When I was a child, I’d save my pocket money for two things: the first being books, and the second being Fizz-Pops (preferably the sour apple variety, packed with tongue-tingling sour-apple sherbet).
Both of these treats, in the colonial British outpost of Salisbury – now the bustling African city of Harare – were in short supply.
Each Friday, I’d cycle to the little local library, and try to find a book I hadn’t already read. And each birthday and Christmas I’d wait with bated breath for the next Secret Seven/Famous Five/Nancy Drew paperback to arrive from my beloved cousin in Liverpool, wrapped in brown paper and string, and slightly dog-eared after the mail ship to Cape Town, a train to Zimbabwe, a van to our suburb, and at last, the hands of a dog-nipped, bicycle-riding postman.
So it makes sense that, 40 years later, when I bought my first house in London, the first thing I built were shelves for the things I loved most: books. That, with my first salary, the first thing I treated myself to was an enormous, glossy art book. And that, until recently, every Christmas I still bought my partner a book I hoped he might love – as he did for me.
When I say did, it’s because in the past couple of years, we’ve stopped giving each other books. Not because I don’t still adore good writing. But because, thanks to some rather unthinking publishing PRs, who have added me to their publishing lists – in spite of vigorous protestations – books keep arriving in the post. Some weeks I get ten or 20. Some on travel. Some on food. Some on interiors. Some on absolutely nothing I’ve ever been interested in (this week, handmade Japanese bicycle frames; last week, cupcakes).
And rather than enjoying that wonderful feeling of unwrapping a new book, I feel totally swamped. They’re piled up in my office. Lurking under my desk. Wobbling in towers on my desktop. I have a bag in my car boot, to take to the charity shop. A suitcase for the local school. Another stash for foodie friends.
Rather than being a pleasure, the books have become a burden. Even if they are the most exquisite books I’ve ever seen, I resent them because I will never find the time to look at them – never mind read them.
Looking back at the features I’ve written in the past year, only three have been inspired by books. And all three were sent as PDFs, so I could look at them on my screen, on a plane, on a train, and take what I needed in order to write about them.
Which means that thousands of pounds of publishers’ money has been wasted on books I will never look at, and never feature. A few dozen trees have been cut down unnecessarily. And a whole lot of my energy has been spent giving books away.
Please keep sending me catalogues listing new books. Please alert me with press releases about books that could inspire a feature. Please email me if there are great new guidebooks I should know about. Just don’t send me the real thing, please.
Or, for that matter, Fizz Pops. Because I eat them so rarely, they’re still a glorious treat.