The weather has turned. Now summer is definitely over and autumn has set in, with its premonition of winter cold.
At this time of year I have two contradictory impulses. One is to hibernate, to protect myself from the cold. We brought our avocado tree inside from the terrace, knowing that now it needs a bit of warmth and care to survive. When I was very young and used to have a pet tortoise, this was the time of year when we used to bring ‘Fred’ – who we later learnt was in fact a female tortoise – into our garage, tuck her up in a cardboard box of hay and let her sleep until the spring. (I think tortoise care has become slightly more high-tech since the eighties.)
And so I too want to be tucked away, under piles of blankets, jumpers and other warm things, have long hot baths, eat porridge for breakfast, soups and stews for dinner, drink endless cups of hot things – toddies, tea, coffee – no longer iced fizzy drinks. It becomes that much harder to get up in the morning, as the nights get longer, and that much more tempting to spend the evening in, watching a film, reading a book, rather than putting on many layers of clothes, finding an umbrella, venturing out only to get wet feet and an upturned brolly within ten paces of the front door.
But this time of year is also the beginning of something new. It’s when everyone’s back from holidays, starting a new school year, a new Jewish year, new jobs, new flats. It’s the time of year to socialise, to cluster together with friends – dark afternoons in pubs, rainy days playing board games, big lunches and crisp walks. There is a glut of birthdays – parties – and then the run up to Christmas with even more parties. It’s the time to go out and celebrate and dance and drink, perhaps relying rather too heavily on a whisky jacket for warmth.
But the book world is one of the few places where these two contradictory impulses can be happily brought into synthesis.
For the start of October sees the Frankfurt Bookfair – a jam-packed few days during which 300,000 publishers and agents from all over the world meet each other for hectic half-hours to pitch books, deal rights and otherwise shape the near-future of publishing. It’s a new start for books.
And it’s the best time of year for published books. All the houses put out their biggest hits, hoping to get reviews and rising sales in the build-up to Christmas.
It’s the most exciting time to be working in a bookshop. Every week, innocuous cardboard boxes are unpacked to reveal beautiful new hardbacks, glistening with promise. Ah yes this is the one I was reading about in the Guardian last week. Oh, wow, this is the follow up to XXX! Gosh, this one looks beautiful … I suppose the book that arrived on the greatest wave of anticipation was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – ‘launched,’ as The Sunday Times rather brazenly put it, ‘on a tsunami of hype’.
And it’s also the busiest time of year. The bookshop is at least twice (usually three or four times) as busy in the few weeks before Christmas as it is the rest of the year. People want more help, everyone has presents to buy – ‘What can I get my father-in-law?’ ‘What should I get my four-year-old niece?’ ‘Help! What can I get for my boss?’ All questions which come pouring in, leaving one to proffer up an array of books, while dashing between the somewhat fraught customers, wondering if there’ll be any books left to sell the following day. There’s a fantastic feeling of helpfulness. A feeling that, oh, this person has no idea what to buy and I can suggest something that might be perfect. And the grateful smiles and sincere thanks. (And the new-found pleasing dexterity at wrapping books up.)
This all ties in with the instinct of excitement at a new start, at a fast-approaching Christmas. But what is so perfect about books is that they are ideal cold-weather friends.
No more ‘light summer reading’, ‘beach reads’, ‘airport paperbacks’. No no no. Now is the time of year when one can spend time and concentration really reading. Time for new meaty books. Or time to go back to the Classics. Or the Russians. Time to read books that are really long, because now is the time when there is time to read them. Now is the time when you might wake up on a Sunday to pouring rain and really can’t be bothered to leave the house. The time when you make a pot of coffee and get back into bed and spend hours reading because you have a sneaky feeling that the rest of London is still in bed too.
And this impulse to read more, to ‘curl up with a good book’ is perfectly timed, as it is just now that all the best books are being released. So yes there is the new Jonathan Franzen, and there is also the new David Grossman, John le Carré and Peter Ackroyd. It is also time for many of last year’s hardbacks to go into paperback – so we have the new Orhan Pamuk, the new J.M. Coetzee, the new Alice Munro … There are invariably hundreds of new biographies – this year there’s Tony Blair (of course), Stephen Fry, Deborah Devonshire, Chris Mullin to name just a few. And all the new meaty hardback non-fiction, State of Emergency, Them & Us, Mao’s Great Famine, the new Martin Gilbert, the book about Lucian Freud …
It’s so exciting!
And perhaps it’s the one time of year where I don’t feel even the slightest twinge of desire for a Kindle. How wonderful to look and touch all these beautiful new books – because these ones are, really, beautiful. How marvellous to get back to one’s flat and make it look that much cosier with these new books lining the shelves. Heaven to wake up and see them all sitting there in a row, asking to be read, waiting for you to look outside at the rain and offering you such a blissful alternative. I don’t care if it’s a heavy book, because I don’t intend on lugging it around with me any further than from the sofa to my bed – I’m not going on holiday. And I don’t want to go on holiday. Why would anyone go on holiday now, when they can laze around such an inspiring, marvellous, wonderful winter bookland.