Learning to read

The Anglican cleric Reverend Wilbert Awdry (1911-97) is best known for his series of children’s books based around the now well-known Thomas the Tank Engine. He published his series of books about railways, The Railway Series, in 42 volumes between 1945 and 2011 (two were published posthumously). Each volume was a small colourfully illustrated story about railway engines with faces and personalities. Being a lover of trains from an early age, I devoured and enjoyed these stories from the earliest day that I was able to read to myself.

 

engines

 

One of my favourite of Awdry’s books was called Eight Famous Engines. I cannot remember why I liked it, but I do remember that I mis-read the word ‘famous’. For several years, I thought that ‘famous’ was pronounced ‘farm house’. It puzzled me that the book seemed to have little or nothing to do with agriculture, but that did not stop me from liking the book and re-reading it many times from cover to cover. It was only when I had outgrown these railway books that it dawned to me that  the letters f.a.m.o.u.s spelled ‘famous’ and not ‘farm house’.

In addition to the Awdry railway books, I enjoyed leafing through a particular  well-illustrated geography book, which I used to borrow often from the local public library. One of the many photographs in this book that caught my attention was captioned “A POLISH FIELD”. You can probably guess what I will write next. Yes, for years I thought that it was a picture of a field containing plants that when harvested became shoe polish. It was a long time before it dawned on me that it was a Polish field rather than a field of polish.

Now, many decades later, you might be pleased to know that I do not make mistakes like the above when I am reading.

 

 

 

How far do you go?

Story line_500

 

There are many ways of choosing books to read. Some people go by the ‘blurb’ on the cover or the subject matter as suggested by the title, others by the first few pages, some by the last few pages, and yet others simply by the reputation of the author.

Having chosen one, how do you decide whether to read it from start to finish or to abandon it?  

If I can get through the first ten or so pages, I will continue reading it. So, I conclude from this that when I am writing a book it is very important to engage the reader from the very first page. In addition, when the book appears on sites like Amazon, the sample that becomes available for potential buyers is these first few pages.

If I am not enjoying a book by the hundredth page, I will happily stop reading the book, and then choose another. If, on the other hand, I am fully enjoying or finding a book interesting as I reach page 100, there is a very good chance that I will read the whole book.

What is your decision-making process for deciding whether or not to stick with a book?

So near, but so far

WRITING

 

I have been working on the manuscript of my latest book, about whose subject I will write sooner or later.

I have reached a stage at which I keep reading through the whole text, trying to put myself in the place of a potential reader, and from that position I make modifications, which I hope will improve the quality of the book. Each time I look at it, I make more changes, many corrections, some additions, and many more deletions to eliminate my natural tendency towards verbosity. So, my book is nearing completion, but has far to go before publishing it.

Soon, I will be ready to show my manuscript to some kind volunteers to get their candid (I hope) opinions, comments, and criticisms on what I have produced so far.  If I do not do this, I will become self-satisfied and the book might begin to suffer. Also, I need to know whether what I have written is, in priciple, likely to be worth reading! Then, it will be back to the ‘drawing board’ to modify my work in the light of what my test readers tell me.

Finally, I will need to proof-read my book, format it properly, and add a few illustrations before publishing my ‘oeuvre’. From conceiving an idea to finishing a book based on it is a long process, frustrating at times but largely enjoyable.

A few words

 

For the past few months I have been working on the manuscript of my latest book. I am not telling you what is going to be about. You will have to wait to find out!

I was reasonably happy about the way it was going, but a little worried that I was including too much about matters distant to the topic on which I was planning to focus. Some of the less relevant material might easily have been considered controversial and possibly hurt the sentiments of some of my potential readers. This worried me somewhat.

A couple of days ago, an old friend, whom we had not seen for a few months, came to dinner at our home. During the meal, I told him what I was writing about. Immediately, he reacted that what I feared was controversial might easily get me into trouble if my text was read by a certain type of person. 

For a couple of hours, I was downcast. I thought that maybe I should just abandon the project, which has taken up so much of my spare time during the last few months.

Next morning, I woke early, feeling inspired. I turned on the computer and removed the ptentially ofensive material from my draft text. Then, I read through what was left of it, and realised that by trimming it down, my text was far better than it had been before. It had become tighter and more focussed on the subject I want to portray.

I am always amazed how important a very few words of advice can be.

Why I started to write

Cuneiform_240

 

Well over 10 years ago, I came across a website specialising in genealogy relevant to my background. I was curious about my ancestry, but knew very little about it. So, I registered with the site.

One of the sections of the website allowed members to insert surnames alongside towns with which the surnames were associated. So I put my mother’s maiden surname next to the name of a small town in South Africa, where she lived with her parents as a young child. I did the same with my father’s surname. The idea behind this particular section is fo researchers to see if any of the surnames that they are looking into match entries that other researchers had entered. For example, I might have entered ‘Goldberg’ alongside ‘Cape Town, South Africa’. If another person was interested in ‘Goldberg’ families either in Cape Town or South Africa searched this section of the website, they would find all of the Goldbergs in Cape Town or South Africa, which had been entered by other researchers, alongside a link for contacting the person who had entered the information.

So, I entered the two names as described earlier, expecting very little or nothing to happen. My skepticism mas ill-founded. Two days later, I received a message from someone, whose name I did not recognise. He had found my mother’s maiden surname alongside the small town where she lived in South Africa. My new correspondent had worked out that he and I are second cousins. Subsequently, he sent me a family tree for my mother’s father’s family. 

When I told my mother’s brother about this beginner’s luck, he added to it by giving me the family tree for another of my ancestors. One thing led to another, and soon I had compiled an enormous composite family tree. 

My wife commented that it was all very well collecting ever increasing numbers of names to add to my family tree, but that it was not particularly interesting. She suggested that what would be far more interesting would be to look into what the individuals on the tree did when they were alive. This proved to be fascinating, and was the reason that I began writing and publishing books and articles. I fell in love with writing. Regular readers of this blog will know by now that my interests are no longer confined to tales about my ancestors.

 

Picture shows Cuneiform writing at the British Museum

Seize the opportunity

North Germany

 

I have always enjoyed browsing the shelves and piles of books in second-hand bookshops. During my adolescence in the 1960s, I bought many old travel guidebooks, such as were published before WW2 by the likes of Baedeker, Michelin, Murrays, and so on. These items were not highly valued by collectors in the ’60s and were very reasonably priced. This was just as well because my spending power at that time was not great. My self-imposed rule was that I would not buy anything priced over £1 (Sterling). One of my prized purchases in that time was a pre-WW1 Baedeker’s guide to Egypt. I paid six shillings (30 pence) for this already rare edition in the second-hand department off Dillons university bookshop, which faces the Engineering Department of University College London. This shop is now a branch of the Waterstones chain of booksellers.

Most of the bookshops that I visited regularly were in or near Hampstead, which in the 1960s had at least eight second-hand booksellers. There was one shop that I visited occasionally on the corner of Fleet and Agincourt Roads, Once I entered it and found a copy of Murray’s Handbook to Northern Germany, which was published in the late 1880s. I was fascinated by this book which described Germany long before it was divided into East and West Germany, which is how it was in the 1960s. I looked inside its cover to discover its price. My heart sank. It was priced at one pound and ten shillings (£1.10). It was well over my price limit. I could not decide whether or not I should break my £1 rule … only this once. I did not. Reluctantly, I left the book behind in the shop. I had never seen a copy of this book before, and as I walked away I wondered whether I would ever see another.

In the 1980s, I was still collecting old books including travel guide books. By 1983, I had a car and drove to see friends all over the UK and elsewhere. Often, I visited friends in Cornwall. My route took me through many small towns, all of which I explored with a view to discovering second-hand bookshops. Honiton in Devon used to contain several well stocked booksellers. On one trip I entered one of them at the western end of the town and made an exciting discovery. Yes, you have probably guessed it already. In that shop, I found another copy of the guide to Northern Germany. Nervously, I looked for its price. By now, I had abandoned the idea of limiting my spend to £1, which in the 1980s would have been insufficient to buy any of the old guidebooks that attracted my interest. The volume I found was £7, which was good value in the 1980s. I snapped it up and paid for it with pleasure.

Nowadays, if I see a rare book that interests, I seize the opportunity to buy it, provided that it is not outrageously costly.

Book sniffing

As long as I can remember, I have been sticking my nose into any book that I am reading so that I can smell its pages.

I suppose that in brand new, recently printed books I am smelling the paper and the ink. Books printed in different countries often have distinctly differing odours.

As books get older, the smells of their pages change. This is both the result of ageing ink and paper and also a consequence of the environment in which the book has been stored. For example, if the book has been housed in the shelves of a reader who smokes, the pages acquire a tinge of the smell of tobacco and its smoke.

At first, I believed that I was the only person who sniffs the interiors of books, but now I know that I am not alone. The world of book readers is divided into page sniffers and those who do not poke their noses into books for reasons other than reading.

A lovely discovery

I always enjoy finding bookshops that are out of the ordinary. Although bookselling chains such as Waterstones in the UK and Crossword in India are well stocked with popular titles that are likely to sell well, it is the quirky or niche bookshops that I particularly seek out. The one-off bookshops usually keep a far more interesting range of books than the chains.

Here is a short description of a lovely specialist bookshop hidden away in a residential district of Ahmedabad, not far from the River Sabarmati, on whose bank Mahatma Gandhi set up one of his famous ashrams.

This small gem of bookshop, the Art Book Centre, in Ahmedabad is a wonderful discovery. It was recommended to us by Mr Shukla who is the General Secretary of the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners Association, which is housed in a masterpiece by the architectural genius Le Corbusier.

The bookshop, a true life Aladdin’s cave, is on the first floor of a residential building. It is reached by a steep ladder like staircase typical of those found in houses all over Gujarat. The steps lead to a balcony which is festooned with colourful folkloric items. A doorway leads from there into the shop itself.

The walls of the small, cosy shop are lined with neatly stacked book cases. Piles of books rise from the floor. On the walls and in between the book cases, there are numerous folkloric artworks and practical items including beautifully embroidered and printed textiles. We were welcomed by Manarbhai and Ketan, one of his two sons. They invited us to sit down.

Manarbhai worked for many years as a typist in the Mathematics Department of the University of Gujarat. He was no ordinary typist. He was able to type mathematical equations, which was no easy feat in the era before computerised word processors became available.

Manarbhai began his book business as a part time enterprise. In 1970, he converted part of his home into what is now his shop. At first, he only opened his shop on weekends. Now, it is open every day between 10 am and 6 pm.

The shop specialises mainly in books on art and architecture. It contains many books about textiles. Many of the volumes available are rare editions. If what you wish is not stocked, Manarbhai and his sons will do their best to source it, and then send it to you anywhere in the world.

It soon became apparent to us that Manarbhai and Ketan are extremely knowledgeable about books in the fields on which they specialise. They are also sensitively intelligent salesmen. Very quickly, they assessed our particular interests and began showing us books that were in harmony with them. We came away with a valuable selection of books that will help satisfy our curiosity about the fascinating history of the city of Ahmedabad.

This is a bookshop for true book lovers and collectors. It should be on every bibliophile’s itinerary. What Manarbhai cannot find for your bookshelf is probably not worth having.

Address: near Jain Temple, Madalpur, Ellis Bridge, Ahmedabad 380006

 

This article is adapted from http://www.gujarat-travels.com