I read somewhere that someone thought that online shopping had taken the fun out of the hunt for particular books, and I suppose that has some truth in it. It is now amazingly easy to find anything you want. The only danger is that you can convince yourself in a nano-second that you not only want but actually need a particular item, and of course, a second nano-second is all that’s required to have clicked on Amazon or wherever, and shazam! it’s in the post. Now that I am having to think really hard about scything down my collection of second-hand books, I occasionally recognise some of these impulsive must-have buys.
But it’s not all bad news. When it came to the end of a term, when I was say ten, our English teacher, a wonderful man called Mr. J.D.P. Smith, a man who enjoyed using the phrase ‘You confabulated fools’, was begged to read us a story, and he duly obliged. There were four particular stories we begged for: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp (it might be ‘Bottled‘), Saki’s The Interlopers and Sredni Vashtar, and a curious story called The Purple Cincture. For many years – since the first three are quite easy to obtain, and Stevenson’s story must have taken half a morning to read, since it is quite long – I was desperate to see if my memory of this story was correct. It involved a fairly dire set of circumstances, in which an individual’s diary recorded catching an illness which caused a cincture to appear in a specific colour, which changed daily, around the wrist, ankle, and eventually, in its purple stage, the neck, after which the hand, foot and head dropped off. And amazingly, about five years ago, I found it, bought it and read it again. I’ll be honest, it had lost some of its kick, but it was nice to have it.
Something I discovered when I was teaching sixteen-year-olds was that they liked having a story read to them (the radio is an option, but not one which sixteen-year-olds avail themselves of, being tuned – as I was at that age – to music radio; and besides, actually being in the room with the storyteller is a step up). For many of them, it was the first time they had been read to since primary school, and it brought back lots of positive memories.
Late-middle-aged men, however, don’t get much opportunity to be read to. Perhaps there is a service available. When I am consigned to the slumber-chair in front of the community TV, I might ask the carers if they could just give me a particular story. I know what the answer will be, since TV is like dope. But I think we should get stories on the NHS.