The importance of books

From where I’m sat in my front room, on the right of the bay window I can see a pile of four books. There’s a Tim Vine joke book. I usually buy a myself a joke book at Christmas, a kind of reserve fund of emergency fun. There’s a baking book from a popular TV show, a gift from me to my hopefully some-time flour fingered girl. Then from a charity shop for a pound, Talking About Cakes With an Irish and Scottish Accent, a sixties recipe book once homed, I can tell by the stamp, at Bishop Burton Institute of Agriculture. Top of the pile is the latest wannabe Po Ballantyne- Kem Nunn – cod Bukowski – Alex Garland baloney, it might be good, it might be good.

Then on the sofa is a chunky Bloodaxe anthology, with many bookmarked poems. Also on the sofa, is a witty but ultimately too verbose and pretentious book about the paraphernalia of everyday objects. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. Best, so far, on top of the pile, on the sofa is the beautifully jacketed, The Following Game, a father and son biography written by Jonathon Smith, father of the England cricketer Ed. I won’t say more about this particular book here, but that I tend not to have a middle ground with books, I either hate them because the author can’t write or it is the most fantastic brilliant book I’ve ever read. The Following Game falls into the latter. It’s terrific. I loved it.

Why are books important to me?

I was going to walk around the house a bit and tell you about the little piles. Say by my computer, under the phone a book of the history of soul music, an anthology of Hull poets that I edited or the pile in front of the fire place in the kitchen, but I need to get to the question, why are books important to me and I will in time.

There is a reason the books are on the sofa and by the curtain on the floor and the reason is my book cases are full. This is a complete guess, but we might have 4000 say, ish. My brother came round once and said jocularly, “Gosh, imagine how long it will take you to read them all.” I never said anything. My wife and I shared a guilty look with each other. You see, I have read them all, and then some. We don’t keep many of the books we buy, we pass them on to charity. But we, ok I, keep some. I’ll keep Fante, by Dan Fante and no ones’s having my copy of 86’d and I’ll keep The Following Game, or give it to a very good friend, these are the books that are important to me.

Here’s me, early forties book cases full, always a book on the go, bibliophile, writer, editor, runner of small press from kitchen. That’s me.

My dad. Champion darts player, student of the sport of kings, avid reader of The Sporting Life and race day Tote cards. Books. I can honestly say I never saw my dad read a book ever. Some people are non-readers. Is that the right term? He could read. He chose not to, or never chose too.

Why are books important to me? Well as TV becomes increasingly unbearable, actually let’s not say books are good cos TVs shite.

You can buy a book, say Magnus Mills, Joseph Roth, Irvine Welsh or Simon Armitage and, it’s like it’s your book. Our lives are made of songs we’ve heard, films we’ve seen, our experiences. But books give us much more don’t they? This year I’m going to Croatia, for real. But I could go on countless holidays, through books. That’s bullshit; which reminds me of the brilliant Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Books eh. They can transport you, but let’s face it, I’d rather have a shag than read about it.

There’s nothing that makes me feel like I belong as a good book. It’s the thrill of connection. I always loved the Big Country song, Harvest; You came like a view across the factory floor with the sun and moon as gifts, but the only suns you ever saw, were the two he left you with. I love Jeff Torrington, Philip Levine, William Wantling, Ben Hamper and Geoff Hattersley because they wrote about work, what it does to you. They make me feel like I’m not alone. They say something to me about my life and that’s important. When I left school I worked in a factory.

There’s more though, I love Magnus Mills, Charles Simic and Hrabal and I really love Vallgren’s, The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot His Wonderful Love and Terrible Hatred. These are books of real abracadabra magic, switch off the telly, switch off the phone, crash out on the sofa with a bottle of wine. What a joy, and it’s all to do with the search, the discovery, the thrill of the chase, the wonder of possibility. There are no borders in the land of fiction, no perimeters on the realm of the imagination and it’s this that is magical and each night I read to my eight year old son, Dan.

At the moment we are reading, Martin The Warrior, a sort of three musketeers where all the characters are rats, mice, ferrets, stoats, squirrels and there’s usually a badger and a hare. I enjoy it and I want to inculcate into my son the thought that in each book is a story.

Why are books important?

I want Dan and Holly to have this, this, I suppose self sufficiency. Ok, you’ve got your book, you can stop and start whenever you want, you can re-read. It’s better than TV, which insofar, says it’s good entertainment, but not why they are important?

Let’s say something political. The idealist egalitarian in me believes that in an ideal world there would be an equality of opportunity. The easiest way to redress inequality of opportunity is education. Central to most forms of education are books. Read them and learn.

Not only did my father not read, none of us did. When I left school I had no love of books, reading possibly, comics definitely, but books, no. My dad was on the dole, or on sickness benefit. I was on a YTS. I was playing football, watching Manu and dancing to Kajagoogoo.

Something happened. A lot of things happened. When I was eighteen I liked football, I liked camping, getting away from it all. I’d left school with one O level and I started to realise, when all my friends were getting four or five A levels that I needed to do something. I don’t know how to write this story. I met a girl, hippy Sarah, I fell in love and she fell in love with me at least for a short while. Sarah was feisty, argumentative. She told me to go to college. I was a DJ, Tim and Pete, we had a mobile disco, Itchy Feet. She said we’d never escape York. My dad died.

I wanted a better life. I wired up lamps from Taiwan and packed them up with lampshades and sent them to Habitat and John Lewis. I wanted the suit, the car, the life. So I went to York College of Arts and Technology and did a BTEC in Business and Finance.

Ok ok ok sometimes you have to say one thing to say another. Why are books important to me? I did my BTEC, then I went to University.

This image comes to my mind. I’m a dedicated and determined student, I’m in the University library and I see a book, Enderby (I’m 22ish) I decide to read it and see what it’s like. Anyone that knows me and Enderby must know it made me swoon. Then I read Illywhacker, by Peter Carey. What a book!

And maybe that’s it? I was at uni with clever people, we all read books and I never stopped. There’s more. Or there’s something else. I spent my evenings listening to night time radio and on the radio Mark Radcliffe used to have guest poets. I won’t say too much here, but I discovered Martin Wiley, Joolz, Ian MacMillan and Simon Armitage. I remember Billy Bragg on the radio reading Patrick Kavanagh and am I misremembering this? Kate Bush reading W.B. Yeats. So I picked up a Yeats collection, I tried Tennyson, my tastes were being developed, I was starting to explore. I read Duncton Wood.

I went to college and uni to make my life better. I needed to read books to get my degree. While still to this day, I’m on a low wage, which diminishes the idealist egalitarian in me, I still believe it’s up to us. It’s up to me. We have to take positive steps to make our lives better. I’d never regret for one second my personal push and still, I only need to get one better job, then I’ll be richer…

I need to say just a couple more things. Firstly I did some training to be a psychotherapist. Oh, the books I read. The existentialism of Rollo May and the terrific Irvin Yalom and the Logotherapy of Viktor Frankl. When I was learning how to help others, these were the guys I turned to. They said the most, in the clearest way.

So books are important, they not only teach us about life, they teach us how to help. A doctor may read a book, to save a life. Books give us knowledge and information, just think how useful dictionaries are!

So that’s that bit. I wanted to say too. I read books because I think they are cool. I like Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Willy Vlautin and Knut Hamsun. Real cool cats and it’s important to be cool, to have cool books. The funny thing is though, I think Geoff Hattersley is cool and Lorna Thorpe. Joseph Roth and Geoff Hattersley say more to me about existentialism than Camus and Wittgenstein, Geoff, who comes like a view from the Barnsley factory floor… but his voice isn’t heard enough and not enough people read Simon Armitage and what about, The Horse Burning Park by Mark Robinson?  

Peter Knaggs

    

One comment

  1. markrob

    JUst wanted to say a big thank you for the reference at the end here – feels a bit like getting a reply to a message in a bottle all these years later!

    There will be some poems from The Horse Burning Park in a book I have coming out next year from Smokestack Books, a big set of new poems integrated with some selected poems from previous collections and projects. It’s been a long time since my last collection, though Arc published some work in a collaborative book with Andy Croft, Bill Herbert, Linda France and leading Bulgarian poets.

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