I love books, absolutely love books. With that truth as constant as my heartbeat, I find it very difficult to conceive of getting rid of books – let alone actually doing so.
I remember, when I was a little girl, my father coming home regularly with boxes of books. At that time, due to the political situation in Egypt, many people were leaving the country, and my father would rescue their abandoned books and give them a home in our own house. Books, he taught me, are treasures.
Of course, we grew up in Alexandria, home of the famous library that was designed to collect all the world’s knowledge, but burned to the ground in 48 BC, destroying forever 400,000 precious books (see my article ‘The roots of a bibliophile: The Ancient Library of Alexandria’). Whenever we passed the site of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, we were sobered by the thought of that great fire consuming so many priceless books.
The destruction of books on a mass scale is distressing for bibliophiles. (The Nazi book burning is the most obvious example.) But even on a book-by-book basis, destroying a book can feel wrong. Say you have spilled tea on a book. Do you throw it away – can you bear to?
Do you remember the days when you took a much-thumbed tome that was falling apart not to the recycling centre but to a book binder to be restored? How far we have come from those times. Nowadays, we live in a culture of consumption in which no object is treasured as it once was. A thick paperback novel can be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee; it is consumed and then, often, disposed of: thrown in the bin, left on a park bench, donated to a charity shop.
The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently reported on ‘the books no one wants any more’. The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey are books donated so frequently to charity shops that they simply can’t sell all the stock. The hotel chain Travelodge provided data on the books left in their hotel rooms over the course of a year; Fifty Shades Freed topped the list, with 1,209 abandoned copies, followed by two other erotic romances, and then Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. The most hyped books, the books with massive marketing campaigns that attempt to suggest you must read this book or you’re missing out are the ones that are most discarded – not valued, not treasured.
A couple of weeks ago a reader commented on one of my blog posts that advertising a book as a bestseller or by a bestselling author can actually make it less, not more, appealing. I found that really interesting, and it made me look at my bookshelves and consider how many of the books I treasure are books that have been hyped. The answer: very few.
I buy books that I am sure I will love – and therefore will keep. Before purchasing, I carefully read the book blurb; I read the first page or two; I even read the author’s bio, and sometimes I visit their website and learn about them as well. I do this so that I am assured a satisfying reading experience, of course, and to ensure I am not wasting money on a book I won’t enjoy. But I think the deeper-seated reason for my careful approach to book-buying comes down to the fact that I always intend to keep a book that I buy. It’s a thing of beauty, a precious object. I don’t just love the story and the characters and the poetry of the words; I love the smell of the ink, the weight of the work in my hand, the rustle and texture of the pages.
Do you love books in this way too? Does it break your heart to throw away a book? Do you feel an ache when you donate a book to charity? Can you bear to abandon a book? Have you ever bought a book and regretted it, because you didn’t enjoy it but struggled to let it go simply because it was a book? Does the story of unloved books sadden you?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Flamenco – the dance, the music, the culture, the artistic duende spirit – is at the heart of my novels Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, which are set in Andalucía, home of flamenco.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘flamenco’? The rousing, rhythmic, raw music, perhaps – the guitars and the hand-clapping and the singer’s cry. Maybe it is the sinuous, sensual movements of the dancers that come to mind. Or perhaps you associate the word with concepts that are inherent in the flamenco art: passion, sexuality, vibrancy, expressiveness…
These concepts are perfectly encapsulated in the costumes that flamenco dancers wear. The dancer’s dress dramatically hugs the silhouette, before giving way to ruffles that cascade romantically down. The more ruffles, the better! The dress is the red of blood or the black of night, and often has polka-dots – in fact, polka-dots originated in flamenco attire.
Until 1929, the traje de flamenco (flamenco dress) was worn solely by women in the south of Spain, who devised their dresses themselves and sewed them at home; but then, in that year, women from the upper echelons of society trialled the new style at the Seville Ibero-American Exposition, where it was well received by Spaniards and foreigners alike. Since then, fashion designers have returned to flamenco time and time again in search of inspiration, and this season is no different.
Visit any fashion store and you’re bound to find ruffles and polka-dots aplenty in the summer range, but this season you’ll also come across a new design: the so-called flamenco flares. Here’s a look at some currently on offer from Spanish high-street brand Zara:
Here are some available from another popular Spanish high-street store, Mango:
When The Times reported on the flamenco flares recently, there was an unmistakable tone of unease in the article, a concern that this style is ‘outlandish’ – ‘comic’, even – and that it ‘may sound alarm bells’.
Of course, everyone has a unique opinion when it comes to fashion, and understated simplicity is always the safest option. But personally, I don’t find fashion inspired by flamenco to be outlandish – I think it’s fabulous. Flamenco is all about authentic expression, about duende, which, as Federico García Lorca, put it, is a question of ‘true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation…’.
The word ‘flamenco’ is thought to derive from ‘fire’ or ‘flame’, which conveys the fury and fervour at the heart of the art. To wear a flamenco-inspired design, then, is to embrace that inner flame. ‘Erupt into style’ begins the Times article; that is exactly what flamenco is all about – erupting, conveying with stark honesty emotion and truth and sexuality.
What do you think of fashion inspired by flamenco? Do you admire a person who wears bold, statement pieces like the flamenco flares? I would love to hear your thoughts.
And if you’d like to explore true flamenco fashion further, the website for the 2017 We Love Flamenco show in Seville is an excellent resource: http://www.weloveflamenco.es. It showcases some spectacular designs that make flamenco flares look extremely tame and conventional in comparison; designs that may just inspire you to be colourful, vibrant and bold in your fashion choices this summer.
I dreamed of being an author from a very young age – from the day I first understood how the many books on my parents’ shelves were created and formed the idea that someday I could do that myself.
In those days, to be an author was to be someone who wrote books. It was that simple. Other than dealing with your publisher and engaging in the occasional marketing activity, such as a book-signing event or penning an article for the press, the author’s job was simple: write the next book.
That was my dream job. All I ever wanted to do was write books, many books!
Fast-forward to 2012, and I finally felt ready to seek a publisher for my debut novel, Burning Embers – a book that in fact I began writing in my twenties, but shelved while raising my children and running my business. I was excited that finally I would be living the long-cherished dream of being an author.
But wait… the author job description had changed! No longer could an author just focus on writing books, it seemed. ‘Facebook,’ said my publisher. ‘A blog. Twitter. Goodreads. Instagram. Tumblr. Pinterest. Google-Plus. You must be out there, all the time, making connections, marketing your fiction.’
There was quite a learning curve for me, as I’m sure you can imagine, but soon I did as all authors today must do: I settled into a way of ‘being out there’ that works for me. I blog regularly on topics that interest me and relate to my fiction, and I post once or twice a day on Facebook and Twitter, where I connect with fellow authors and readers. I limit my ‘out there’ work to this, and am careful to ensure that I spend no more than one hour a day on such activities, because for me my novel writing must always come first.
This is what works for me, but all authors are different, and it strikes me that ‘being out there’ is a source of friction for writers. Last week, for example, British writer Joanna Trollope whipped up something of a frenzy by criticising JK Rowling’s ‘insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time… that’s entirely driven by [her] ego’. She was referring to Rowling creating a mass following on Twitter and tweeting several times a day.
People were quick to jump to JK Rowling’s defence and point out that she is a writer who has adapted very well to modern means of marketing and communication. A Radio Times reaction piece praised Rowling for having ‘truly discovered how to make her newest content sing’ on the internet.
While I do admire JK Rowling’s ability to be ‘out there’ so much, I wonder how that affects her ability to write the next book – which, to my mind, is still the author’s job.
In addition, I think Joanna Trollope made some points that are worth consideration. She said ‘she deliberately chose to stay away from social media because she expressed everything she wanted to in her books’ (source: the Guardian). I have a lot of respect for this approach. It reminds me of Italian author Elena Ferrante, who was determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’ (For more on this story, see my article ‘Thoughts on the exposure of Elena Ferrante’). I am also reminded of novelist Jean Rhys, who wrote: ‘All of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person.’
Joanna Trollope also expressed concern over the future of the author profession: ‘It’s so depressing to think that aspiring authors will look at famous writers with millions of followers, and think that that is how you have to operate.’ I agree that is not how you have to operate as an author. You may do; you may not – but it is a choice, and you are perfectly entitled to make it for yourself.
The key, I think, is to be careful not to stray far from your own definition of ‘author’. For me, being an author means always writing the next book, and so that is what I choose to do with the majority of my time. But in today’s world, no writer need be isolated, and that is where I find this new world of social media really comes into its own. It’s wonderful to connect to like-minded people – such as yourself. So thank you for reading my post today. Now, I had better get on with my novel-in-progress…
Whenever someone asks me what my latest book is about, I am tempted to give a one-word answer: people.
Yes, Legacy is about Andalucía, the region’s stunning scenery and long-held customs, and in the book you’ll read about things like gypsy medicine and art and philosophy. But fundamentally, the book is about a woman and a man falling in love, and the complex relationships that define them: their relationship with each other, and their relationships with their family members, past and present. It is through those relationships – not the setting or the story – that the central themes of the book are established: passion, betrayal, intrigue.
Put simply, people are at the heart of all fiction: how people think and feel and act as individuals, and, more intestestingly, how they interact with one another. When you read a novel, then, you are making a decision to engage with people, to be open to empathising.
The empathy engendered by reading is so powerful. Though we read alone, we are not alone; we become connected to others. James Baldwin wrote:
‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.’
This connection is a means of understanding others. ‘You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself,’ wrote John Steinbeck. Reading allows us to feel other people in ourselves, so that we may understand them – but also, crucially, so that we may understand ourselves better.
Recently, the Guardian ran an article entitled ‘Frequent readers make the best lovers, say dating-app users’. It reported that the dating website eHarmony has found that both women and men are more likely to be approached on the site if they list reading as a hobby on their profile. Why? The Guardian article suggests it comes down to empathy. Readers are widely known to be more empathetic than non-readers, and empathy is, of course, a desirable quality in a partner.
Apparently, women who list The Hunger Games among their favourite books are most popular on eHarmony, while men looking for a date are best listing a Richard Branson book. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is popular for both genders. I wonder what this says about empathy. Does business non-fiction count for building empathy? Are women less interested in empathy in a partner than men? Why are the most popular fiction reads both dark, gritty novels full of death and drama?
What kinds of books do you think best build empathy? Do you connect better to characters in certain genres? When you read, do you seek books that will, as Steinbeck put it, enable you to ‘feel other people in yourself’? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Have you ever thought about the nationality of the authors whose books you read? Do you read books by writers from all different countries, or do you find you’re often lost in a story dreamt up by a British or North American author?
I was very inspired by a recent story in the news about a thirteen-year-old Pakistani girl who, having realised most of the books on her shelf were published by British or US publishers, has set herself a challenge: to read a book from every country in the world. Aisha Esbhani sent out an appeal on Facebook for recommendations, and she has received them from all corners of the globe.
Just imagine all that Aisha will learn, how these 197 books will educate her and inspire her, how enriching this multicultural journey will be. To quote George R.R. Martin: ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.’
Aisha will have such a broad knowledge of literature; the kind of knowledge, I think, to which we should all aspire. ‘Write about what you know’ is a common adage. But I don’t think it should follow that we read only about what we know. We need to read books that transport us to foreign places and make us think and feel; books that can change us.
I believe that we should read books set in all different countries. Take my own fiction, for example. When you read one of my books, you’ll be whisked away to Kenya (Burning Embers) or Italy (The Echoes of Love) or Spain (the Andalucían Nights trilogy) or, later this year, to Greece (the forthcoming Aphrodite’s Tears).
I also believe that we should read books by writers from all different nationalities. Perspective, depth and writing style are very much rooted in one’s nationality. I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, speaking Arabic, English and French, and at university there I studied French literature. Certainly, my writing is influenced by my education; by the rhythms and poeticism of the languages in which I think and daydream; by the importance of history and mythology in Egypt; and especially by the beautiful and colourful scenery of that country.
But I no longer live in Egypt. After leaving the country in my early twenties, I travelled widely, before finally settling in Kent, England. My husband and I subsequently bought a mas (farmhouse) in the South of France and renovated it, and for many years that has been our summer home, and then in recent years we have lived part of the year in Ireland as well. So, as you can see, I really do ‘write around the world’, and my books are not only set in different countries, but they are written in them too.
If this article has inspired you to ‘read around the world’, a great starting point for your journey is Goodreads, where you can find groups devoted to recommendations on this theme. I have also found it helpful to use ‘translated fiction’ as a search term – you unearth a veritable treasure trove of books (sadly, often overlooked). In addition, you can support Aisha at https://www.facebook.com/reading197countries, and see which books she has picked to read and her thoughts on them.