On reading a good book

13th February 2013

My blog schedule for the week has been disrupted by a slow recovery from a modest bout of ‘flu, so apologies for the absence of new posts in the past few days. Spending more time in bed than usual did allow me to catch up with some reading, including the recently published The Persephone Book of Short Stories. This is the 100th volume from Persephone, which over the past decade or more has specialised in publishing neglected twentieth-century writing, much of it by women. The Persephone story is told well in the Observer feature One shade of grey by Rachel Cooke and this is the link to their richly interesting online catalogue. I want simply to hymn this particular 450 page volume, in part for its contents but mostly – and this is particularly important in this age of the tablet – for its materiality.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories features thirty compact pieces of fiction, all of which are by women writers. Many are small-scale and domestic, focussed on frustrated hopes and private epiphanies. Most are undemonstrative, both in their subject-matter and their style. But exactly because of all these virtues there are wonders here, including the marvellous ‘From A to Z’ from 1909 by Susan Glaspell, which had me laughing and crying on the tube and introduced me to a major writer.

The stories are arranged chronologically, and so as you read it you see a history of women’s lives unfolding across the century, and this is particularly potent in stories from the Second World War by Mollie Panter-Downes (a quintessential Persephone author). Elizabeth Berridge and Dorothy Whipple (another such). And then tucked in there about two-thirds of the way through is the surprising and shocking and deeply disturbing ‘The Lottery’ (1948) by Shirley Jackson, which is a marvellous piece of domestic rural Gothic.

The writing in the collection has kept me engaged and occasionally enthralled across more than a week, but what I have really appreciated is the feel in my hands of this lovingly-produced paperback. For an object with a recommended retail price of just £12, Persephone Books have created a gorgeous object that boasts immaculate graphic design, luscious end-papers, a wonderfully calculated weight and a monochrome loose-leaf cover that seems to respond to one’s fingers caressing its surface. This truly is a book of beauty.

And because its a book (as opposed to pixels on a digital display, of course) across this past week it has become mine in a very special way. I hope I treat all my books with care and attention, but I expect a certain robust quality, and certainly this one can be opened to its fullest extent without the spine cracking. As I read, like all good books, it began to carry signs of my involvement with it, so that it would fall open close to where I had last finished reading. The spine shifted almost imperceptibly and the exterior picked up some small marks that only added to its character.

None of this – need I say? – happens when you read a book on a Kindle or an iPad. None of it will be news to any regular reader, and we – or at least I – depend on the digital for a different kind of reading, for accessing information or undertaking research. For pleasure and stimulus, both intellectual and sensuous, you really cannot beat a good book. 

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