New books, old books, so many books

I headed into Canterbury just before lunch today, and started by wandering around the city. I bought a cute notebook from Paperchase that’s two books in one, one half plain paper and the other half lined paper, and then I ended up in the Costa Coffee in Waterstones, making up stories about the people I saw in the city and admiring the number of books. There are loads of books. All looking very readable. All written by authors eager to have people read them. And those are just the books that make it to publication by publishers who sell them to bookstores. There are far more books available that never even make it as far as hard copies, and they’re all looking for readers.

Are there too many books and not enough readers? Or is it a case that in this new world where it is so easy for anyone to publish their own book the market for bestsellers, read by many people, is dying out, to be replaced by a market where many people each publish to a much smaller audience? But do we have more creators than consumers? Can the market survive in this way? Will there always be a place for a few high quality products, or is that being replaced by the many of possibly lower quality? Or can you maintain the quality while increasing the variety? And if so, how do you choose, if there’s not the gateway of the established publishers to go through, but just an online catalogue where everyone screams out, “Pick me! Pick me!”?

The world of reviews is becoming more and more important, I feel, as people add their views of books to places like Amazon and Goodreads, and help others to pick through the choices available, and this has the dual role of making readers just as important as writers, and then of making those readers writers in their turn, as they express their opinions of what they have read.

I’ve been pondering for a while what right I have to feel I have anything worth saying in print, any idea that’s worth the effort of making available to readers. In short, what point there is in me adding to the many many books already available. At this point in the coffee shop I was beginning to feel there was little point in even trying.

Then I headed to the Cathedral in the middle of the city, via a very pleasant walk along by the theatre and river (must go on a river tour by boat sometime in the summer!). I made my way to the Cathedral Lodge, a very imposing building in the Cathedral Precinct that serves as a hotel and conference centre. There I joined with about 20 others who had booked for afternoon tea and a tour of the archives.

Smoked salmon sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, fruit cake and tea or coffee were on offer, along with a very pleasant chat with some of the other visitors and the Cathedral Conservator, and then we made our way through the Cathedral itself to a room through a mysterious door. This proved to be a very long room full of bookshelves, which was the collection of a previous Archbishop, I do believe – a typical Victorian library with bibles and prayerbooks mixed in with books on natural history, the abolition of the slave trade and many other topics that we were told were the standard Victorian gentleman’s fare.

Set out on display in that room were some real treasures – a charter signed by William the Conqueror and Queen Matilda, for a start, plus books and other charters dating from around the 11th century onwards. We admired these for a while and heard about some of their history, and then moved on through the reading room upstairs to the conservator’s room, where we saw some of the projects she was working on and heard about some of the work she carries out to help preserve the ancient documents and books that form the library. Apparently there are enough books in the archives that if the bookshelves were laid in one line they would reach 2 kilometres – I can imagine that distance from parkrun, it’s a lot of books!

So my musings about the books available these days were mixed with musings of all these ancient books, and what they contain, and how often they are looked at, but the focus on the tour at the cathedral was definitely on the hardware rather than the software, so to speak – preserving the documents themselves and their historical significance, rather than the information they contain. It was a very interesting debate between preserving and restoring documents, between their content and their physical presentation, and made me think of both the flimsy design of modern paperbacks and the difference between preserving physical books and their electronic equivalents.

So did I come to any conclusions? I think what I decided in the end was that it was the act of creating that matters. That someone at some point considered them important, so the books and documents came into being. As for my own writing, it’s no good writing because I want to sell lots of books. I need to write because I love it, because I want to get my own ideas down. If I get something worth printing at the end that’s a different topic altogether, but it should never be the first focus.

Oh, and I came to a decision about my workhouse book, I think, at least for now. I’ll be picking groups and individuals who are maybe archetypes of the workhouse inmates, exploring their lives and using them as illustrations for life generally for them and the role the workhouse played in their lives.

I’ve got the Newings, who ended up in there as orphans (although they went in previously with their mother, but that story is for another day), there’s John Hearnden, who went in there as a lunatic, but was in and out of there in the decades preceding the census as well, there’s the Goodwins who ended up in there for their final years, and there’s two more groups to start researching: the Curds, who ended up in there as a young single mother with children, one of whom was born in the workhouse, and Sarah May, bless her, whose name cropped up so many times in the admissions/discharges book over the years that she kind of wormed her way into my heart and so the book.

Altogether it was a fascinating afternoon in the cathedral archives, with lots of food for thought, even though we got to see a very small part of the massive store of resources they actually possess. And now it’s up to me to continue my search through archives to pull a story together from what I find, to preserve that story for generations to come. That project, at least, I am confident is worthwhile.


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1 Comment

  1. Wow, what a lovely day 🙂



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