One day last week, I shortened the wait for a bus by stepping inside the nearby bookshop. I emerged with the particular title I had in mind, plus a couple of others by the same author – amounting, if you must know, to a short course in early JG Ballard. As such visits go, it was a success: the book was in stock; it was an inexpensive paperback; there was no queue. Mission triumphantly accomplished.
The doubts crowded in as soon as I boarded. The books were only slim paperbacks, but they weighed me down. The print was quite small. Someone down the bus had an eBook. I noticed, enviously, that she seemed to have bumped up the print size. On the Tube that evening, I surveyed the packed carriage. Five "real" books, three eBooks. Alas, only two newspapers.
When I arrived home, with barely two pages read, it occurred to me that, with one of those little machines, I could have downloaded the books the previous day, got a start on reading, and perhaps saved money as well. After all, I just wanted to read them, not display them forever. On the contrary, in fact. The last thing our flat needs is more books, even slim paperbacks.
On that last point, and quite independent of any technological developments, I recently started weeding my books – proceeding shelf by shelf, pulling volumes off, putting them in boxes and taking them, with a mental apology, to the charity shop. Some became the subject of marital tussles, but not many. Over the weeks, the criteria have become quite well-defined. Books that are rare or aesthetically pleasing in some way earn their place. So do those with specific sentimental value – the memory of people who gave, or wrote, them. Classics, too, have mostly survived (though not if both of us detested them). Anything else – dozens of academic books, much light holiday reading, is for the boxes.
The trouble with the cull so far is that many more books have been dispatched to the charity shop than space has been created on the shelves. There's obviously some law of physics that my school O-level course missed. More striking, though, is how many friends and contemporaries turn out to be engaged in a similar exercise, including those for whom walls of well-ordered shelves seemed to be a state of being.
Now perhaps we are all running out of shelf space. Or perhaps, as birthdays passed, we've had a collective presentiment of the eventual need to downsize. But could the presentiment stem rather from our sense, deep down, that books are approaching their horse-and-carriage moment, when they will be forced off the roads by the equivalent of the private car. I haven't acquired that e-reader yet, but it must be just a matter of time.
It's my bus, not a school bus – sorry
Maybe it's another facet of ageing, but I'm becoming irked by what seems to be a growing number of school parties claiming a preferential right to use public transport. The capital's Tubes and buses are busy enough without a surly teacher pushing past would-be passengers, holding open the door and informing the poor driver that, if he/she would "be so good as" to hang on, there'll be 20 – or last week on the No 10 it was 30 – children to follow, along with assorted assistants and parents.
I've no real complaint about their behaviour once they're on – they're mostly small children and still hold their teachers in awe. But 20 or 30 on one bus or Tube train is too many. Of course, schools will blame "the cuts" for not hiring a coach – or they might argue that, if they don't show these mollycoddled children how to use public transport, no one will. Selfishly, I care more about the overcrowding and the delays – you wouldn't believe how long it takes to load up a class. What about a maximum of 10 at a time – or they're all charged the adult fare?