I find it hard to recall a time when I did not want to be a writer; it feels like it has always been part of me. Similarly, when I look back I can’t pin down a point in my life when I decided I wanted to be an author, specifically; not a poet, or an essayist, or an academic writer on classic French literature or ancient Egyptian history (though both would be fascinating), but a novelist.
I grew up in a house that was full of books. They were in just about every room, I think. When I was young, the political climate in Egypt meant that some family friends and acquaintances left the country, and my father rescued their books. I can still remember him coming home with boxes full of books, and the thrill I felt looking through them with him. Though of course most of the books were too grown-up for me then, the books themselves called to me: I would run my fingers over the covers and breathe in the scent of the pages.
All these years later, I live in a house filled with books and I write books of my own. Books are a vital part of my life: I live and breathe them; I love them; I find them full of meaning and inspiration and soul.
By ‘books’ here, though, I mean actual physical books. Paper and ink bound together. Covers I can feel; pages whose scent I can breathe in, as if breathing in a life force.
In the Scotsman newspaper recently, the author Alexander McCall Smith wrote a compelling piece on ‘Preserving the pleasures of the bookshop’ in which he talks of our love of ‘the physicality of the book’. He writes:
Electronic books are all very well, but you can’t touch the text; you can’t smell the paper; you can’t put it on a shelf to remind you of what it says; you can’t wrap it up and give it as a present; you can’t kiss its cover in gratitude.
All of my novels are published in both ebook and print formats. I am glad that the ebook format allows a wider audience to read my stories, but for me these versions are not the dream. The dream, which began all those years ago in my childhood, was to write a book – a beautiful, physical object that really exists in this world; an ‘artefact’ as Alexander McCall Smith puts it. When I publish a new novel, as I have done this month, the moment that I hold that book in my hand is the defining moment – in fact, every word I write of a novel is building to that moment.
I received a box of Concerto paperbacks this week. I don’t mind admitting that I did kiss a cover in gratitude.
Books are beautiful, don’t you think? We must buy them, read them, give them, treasure them. Always.