Oh what joy! My grandson has rediscovered reading after a period of screenophilia. He even came to Sussex to buy books from the wonderful Camilla’s in Eastbourne. Double joy for his grandpa who used to do the same at the same age, when Camilla’s was called Parminter’s. What pleasures lie ahead for him. Not that choosing what to read is easy.
The more I hear the news, the more depressed and angry it makes me. But give up reading? Give up knowing what is happening in the world? Become a hermit, thinking only about one’s inner concerns? No thanks. By reading I do not mean the scanning of headlines but the consideration of thought-out stories, dilemmas or argument. So when I say “reading”, I am not referring to Twitter, local papers or tabloids, but to crafted articles, novels and books.
Reading means books, naturally. I love books. Always have. Fiction and non-fiction. Among my earliest memories is one written and set in Sussex: Alice and Thomas and Jane by Enid Bagnold, a dream-like adventure set in Rottingdean. Perhaps this sowed seeds for the future, for after decades away, here I am again myself. East Sussex is rich in literary heritage, having been home to some of the greats, like Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling and A.A.Milne. Even Anthony Buckeridge, of Jennings fame.
In every book there must be nuggets of value from which to reap pleasure, reappraise one’s ideas, learn anew and be stimulated, even if only by some beautiful writing. There are almost too many books already in existence, let alone the tens of thousands published every year, from which to search for these nuggets.
Choosing the wrong ones limits the treasure trove, so prospecting is a challenge. How do we go about selecting? Reliable writers are a good start; preferred subject matter can narrow the field. Reviews and promotion present new material but these are paid for so they can be unreliable. Personal recommendations? Depends on the recommender. Family and friends may be well meaning but inevitably have different tastes. It is such a gamble when in a whole year you can read only a few dozen books and every poor choice seems such a waste of reading time.
For all the effort and care that has gone into making chain bookshops attractive and enjoyable places, I do not generally enjoy browsing in them – just too many possibilities, I think. Independents seem more user-friendly with generally more eclectic stock on a smaller scale. In Sussex, special mention has to be given to Bags of Books in Lewes and its wonderful selection for grandparental presents, and Much Ado Books in Alfriston for its unique combination of stock and atmosphere.
I have always preferred delving in second-hand bookshops. Somehow their uncatalogued chaos offers more of a sense of hidden treasure; like rock-pooling with dry feet. Where else might I have come across Bird Stuffing Made Easy, Alden’s Guide to Oxford 1903 edition, or the war diaries of David Lloyd George? I am so pleased that bookshops like Camilla’s in Eastbourne and Savery Books at Fiveways in Brighton have never charged rent for customer time spent in occupation!
East and West Sussex still have 53 libraries available for everyone to browse in and read, free of charge too, despite previous budget-cutting which has deprived some of their invaluable services. However, libraries are now likely to face emergency funding cuts because of huge expected reductions in local authority budgets.
New media platforms
Alas, apart from books, mainstream media are not what they were when it comes to proper reading. With the odd exception, so much is speculation, celebrity or sensationalism, often with a distinct bias emanating from media barons with dubious agendas. This adds to the anger caused by news itself. Happily, we still have choices. The Whitehall and tax haven Kremlins have yet to completely stifle freedom of expression, despite their best endeavours. New titles such as the Bylines Network have sprung up as a riposte to the vacuity of the mainstream to offer fine writing on woke matters, with Sussex having its own brilliant digital Sussex Bylines, allowing local people to both write and read intelligent comment.
So platforms there are, in books and press, for writers and readers here in Sussex. It is true that these options may never achieve the scale of the established national names, but they are here and they are good.
For contributors, even with few potential readers, getting the words off your chest can be a joy not to be ignored. The words have to be there to be consumed. If just one person finds new insight or enjoys a tasty morsel in what has been written, that is worth something and who knows, someone’s grandson may come upon something which will change his life.
Independent Bookshop Week 2022 will take place Saturday 18 – Saturday 25 June. See Support Independent Bookshops
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