Time was when book clubs were reputable affairs. They didn’t bind you into contracts requiring a purchase every month for perpetuity or your first child as forfeit; half a rainforest garishly advertising their wares didn’t fall out of every magazine you bought.
I’m guessing this time must have been around the mid to late 1950s as that’s when my grandparents were members of the Companion Book Club, which seems to have undertaken to provide you with a cracking read from an eclectic range of authors in a standard, hardback format on a regular basis. And we have the books to prove it – about 80 of them in a bookcase that fits them exactly. Or maybe there were more than 80 once and the rest got chucked because they didn’t fit in. Anyway. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t aware of this lot, because I can’t remember a time I didn’t know my grandparents’ house. The bookcase always stood next to the door into the living room.
I first read one when I was about 11 or 12 – I’d heard of Douglas Bader and I noticed one of the books was Reach for the Sky. I explored a little further, but not much – basically the three Alistair MacLean novels, HMS Ulysses, Guns of Navarone and Night Without End. The first two are better but then his war novels always were his best. (In fact HMS Ulysses is one of the best war novels ever and is crying out for a film to be made. It could be done. Perfect Storm-type technology to depict this harrowing tale of a Murmansk convoy; a cast of solid British names for the crew; and a token Yank – probably George Clooney – to guarantee it’ll actually get made. No problem.)
Then for some reason I stopped, probably because I spent most of the next 30 years reading science fiction. Even inheriting the bookcase and its contents nine years ago didn’t really get me going again; still too much SF to read. But now ...
I’ve moved beyond MacLean but have still started on the relatively easy. Hammond Innes, CS Forester. But I’m moving beyond these adolescent fumblings now. I’m ready for an adult relationship. There’s Agatha Christie (who, astonishingly, I’ve never read). Daphne du Maurier. W. Somerset Maugham. Virginia Woolf. We may be getting a bit too adult for my comfort zones, but they can stretch. And a host of other authors I’ve never heard of. Maybe I should just start at the left end of the top shelf and work my way along.
Hundreds of thousand of words have been trapped between these clothbound covers for over fifty years. It’s time to set them free. And the sheer smell and feel of secondhand paper is just one reason why e-books will never replace the real thing.