Tag Archives: books

“My best friend is the [wo]man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read” – Abraham Lincoln

4 Oct

Bolstered by both the positive and ambiguous comments my first blog post has received [thanks especially to the person who said: ‘it made my head hurt‘], I have another offering for you. It seems somewhat cheeky to use this as an outlet for promoting a charity when I’m only on my second post, but hey, this is a charity about saving books and distributing them for free, and if you don’t agree with either of those principles then really you should just leave now!

Healthy Planet essentially buys crates of books, many in good readable and saleable condition, that are otherwise heading a lonely path to landfill. They then set up temporary shops in empty commercial buildings, where anyone can come and take away the books that tickle their fancy, absolutely free! [Although obviously donations to support the scheme are welcome].

Where I come into all this is that, along with my excellent front-of-house partner, Puce, yesterday I helped manage a store that has just opened in Southampton. For much of the day Puce took charge of encouraging people to come and look at the books, explaining why they were free [and fending off the weirdo who tried to recruit her as a bus driver!], whilst I rifled through the boxes and occasional fruit crates that yielded many forgotten treasures. Patricia Cornwell and Catherine Cookson were frequent finds; but alongside them were many literary prize-winning novels, popular classics, and a hugely delightful collection of vintage Pelican editions.

Books For Free, 03/10/11, Bargate, Southampton

Finding such books of course provoked the temptation to take them home myself; I did bring home a rather exorbitant seven, however I found that one of the most exciting aspects of the day was hearing someone say ‘Ooh, my mum said I would like this,‘ or re-discovering a book that they had intended to read but never gotten round to. Many people were also looking for books that a friend or relative would like, or let us know that they would be passing the books on once they had read them themselves.

I always think of reading as quite an independent, solitary activity, but as this experience has reminded me, many of the books I read are given to me, or at least recommended to me, by a whole network of friends and family.  I will forever be indebted, for example, to my friend MJ who gave me a copy of Northanger Abbey that she had received free in a women’s magazine. She realised it was more my sort of thing, and was entirely right- an enduring love for all things Austen was born!

Of the seven books I brought home, I thought all but one were written by women. Of these six, I was only right about five. The Secret Scripture, it turns out, was written by Sebastian Barry. What is interesting however is that all these books are written about women – actually no, I’m going to have to retract that statement as I just checked the blurb of Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris, whose hero is a man. The other works of Harris’s I have read were all about women, so there we have it – a gender assumption in action!

Is there a foolproof statement I can make about gender in my book choices? I suppose I can say: many different kinds of women are represented. Barry depicts a mental patient; Antonia Fraser real women in The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England.  If “women’s lot” and a mental hospital sound a little defeatist, let’s compare it to the opening pages of  Jackie Collin’s Poor Little Bitch Girl. Our femme fatale is Annabelle Maestro; loaded with the profits of her own and other women’s bodies, she has broken free from her familial identity and forged that of the successful Belle Svetlana. In these pages her male clientele are represented by a young, inexperienced boy; the women are in charge both sexually and financially, with Svetlana living in her own house and supporting the habits of her junkie boyfriend. She is, so far, anything but The Weaker Vessel of the characters depicted.

Of course I have only reached the end of chapter one, and it remains to be seen whether Svetlana retains her dominant position, or becomes ‘A tale of modern female submission‘ – the tagline of a book I saw in Ann Summers recently. Whilst volunteering with Books for Free what struck me most was the sheer number of books that were written about women – women who fall in love, have careers, get married, have affairs, commit murders, run households, have sex, have children. Through the narrative their “labels” change; they are chicks, housewives, victims, home-wreckers, bitches, mothers, wives…usually defined through their relation to male characters; and when engaging with women, companionship is often overlooked in favour of jealousy and competition. It’s something I’ve noticed especially this summer when reading the Elizabeth Chadwick novel A Place Beyond Courage – words saturate the dates where women collide with men; but I am interested in the unwritten words that fill the spaces between these pages.