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What a blessing it is to love books as I love them;- to be able to converse with the dead, and to live amidst the unreal! Thomas Babington Macaulay

I sometimes laugh at myself  – flying across the world to lie in a deckchair and read all afternoon.

And the next afternoon.


 And the next….

But – ah that’s the luxury.   Being “at home” here in Altenrhein in Switzerland means exactly that.  We arrive, to be greeted by friends.  We turn on the water and the gas.  We undo the shutters and let the light and fresh air in. We crawl into the bed we’ve left ready for us so many months ago – and then our “this side of the world” life clicks in.

For Mani, that means playing cards in the afternoons with his friends.  For me – it’s the deckchair and the books.

I quiz myself – am I an addict?   It seems one can be addicted to almost anything these days.   Let’s see….

First there’s the heightened anticipation.  From New Zealand, I mentally review the bookshelves in Switzerland. What’s there that I’m hungering to read again?  What’s there that I may even have left part-read?    What from my New Zealand shelves really requires the uninterrupted attention the deck-chair can provide?   What’s on my “must-get” list that I’m going to carry with me?

And yes – it’s the physical books that I’m thinking of.  Sure, I load up the e-reader too, but somehow that’s a fall-back, a precaution against the horror  of finishing my carry-on books and still being miles above anything else to read, or having gone on a trip somewhere and not packed enough.

My eyes start shining in anticipation

My eyes start shining in anticipation

Then there’s the intoxication of the first fix.  I sit in front of the bookshelves.  I pile up the books I brought with me.  I spine-dance through what’s there, challenging myself to select some to move out and make space.  What can I let go?   First cull – well, not really!  That pile becomes the “ I’ll just quickly re-read them to make sure they really can go” pile.

Then the rationing.  I don’t want to read all the new books first.  I’ll have one new one… then a couple of re-reads – including at least one from the “just checking” pile.

And then… ah yes .. the “just one more” inner bargaining.   I finish a book – and it’s only mid-afternoon – and I could get up and go for a walk or a bike-ride, or get out the paints, or at the very least, write a review of the book I’ve just finished… but then, I’m back in front of the bookshelves, humming gently to myself in anticipation…

IMG_6437_1Ah, but if this is addiction, then it’s glorious.  And sanity-saving. Yes, that’s the best rationalisation.  Through books I can immerse myself in a language that goes straight in through my eyes to my mind. No translating. No struggling to comprehend.  From page to thought, painlessly.

These books are dear friends, lovingly accumulated over the years.  Those that are just ‘visitors’ have come from the Brockenstüben – the Swiss version of Opportunity Shops. I know several around here that have a  shelf of English language books.  They’re mainly ‘airport reading’ – and I treat those like a library – buy, read, return a pile and get another.  But some get stuck to my shelves.  Anna Karenina came from there. And a book I’m currently reading – Roberto Calasso’s “the Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” – which I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.

I still remember my early visits here, before I discovered that source.  The books I brought with me were chosen for their page-count and re-readability, because the nearest bookshop with an English language section seemed a long and difficult way away.  That was when I first sensed addiction.  The background anxiety about running out.

Of course I have a NZ section.  NZ novels – those are safe from the Brockestübli pile because they must be repatriated, NZ thinkers like Anne Salmond, Paul Callaghan – ditto for repatriation.

And the physics and mathematics section. My schooling did not fill me with appetite to understand the incredible developments in thinking about new physics and mathematics which were happening at that time.  Happily, now my mind is ready at the same time as fabulous communicators are writing about such things in a way that makes me go “ah yes, I get it!”.   Fifty years after I might have got it… but never too late.    Brain stuff too, and evolutionary biology, and…and…and

Sorry… I can’t bear it a moment longer.  The deck-chair is there in the shade of the gingko tree.   We’ve cycled this morning.  We’ll swim this evening. But now it’s afternoon, and I know what I do in the afternoon…..

People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.   Saul Bellow

Some current favourites on the bookshelf

New novels 

  • Kate Atkinson “Life after life”.  It lives up to its reviews, such a clever concept, beautifully executed.
  • Aminatta Forna “The Hired Man”.  Mosaic’d fragments build up (at least some) answers to how (at least some) Croatians try  to reconstruct life after war.
  • Adam Johnson “The Orphan Master’s Son”.  So black, so brilliant.  All you can’t bear to imagine about life in North Korea turned into  a most human and inhumane satire.  The current Panama arms seizure would fit here perfectly!

Brilliant science of all sorts….

  • James Gleick – “The Information”.  From how African drums communicate, to the science behind IT, to what language is really about….
  • Richard Holmes “The Age of Wonder”.  There’s a bit of parochial interest here – Joseph Banks is one of Holme’s pivotal figures as science develops in the late 18th, early 19th  Centuries in all its wonder (“beauty and terror”). AND he rediscovers some women in science.
  • Michael Frayn “The Human Touch”.  What are we? How do we construct our world? How do we understand what we think we are experiencing?  Frayn is another of those writers with the gift of fully engaging with us so we feel nearly as intelligent as he is.
  • Simon Singh “Big Bang”.   I was still in school when the arguments about “Big Bang” versus Steady State universe were still raging.  The story of the evolution of our scientific understanding has more plot twists and extreme characters  than a murder mystery.
  • David Eagleman “Incognito – the secret lives of the brain”. My review of this is in the  Goodreads box on the left of your screen. 
  • Steven Pinker “ The Better Angels of our Nature”.  I think I’ve recommended this to more people than any other book.  I read it twice here last year. Took it back to NZ to write the review.  Nearly brought it back here again to finish the review. Had a failure of  will.  It’s so dense, so important.  In short – he proves beyond doubt that on all measures all types of violence in the world is diminishing,  then sets out to understand why.  Don’t wait for me to review it. Just read it….

…..But you need a deckchair and plenty of time.