On March 27, 2013, I started reading a book for the first time as an adult. Last week – nine years, two months and 23 days later – I read my 1,000th book. This has been a life-changing near-decade for me in so many ways and books have been at the heart of it.
The prelude to that first read is this: two day earlier I had gotten married. My wife Kirsty – an English teacher with a lifelong love of reading – had regularly encouraged me to read over the years with little success. I had managed to get through the odd book on holidays, usually a cricketer’s autobiography or something about football or serial killers (don’t ask). Never a novel. I had flirted with the idea of a Nick Hornby (I’d enjoyed Fever Pitch as a teenager), read couple of chapters of In Cold Blood one time. But nothing had stuck.
‘What was the book that got you?’, I hear you ask. Well, what I often tell people – because it sounds pretty cool – is that it was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. An amazing novel, a novel that broke my heart when I read it and was the first that truly showed me the sheer power of literature to manipulate your feelings and make you care so much about these invented characters. But the truth is, it was Essays In Love by Alain de Botton. Hey, come on, I’d just gotten married for Christ’s sake. It’s a strange kind of combination of novel and philosophy, which I found intoxicating in my loved-up state. Anyway, there it is. Essays In Love. A book I will always cherish for lots of reasons, chief among them being it’s signpost as the start of both my marriage and my love of reading.
I’d read the book on my honeymoon in Rome and, upon our return, Kirsty could see that the door was open. She finally had an in. So, she starting pointing out books at home that I might like, things I could read next. Still riding that newly-wed wave, I read some other stuff I’m less proud to admit to loving these days. The Time Traveller’s Wife. One Day. I even toyed with the idea of reading more philosophy, for a few weeks. Another de Botton followed, which again I enjoyed. Yeah, I thought, maybe that’s who I am, I’m a philosophy guy. Then I tried Descartes and parked that idea right there.
The most important thing I did at this stage was write down the books as I read them. Not my idea, but Kirsty’s. She said I would thank her for the suggestion in years to come and she could not have been more right. According to my notes from the time, those early forays into literature saw me read several books I still hold dear now: The Book Thief, Stoner, On The Road, Crossing to Safety, Trainspotting, Animal Farm. Then, in September, I stumbled into an author who would become my first obsession: Cormac McCarthy.
The Road had won the Pulitzer Prize half a dozen years earlier but, being unaware of anything bookish until now, I had never heard of it. I picked it up off the bookshelf at home and was instantly gripped, drawn into this bleak, starkly beautiful story of a boy and a man at the end of the world. It was so brutal and so spare. I went straight out and devoured McCarthy’s entire back-list in the next year. I found a writer wrestling with the darkest parts of our humanity, with good and evil, with the very meaning of existence. It was a glorious discovery.
My obsessions migrated from there to John Steinbeck – someone I am now glad I never had to study at school, because finding him later was a revelation. Cannery Row made me laugh, East of Eden left me shocked, The Grapes of Wrath altered my worldview. Then there was Annie Proulx and Irvine Welsh. Ernest Hemingway. Junot Diaz.
Books were fast becoming the thing I ordered my life by. The things that bookmarked my life, signposted major events. They became memories outside of themselves. I remember, clear as day, what I was reading when my son was born in 2015: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Unsurprisingly, it went unfinished. In 2016, when my daughter was born, I had two pages left of A Confederacy of Dunces. “No,” said the nurse, “we can’t wait for you to finish it first.”
I had also made another discovery that would change my life. A book shop down an alley behind a department store in Bath. A place I would come to see as my second home in years to come: Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. For Christmas, my wife and I had bought each other a reading spa – great minds, eh? We came in and had the best time, guided by Ed, and took home some great books that took me to new places and down new avenues in my reading. I had never felt comfortable in book shops before but this place was welcoming and warm and I felt at home. I knew immediately that I wanted to work there. At the time I was working in my family’s butcher shop – not something I had trained for but had kind-of fallen into after quitting journalism a few years earlier. With my parents’ retirement approaching I began hustling for a job at Mr B’s. I eventually wore them down and started life as a bookseller in early 2019. If you’d have told me six years earlier that I would end up working in a book shop, I’d have told you to get your head examined.
My reading had grown exponentially by this time (yes, despite having two children!). I read a personal record of 162 books in 2020 and learned something very important from it: don’t. Great as books are, three a week is too many. There’s a whole world out there, full of wonder. Make some time for something else. I have reigned it in in recent years to around the 100 mark, which seems to give me a better balance and makes sure I’m enjoying my reading even more. The obsessions and mini-obsessions continue to come and go: Richard Brautigan, Latin America, sports novels, Chester Himes, Irish fiction, Elmore Leonard (he has his own shelf on my bookcase)… I’m pleased to say it never ends.
So, 1,000 books. What does that mean? How does it change a person? Well, I don’t know if I can answer that with any clarity. For starters, I can’t really work out what I used to do with my free time before. I’d like to think it’s made me a more empathetic person. It’s certainly given me a more open mind, taught me about other people’s lives and experiences. It has definitely given me a better chance of answering the odd question right when I’m watching University Challenge. But I don’t really need to tell readers why they read: you just know.
What was the 1000th book, you ask? One of the many great privileges of being a bookseller is getting access to advance copies of new titles. When these two books dropped through the post a few weeks ago, I knew immediately what numbers 999 and 1,000 were going to be. Seems appropriate, don’t you think?
CLICK HERE to see the most memorable of my 1,000 books!