The Problem With Books by Emma Healey

The Problem With Books by Emma Healey

The problem with reading:

In the book A Russian Childhood by Elisaveta Fen, the narrator tells us how her sister reads long into the twilight hours, ending up in the dark because she can’t pull herself away for long enough to switch a light on. This made me think of all the times I’ve not got up for a glass of water despite being thirsty, not gone to the loo despite needing a wee, not allowed myself to fall asleep despite late-night exhaustion, all because I was too desperate to get to the end of a chapter or section or story, to tear my gaze away from the page. I wonder how many other avid readers have done (or not done) the same thing, how near they’ve come to dehydration, kidney failure or sleep-deprivation-inspired hallucinations because of a really good book.

The problem with shelving:

How many books are there in the world? It’s not a question you should try to answer. It’s not even a question you should really ask. Because there are millions, in fact Google says more than 129 million different books have been published, which is terrifying. I’ve had several jobs in libraries and bookshops and my first paid job was in my local library and, although it’s difficult to imagine what 129 million books look like, I think seeing all the titles in the online catalogue – books which were popular a few years ago but have slipped out of print, books you’ve never heard of but which lots of people are suddenly asking for, books which have never and may never be acknowledged by a single human outside of the publishing house – and shelving hundreds of books a day, has given me a faint but frightening hint at the wealth of literature out there, and how impossible it would be to read even one per cent of it.

The problem with making

My first degree was in Book Arts and Crafts and much of the course focused on traditional aspects of bookbinding – letterpress, foil blocking, leather tooling, etc. Many of the tasks involved neatness and a tidy workspace, which anyone who knows me well will immediately recognise as an issue. Glue was my main difficulty; the books we made in the classes were often judged on their immaculateness, and at the end of each session I would have glue all over the backs of my fingers, streaked across my face, clinging to my hair, I’d have off-cuts of paper stuck to me, and there was invariably a grubby patch somewhere on my book’s cover where the glue had dribbled and I’d tried to rub it off. I realised quickly that a beautifully bound book wasn’t exactly my forte so I focused on structures which required sewing alone and made various projects including a weasel book which consisted of hundreds of semi-circular pages all sewn together, but without a hard spine, or glue, so the book could slip over the reader’s hands like the body of a weasel.

The problem with selling

The problem with selling is that you end up buying. That’s it really. Working in bookshops I found half my salary went on the books I wanted to keep for myself.

The problem with writing

This could also be called ‘the problem with filling’. And in a way this is my really key problem with books, it always has been my problem. I made my first book when I was very little, it was leaf-shaped, held together with copper-coloured staples and the content was going to be all about leaves, but I think I only ever filled one page, losing inspiration and then interest within a couple of hours. Later, when I studied bookbinding, I found it impossible to come up with any content and so made many, many notebooks and sketchbooks, full of legitimately blank pages. And when I was working on the first draft of my first novel (and even now while I’m working on my second book) I wondered often how all those other writers managed to come up with so many words to tell their stories. I suppose one of the signs of a well-written book is how effortless it seems to the reader, how all those words appear to have occurred naturally. And I realised I couldn’t let that fool me as a writer – it takes years of hard work and a lot of patience to fill all those pages, and if I couldn’t find that in me I’d always be looking at a one-page leaf book.