FOR bibliophiles, books are more than just a window into other worlds, they are sustenance for the soul. The best excite us, shape us, burrow themselves deep in our affections. When we are bored, they offer vicarious adventures; when overwhelmed, the space to breath and a fresh perspective. Books stimulate the senses: the sound of a spine cracking, the musty smell of weathered tomes, the heady promise of a new story about to unfold. Bibliophiles cannot help but evangelise about a newly discovered author or a sprawling second-hand bookshop. At the risk of being labelled obsessives, we are on a mission to communicate the wonders of reading to the world.
In Scribbles in the Margins, Daniel Gray does just that. Written in the same style as Saturday, 3pm, his paean to modern football, Gray’s book explores the contentment unlocked by simple rituals, such as reading in bed, visiting someone’s home and inspecting their book shelves, or discovering an author with a back catalogue to catch up on.
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Inspired by JB Priestley, who shook off a post-war malaise by writing Delight, a collection of odes to everyday pleasures, Saturday, 3pm was Gray’s response to a disaffection with the beautiful game. There is no suggestion he ever lost faith in books — his love for all things literary pours from the pages — but Scribbles in the Margins radiates the same warmth and has a similar uplifting effect on the reader.
Each essay, with its own sharp observations, serves as a springboard for personal memories and sparks a desire to become reacquainted with the contents of neglected shelves. As a whole, the book creates a sense of commonality; of reading as a secret society with its own vocabulary, code and weird habits, such as gazing nostalgically at a coffee ring on a particular page, or trying to sneak a peek at someone else’s choice of reading material.
Gray has a knack for conjuring up people and places in language that is original, yet brings a stab of recognition. Of a certain breed of second-hand bookstore proprietor, he says: “Many haven’t made eye contact for 27 years. Their postures have grown to prevent such a thing — all buckled knees and curved necks so that viewed side-on they resemble a sickle.”
Different essays will resonate with different people. My own favourites included Feverishly Awaiting the Next Book in a Series because it reminded me of how completely immersed I once was in the world of Kevin and Sadie (from Joan Lingard’s Across the Barricades novels), of my children sticking up “Owls, Stop Here” signs on the windows the day Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was being delivered, and my increasing impatience at the non-appearance of The Mirror and the Light, the last part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
I also loved Choosing and Anticipating Holiday Reading which perfectly captures the frisson of excitement that comes with knowing you will have no other demands on your time. “Those sunbeds and beach towels are portals if you can twist yourself comfortable, that cottage window seat a chariot once you find the right angle,” Gray writes of being transported to an alternate universe. While revelling in his mellifluous prose, I found my own mind drifting off, to consuming Ali Smith’s The Accidental at a poolside in Turkey, and The Goldfinch, with its vivid descriptions of Manhattan, in an apartment with a view of the Empire State Building.
My only frustration of Scribbles in the Margins was not being able to chip in with my own experiences. To the essay Reading to a Child — which contains the poignant line: “We have a few sacred years before words are unlocked and they learn to walk fairytale woods alone” — I wanted to add the pain (and joy) of being required to read the same book night after night for months until every word is etched on your brain. And how, many years later, you can still recite whole passages of that book together. To Re-reading an Old Favourite, I wanted to add a caveat: that sometimes it kills your love for a cherished book stone-dead. But that’s the wonderful thing about Scribbles in the Margin: it is not only a beautifully-crafted treasure in itself, it is the catalyst for a host of fascinating conversations.
It is also a book that makes the spirit soar. In these days of white noise, when “hot takes” come at us like bullets from a semi-automatic weapon, it is reassuring to remember what comfort can be derived from the right words, carefully chosen.
Another of Gray’s essays reflects on author dedications and the various emotions — curiosity, speculation, sadness — they arouse. His own dedication reads: “To the girl who won’t sleep until she has had a story.” What a lovely testimony to the life-enhancing power of literature.
Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books by Daniel Gray is published by Bloomsbury, priced £9.99