Books and Me: on my shelves

Lucy Pick, commercial manager at Hampshire Libraries, talks about absorbing reading, perfect stories, and the pleasures of stumbling on a book by chance.

Where’s your favourite place to read?

When I used to be able to commute, I loved reading on the bus. You can lose yourself in a good book: with a book in your bag, you’re never going to be stuck.

I struggled to read during Covid when there was too much other stuff going on. I think the ability to properly absorb yourself in something else can get lost when you’re going through a period of stress. I need to set aside time to break the back of a book, to absorb myself into it and then, when I’m properly immersed, I’ll be reading while the kettle’s boiling, grabbing every possible moment.

How do you read?

I read one book at a time, but I can listen to an audiobook and read a book at the same time because my mind sees that as two different things. I’ve been listening to the Helena Kennedy audiobook Misjustice from BorrowBox, which was brilliant. I didn’t finish it by the time it was due back, but that was fine because, like radio where you might listen to half of a programme in the car and then get where you’re going, I didn’t need to listen to the whole thing to enjoy it.

I’ll happily turn down page corners to mark my place but only if it’s my own book. I’m not precious about the books I own: they’ve been in my bag, they’ve been on journeys, they’re old and tattered and that’s fine with me; that’s their history. With library books, I can’t do that, so I use a collection of vintage leather bookmarks I’ve picked up at charity shops.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading Handiwork by Sarah Baume which was remarkable. It’s a very short book so I had to ration myself. It’s very pared down in the sense that she almost writes like a poet, but she manages to steer away from being pretentious: it’s thoughtful and measured and wise. She’s a visual artist and an author and it’s very matter-of-fact and grounded, but then, suddenly, she’ll just swirl the world around, and capture something she sees in a way that takes your breath away.

Another book which totally absorbed me recently was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The quality of the writing grabbed me straight away; it’s an epic story told with amazing language and emotion and I can see why it got all the accolades it did. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started and I prefer it that way. I remember the first time I read Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger, which I borrowed from Chandler’s Ford Library as a teenager; I enjoyed not having any blurb, going into it cold and just seeing what happens.

My next one to read is Claire Fuller’s latest novel Unsettled Ground, for which she’s just been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She’s taken part in events for us at Hampshire Libraries, and the audience just loved her; she’s just so personable and knowledgeable.

Reading patterns

An early love of film noir got me into books by writers like Raymond Chandler, and through that to crime writing in general. For me it’s always about the narrative, I don’t like gruesome stories. I like Ann Cleeves, I’ve read quite a few of her titles, and I’ve read a lot of Ian Rankin, as well as Peter Robinson and Graham Hurley. But I haven’t read much crime recently because I became a bit saturated with it – there’s a danger with this genre that too many can become monotonous. Although I’ve just downloaded a Peter James audiobook from BorrowBox which I’ve been listening to in the garden.

I’m always drawn to a coming-of-age story, or what I’ve recently learned to call a “Bildungsroman” story. There are so many brilliant books of this kind: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Sophie Dahl’s Playing with the Grown-Ups. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud is one I recommend when people ask for a book with a strong sense of location: it’s hugely evocative of Moroccan smells and sounds.

First love, best loves

As a child, I was an avid Chandler’s Ford Library user, reading huge amounts of Graham Greene and every Virago book they had on the shelf. I still use the Virago publishers’ name as a token of a good quality book.

For me, Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan is the perfect book. It’s understated, short and has moments when it feels like you’re pulling up a blind to reveal fragments of someone else’s life and then the blind comes down and you walk away again, which I love in a story. My strong feelings for it are probably partly down to stumbling on it by chance: I love a book you stumble upon.

Lynne Reid Banks is another brilliant writer who is not considered to be fashionable now, but when I was young, I lived and breathed the trilogy of The L Shaped Room, The Backward Shadow and Two is Lonely. The stories and the people she created were like family to me. I also loved brutal kitchen-sink fiction like Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving and John Braine’s Room at the Top.

I deliberately didn’t study literature beyond the age of 16 because I loved stories for what they were and found analysing them could ruin them for me. So the notion of magical realism in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting meant nothing to me. I just loved his books for being beautifully written with wonderful descriptions of people and connections; like several authors I love, such as Toni Morrison and Hanif Kureshi, I haven’t read Kundera for a while.
When I feel I’ve experienced perfection in an author’s books, I sometimes don’t want to read any more as I don’t want to taint my experience.

Moonraker by Ian Fleming might seem like an odd choice but I love vintage and I love a charity shop, and the James Bond book jackets are just brilliant. They’re great combination of a good read and nostalgia, and while they’re no longer books you could consider “of our time”, it doesn’t mean I can’t read and enjoy them as a good story.

My enthusiasm for the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas comes from working with people in book shops who knew more about poetry than I did. There are certain things you can capture within a poem that you can’t capture within a novel – in the same way that you can convey feelings and ideas in abstract painting that you can’t in a figurative work. He’s a bit like Thomas Hardy in that he’s very British, very rooted within the landscape.

Possibly out of contrariness, I’ve picked The Pearl by John Steinbeck, rather than opting for his better-known novella Of Mice and Men. The Pearl is another perfect little story and one I’ve recommended a few times for someone who might be intimidated by tackling more widely known books.

Overlooked delights

In my opinion Simone de Beauvoir hasn’t got as much credit as she deserves for novels like She Came to Stay. It’s semi-autobiographical and touches on bigger philosophical questions that she and Jean-Paul Sartre both tackle, but wrapped up within day-to-day life. She captures the raw emotion of relationships and is sentimental without being a sentimentalist. I don’t think I’ve read beyond the first two pages of The Second Sex. I’m contrary: if someone tells me to watch a film, I won’t do it and it’s the same with books, I like to seek out my own discoveries.

As commercial manager of Hampshire Libraries, Lucy selects and looks after the books in our collection as well as overseeing our online catalogue. She combines this with her work as an abstract artist. Lucy was talking to Kate Price McCarthy

1 thought on “Books and Me: on my shelves”

  1. What a beautiful insight into the glorious world of books. Absolutely something for everyone! An eclectic choice of writings, most of which are new to me!
    Thank-you, Lucy Pick 🙏🏻

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