20130501

Wrapped Up In Books


No friends, no money, no daylight. My first semester at university was terrible.

The closest thing I had to a social life were weekly meetings of the Warp and Megalomaniac societies, both of which were all-but filled with embittered third-years and mature students - hardly conducive to the wild and boundless hedonism that I had expected university to be. Warp was the science-fiction society, where no discussions of science-fiction ever took place. Instead we sat in a bar designed for mature students that was lit like a dentist's office and smelled a bit funny. Still. The jukebox was good.

The Megalomaniacs described themselves as “the political satire society”, and I think the only way you could have met a more unpleasant bunch of people would be had you attended a meeting of the University of Manchester Young Tories, Facists and Football Fans Society. Cynical by default, they never smiled, only sneered. They weren't all bad. Indeed, one of them would later help to secure victory for Manchester in University Challenge. But as a group they were set in their ways and about the exact opposite of the sort of people I wanted to meet.

No money – well. No student has much in the way of assets. But I was, for some reason, particularly poor – to the extent that I was surviving almost exclusively on a diet comprised of three staples – brown bread, crunchy peanut butter and Lidl's own-brand 8p instant noodles – with the odd pint of Fosters boosting my weekly calorie intake every time I did a load of laundry. I was very likely in a state of malnourishment – evidenced by the sores that appeared on my face, the cluster migraines I got at night (that would only intensify when I closed my eyes) and the fact that I blacked out when I went home for Christmas and ate some turkey and vegetables.

And no daylight. This was because my ground-floor room looked out onto a concrete parade ground that students often used as a football pitch. They had a tendency to stare into my room, so I took to shutting my curtains every time a game started. Eventually it got to the point where I wouldn't bother opening them again.

My first semester at university was terrible.

But I read a lot. It was, to all intents and purposes, all I had. Reading filled time. I had a lot of time to fill, and not much of it could be filled with studying. So I read and read and read – knowing, at the back of my mind, that I'd be at a genuine loss as to what to do with myself were I to run out of books to read. I was therefore really quite frightened of running out of books. It didn't bear thinking about.

Now that I've a lovely circle of friends and family, three more jobs than I deserve and plenty of sunlight, I don't have nearly so much time for reading – but I wouldn't have it any other way. But I find myself buying books all the time, to the extent that I've already acquired more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime.

Having such an immense backlog – combined with my tendency to compel myself to do a set amount of things in a set amount of time – has, I now realise, made me develop a less than ideal approach to reading. Rather than considering that I have the remainder of my natural life to devote to reading as many books as I want, I've found myself, on a few occasions, only reading a book for the sake of reading a book – so that it could be removed from the pile.

This is the exact opposite of the position I was in during that first terrible university semester. Back then I learned to appreciate the immense importance of books through convincing myself that, without them, I would die. These days I'm trying to recapture the ability to read one book at a time – and to grace that one book with every ounce of appreciation I'm willing to give it.

But still. It's nice to know that no matter how bad things should get, I will never, ever, ever run out of things to read – which is possibly about as close as you can possibly get to ensuring lifelong happiness.

At the very least, I'm never going to get bored.

So I'm here now, with an immense guilty groan of books next to me, most of which are just waiting - quite impatiently - to be read. I don't necessarily structure my reading habits, but I have certain rules. As a new year begins I find myself reading colourful genre fiction – possibly in reaction to the relentless drabness of that time of year. Over the summer, I want plot and I want as many pages as possible – the sort of story in which you can really lose yourself. Towards the end of October I'll turn to ghost stories, because who doesn't? As Autumn decays into winter I'll see through the change with some Victorian Gothic, and then, come Christmas, it's time for Dickens. I read one or two Dickens each year over the extended Christmas period, and I like to think that once I've finally read through his oeuvre, I'll simply read it all again. And again and again, until I die. Yeah!

Books are inexpensive, lovely to look at, lovely to hold, and whether they're ordered or cluttered, when you have a lot of them in your life your life feels more complete.

Books, then, are your friends for life. They even smell nice. Go hug a book now. NOW.

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