It’s such a cliché to be an editor who loves books. But there, I’ve said it: I love books. Almost more than food, or Bourne films. For me it’s not just the words; it’s the physical thing. Yes, sometimes I read ebooks. And I read all sorts of online material for fun. But nothing comes close to the thrill associated with the physical object. Here are a few of my formative book-related memories.
My dad’s books
We didn’t have an especially big house when I was growing up, but I quickly learnt that when it comes to bookshelves, any interior vertical surface is fair game. My dad was a librarian in those days (he later suggested I apply for the job in the library; see below), and had so many books of his own that he actually catalogued them. So from the time I first became aware of my surroundings, they included a lot of books. And the books kept mysteriously multiplying, too … which I’m not sure my mum always appreciated. Now I have my own house, sometimes I do look around and see alarming areas of bare wall. Still, it’s always good to have a challenge.
Sometime in the early eighties, Father Christmas gave me The Human Body, by Jonathan Miller and David Pelham. This was an amazingly detailed pop-up book, with fantastic artwork and paper engineering, and frankly terrifying text. I loved this book so much, but it also gave me nightmares. It’s just possible it was too much information for eight-year-old me. But still, I couldn’t stop reading it, looking at it, and opening and closing it to make things happen. A truly beautiful book, and perhaps one of the first books that made me appreciate the power of words and pictures working together. I still love highly illustrated books today – for pleasure and for work.
Love in the book stacks
At an age when I should have been running around after human objects of desire, I had a dream Saturday job as a book fetcher in the University Library in Cambridge. To this day I haven’t found an olfactory experience to compare with the scent of the book stacks beneath the West Room, and that includes the mingling of the pines with the Pacific on the Californian coast, and the smell of my children’s heads when they were babies. There’s just something about all those leather bindings; all that paper worn thin by the flicking of endless fingers (or not, in the case of some of the drier titles). When a request slip came in, I did my best to find the book quickly, but it was inevitable that sometimes I would get sidetracked. So many books to read, and so little time …
Every bookshop I have been in, ever
Do you get that panic, when you go into a bookshop? Any bookshop … the oppressive knowledge that it’s filled with lovely, lovely books, and you can probably only really justify buying one or two of them; certainly not more than you can actually carry. Your heart beats faster, you start to sweat, and you end up handing over your debit card with shaking hands, having to forcibly restrain yourself from the purchase of last-minute novelty items at the till, just because they contain the word ‘book’ … OK, glad it’s not just me.
About eight years ago, I set up a small publishing company with my husband in my spare time. We published two books – The World and Wikipedia, and The Mechanics of Songwriting. I remain proud of what we achieved – we produced books we were proud of that people actually bought; we had distributors on both sides of the Atlantic; we got a review for the Wikipedia book in the Evening Standard the week it changed into a freesheet and circulation hit 600,000; we organised some interesting interviews which appeared in the songwriting book; we did everything ourselves, from editing to arranging the printing. But, truth be told, we lost a lot of money! The debts are all long paid off, but I learnt from that just how hard it is to make a profit on traditional publishing, printing physical books. I know what I am best at – helping to put books together – and I restrict myself these days to that part of the process (project managing, developing, editing, proofreading), shouldering none of the financial risk myself. But I will always sympathise with and be grateful for those who are prepared to take the risk.
All books I’ve edited or written
This is a love/hate thing. The books I have worked on now run into the hundreds, perhaps more (I lost count a while back), and I have only encountered a fraction of those in the flesh. Sure, I like to see a pretty stack of them, winking at me from across the room. But could I sit down and actually read a whole one? No way …
I know these recollections are hugely personal. But then our responses to books always are! I would love to hear some of yours in the comments …
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She can’t resist the lure of a good book. Or a mediocre book. Or even quite a bad book. Mmm, books.