelling isn’t something we save up and wait for, it’s something we just go and do.

And that is absolutely incredible. In both senses of the word.

Everyone needs flexible working at some point, not just mothers

Everyone needs flexible working at some point, not just mothers

Andi Fox of Blue Milk is a blogger I read because she’s always smart, and makes me think, even when I think she’s wrong or I can’t relate to what she’s writing about. She has a guest post up at Essential Baby about returning to work after having a baby. In it she says:

workplace flexibility, phased returns and part-time options will help companies recruit mothers – and failure to do so leads to an unnecessary loss of skills and experience. I’m particularly encouraged by this message because for a long time I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that part-time work is the secret to happiness. And not just for mothers either! [emphasis mine]

It’s that last line I want to focus on, because I’m somewhat bemused by how tightly focused the flexible working debate seems to be in mainstream media. There seems to be a willful disregard of all the other reasons why people might need flexible working, work from home or part time roles to allow them to continue with their jobs. It’s not like getting pregnant turns women from mechanical workers into human beings with other needs and responsibilities.

In no particular order, here are a few I’ve seen in my closest circle, none of which have anything to do with voluntary motherhood and many of which have nothing to do with choice:

  • Fatherhood
  • A broken leg, swine flu and other accidents
  • Long term illness or disability
  • Panic attacks, depression and similar
  • Caring for a family member
  • Caring for other peoples’ children
  • Relocation of the workplace
  • Relocation of the home
  • Narrow field of employ + can’t relocate
  • Unexpected caring responsibilities thrust upon them
  • Religious commitments
  • Caring for animals
  • Snow and other bad weather
  • Unreliable public transport
  • Hobbies and passions

These aren’t all permanent – heck, even in Switzerland the snow melts eventually – but pretty much everyone will have one of these things happen in their life time. I certainly have, and luckily my employers have been supportive – or I’ve started looking for new work, because if an employer threatens do dock your pay because of transport delays, why would they support you if you get hit by a car?

Andi Fox comments that even in a “positive discussion about women combining work and family”:

I couldn’t help notice the odd little barb that reminded us that having a paid job and a family isn’t supposed to be easy. For instance, there was concern about how job-ready mothers will be on return to the workforce

Having a paid job and a life isn’t supposed to be easy, according to many employers. Why don’t we just admit it? The goals of most employer are not that their employees lead happy, fulfilling lives which are successful in many ways – they’re organizations designed to make money, and do that by trying to get the most work possible out of their employees.

The benefits most articles suggest working mothers demand aren’t complex or impossibly expensive. They’re, in my experience, slighter demands than the benefits many software companies offer well-paid single young men. In hip young companies, where trust is standard and creativity is expected, then you can expect to be able to do the following, without much comment:

  • Start late if the bus is late and make up missed time at the end of the day
  • Start late, just because you feel like it, and making the time up later
  • Work through lunch and leave early
  • Take a laptop home and working while you wait for a delivery
  • Check personal email in a meeting or work when your contribution is not required
  • Take personal calls in the office
  • Take a day off at short notice
  • Arrange for part or all of a commute to count as work, as you’ll be working on the train
  • Arrange your schedule or work part time so you can pursue a hobby or sport

When we talk about work-life balance as a motherhood issue and tie it up with maternity benefits, parental leave and adjustments relating to childcare, we do two really crap things. First, we separate the category ‘mothers’ or ‘parents’ from the category ‘workers’, making the smaller group fight the whole fight. Second, by stepping away rather than standing together, we ensure that what should be a general workplace improvement becomes a special privilege which you can only get if you personally grow a baby.

I had a job interview once, where one interviewer explained to me that while the contract was for 40 hours, they generally expected more and said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly) if it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t working hard enough, followed a smile, am I right? and a laugh.

A job interview isn’t the best place for a philosophical debate, but my answer was simple: I didn’t take the job. There is more to my life than work, and work needs to respect that.

A new challenge and an old one – BBC Big Read one year on

A new challenge and an old one – BBC Big Read one year on

About a month ago, I found my reading theme for the year when I signed up for the Tea and Books challenge over at The Book Garden.

This challenge is all about long books. To enter, you commit to reading a number of books each over 650 pages long. There are a few loopholes – and super-long books count double – but it’s pretty straight forward. I signed up immediately and spent a happy hour or three (when I could have been reading) sorting through The List and choosing my long books.

I’ve already read the first one – The Pickwick Papers – and if the challenge does nothing else, then getting me through 700+ pages of Dickens is well worth it. Thank you, Birgit, for the inspiration!

A year of Big Read books
I’m terrible at anniversaries – it’s a blessing and a curse – but I realized recently that I’ve been working on the Big Read challenge for a year now – and I also spent the whole year either reading or avoiding Great Expectations. Oops. Still, I finished it in the end, which I hope bodes well for the challenge as a whole.

I read a lot anyway, so the volume of books for the challenge isn’t the hard part for me. The challenge is to stick with it, to finish each book (including a lot of ones I’ve pegged as long or dull or both). To keep me going, I have formal and informal sub-challenges along the way. So far these have included read for free and read whatever the library hands you.

It’s a technique I use for lots of longer projects, because it’s natural that motivation will flag when the goal seems so far away, and completing a mini-challenge can be a real boost. I’m already looking forward to book 100 – after that, it’s just a long slide to the end of the project, right?

Current challenges
As the Big Read is going to be with me for a while, I can’t expect it to always be interesting – without a little help. The challenges have evolved and at the moment I’m working on:

  • Read long books (for the challenge above)
  • Read the books I expect to be dull
  • Publish at least one review of a Big Read book every week
  • Get to 100 books!

I’m trying to be realistic with my goals. I started this project on a whim but I do want to finish so I’m shifting it as I go and try to keep the goals mutually supportive – or at least mutually compatible. There’s a bit of a clash between publishing every week and reading really long books so one might have to go. I suspect that a book a week won’t be sustainable long term, but it does keep the pace up.

It’s been an interesting year – I’ve discovered a couple of books I really love and now have the right to an opinion on a good number of classic novels I’d never read. Many of these books are cornerstones in English and English-language literature, so being aware of their plots and themes has expanded my literary vocabulary.

The only problem – I don’t know what to read next! Check out the full Big Read listand the list of books I’ve read and recommend me something. It doesn’t have to be your favourite, or even a book you like – just pick a title and maybe add a line to tell me why you think I should read it.

New Year, No Goals?

New Year, No Goals?

If you’ve met me in real life, you may be wondering why I haven’t posted anything about New Year’s resolutions yet. My first response to any problem or project is a list, and I usually have a dozen on the go at once. I have lists of books I want to read, places I want to visit, things I need to do before next Wednesday and ideas for a house I might have when I’m retired. Last year I said:

My life is quite flexible and interesting (rather than predictable and comfortable) and I like it that way. It stays that way in part because I keep making goals to change things, try things and visit new places

and finished optimistically with:

Taking the time to write these lists and this post remind me that there are a lot of things I’m looking forward to doing in 2012. All in, I think it’s going to be a really good year. I hope it rocks for you, too.

As usual, I’ve been terrible at predicting at the start of the year where I’d be when I ended it, so a lot of the goals went by the wayside. And this year has had its good moments, but also a lot of sadness.

The net result is that this year, I’m thinking small. I still want to try new things, go new places, but I’m not ready to commit to a big project. I don’t expect to go round the world, run a marathon or write a novel this year. I could really use your help finding things to do. Suggest something you enjoy, or you think I might enjoy, and help me expand my list.

I’m particularly interested in:

  • Swiss things and things in Switzerland (books, films, food, museums, mountains…)
  • things you’d like to read a blog post about (could be anything!)
  • books (always, any genre)
  • places to visit (ideally in Europe, due to cost)
  • cool things I can do as a one-off (go to a zumba class, bake a cake, ride a horse…)
  • knitting patterns and challenges

Any suggestions? You could change my life, you know!

Is an ebook a second-rate book?

Is an ebook a second-rate book?

Some weeks ago I read an article by one Joe Queenan titled ‘My 6,128 Favorite Books‘. I mostly enjoyed the article – it’s lovely to read about someone with reading habits as eccentric as my own (he once tried to spend a year only reading books he thought he’d hate, I once tried to read the school library alphabetically, both goals predictably ill-fated) – but the section I’ve been thinking about since is this:

Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don’t want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after. [emphasis mine]

I disagree.

I think it’s fair to say I’m ‘engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books’, and you may not need any more evidence than my 200 books project, but in case you do:

  • I taught myself to read while walking shortly after I learned to read, and always have a book in my pocket – sorry Mum, I know I gave you palpitations worrying I’d get run over
  • Until I was 20 I never willingly gave away or sold or traded a book – even ones belonging to my brother which I didn’t like
  • I still spend more money and far more time on buying and reading books than on any other hobby – yes my book stash is bigger than my yarn stash

So, credentials established, here’s my problem: I love ebooks. I love ebooks more than paper books, and I wish I could magically convert all my paper books into ebooks.

When my parents bought me a Kindle, it seemed to them like an obvious gift for the reasons above. At the time, K and I were sharing a flat and moving regularly, so anything which stemmed the weight of books to be boxed and carried should have been welcome.

I was skeptical. I loved books, books with covers and editions and age. Books with smells, mostly pleasant. Books on my shelf, showing visitors my erudition, books on the bedside table ripe with possibilities.

And yet, the books I have in paper form, the books I’ve loved over the years, which I’ve kept and carried, stored safe from water, fire and small children, I rarely read. Because I can only carry one around at a time. Because they’re fragile from age and wear. Because they’re usually in a different country or town or in a box in an attic or lost or leant. Because I had to give some of them away, or we’d be drowning in books, so that I know I have had copies of Lolita, The Satanic Verses and several other Big Read books but given them away, unread, because there’s only so much space for paper.

Ebooks are a salvation. I can access every single ebook I’ve every bought or been given from anywhere in the world. If my Kindle gets lost or stolen or smashed I can get a new one, use a smartphone or a laptop and the books are still there, unchanged.

I no longer have to cull my collection and cull again when we move. Books I didn’t like are as weightless as perennial favourites.

It’s all about access
Growing up as an English-language reader in Switzerland, finding books was mostly luck. Luckily, my parents had a good collection, and let me roam it at will. Luckily, they were willing to volunteer at the American Library (‘as we’re there every week’), to give me money for book sales at school, to spend precious home-country time trawling through bookshops.

But with all this wealth, there were things I missed: the second book in the What Katy Did series, the final one in the Emily Climbs series, the information that Diana Wynne Jones wrote more than three books, that Connie Willis wrote at all. Any series, however short, was liable to have holes in, even in the library. School stories, like Mallory Towers, were particularly frustrating as they’re so linear. The Trebizon series was, as far as I was concerned, only one book.

A credit card of my own and the rise of the big, online book sellers alleviated the problem but raised their own frustrations: high postage costs, treks to the Royal Mail depot and the usual risks of buying a pig in a poke.

Now, I can be in Switzerland (as I am), remember a book I read once and liked, immediately download a sample (yes, I still like it) and then blow all my mad money reading the whole 10-book series in less than a month.

It’s bliss.

So while I can’t touch or smell an ebook, while part of me misses displaying my collection (hence the blog, the G+ stream), my ebooks are still ‘books that [I] can depend on. Books that make [me] believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.’

And that’s what makes them books.