It has been six months now since I held my vintage Jean Rhys omnibus in my hands: the one that sits by my bed in Brooklyn. I left my battered childhood copies of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and my childhood copy of 101 Dalmatians there too: loving gifts from one home to another. Banned from flying to my second home in the U.S. in the pandemic era, I miss my American partner’s children most of all, and my two newly adopted kittens in whose bodies I only buried my face for a few weeks, but I also miss from my sensory world my books, my plates with their little blue flowers, my coffee cups which weigh just right, the wool blanket on my bed. I am yearning to touch and to use the things we bought not long ago, when we started to build a home from scratch. I made them a part of myself and, for now, it’s missing.

The Covid-19 era has left us all in a drought of Touching, with hugs and kisses unwelcome, and wariness over touching any surfaces, or even our own faces. When bookshops re-opened, like many book lovers I wandered through my local store overwhelmed with joy to be back in the company of several thousand unread books and longing to touch them all, although doing so meant leaving the poor things in Coventry on a ‘quarantine trolley’. 

Although we know that it’s the ideas and stories between the covers of our books which hold the most value, we have intimate relationships with books as physical objects too.  Like many of you, I hoard volumes in towering piles in my home and gaze every day at the patterns made by their coloured spines, their complex artwork, the subtle messaging signalled by their fonts. Sister to the desire that drives us on through story – that hunger for satisfaction in an ending – we must harbour some other more physical yearnings that books can satisfy. 

Like many of you I’m sure, I love to tidy and to organise my books: how better can we weigh the significance of these texts, than by shifting tens of books from bedside to sill to floor every now and again? And there have been many times during which the weight of all of my books have been useful for weighing me down also. “I lay this suitcase on my chest so I can feel somebody’s weight,” go the lyrics of a favourite song* and every time I sing it my mind goes to the way that, in the weeks or months I sleep alone, I never make it to the centre of the bed, because of all the books weighing down the other side so comfortingly, temporarily abandoned in favour of sleep although my hand may fall on them in the night; my heavy good promises of riches for tomorrow.

I’m not a fool, I know these books are not just waiting to be read: they’re there to reassure me too, that I am still alive: that I still have time to visit all the places I haven’t been to yet, meet all the people, climb the mountains and survey the views. 

I learned recently how a distinguished Japanese potter, Kawai Kanjiro of Kyoto, when asked how people are to recognise good pots, apparently answered simply, ‘With their bodies’. And isn’t that how we all appreciate good books too, in the first instance, with our minds acting directly through the senses? That’s what every good publisher knows: that creating a beautiful object is the first step to winning the heart of a reader. The convenience and choice offered by online booksellers has blown hurricanes through the profitability of high street bookselling in the past 15 years but online retailers haven’t yet patented the Stroke Me function, or Smell Inside, or Feel My Weight. 

I remember a day long before masks and gloves, when I visited Clays the printers and wandered around in a state of ecstasy, hypnotised by the rush of paper over rollers; the mechanised slide, chop, slide, chop; the roar of the machinery; the touching of paper; the smell of inks. Everywhere was excitement for us book fetishists: here the pages laid out uncut, here the papers bound into sections, here the sections bound into books which are two books printed one above the other, here the jackets unvarnished, uncut, here the rolls of wafer thin metal ready to be overlaid onto the jackets in order to gild the lettering…beauty beauty everywhere, even or especially amongst the piles of disrupted, torn, misprinted, broken ones: “Get OUT OF THE BINS!” our exasperated guide had to yell at us. 

“You felt sorry for the ones in the bin, didn’t you, Mum?” one of my children asked me wryly that evening, knowing from long experience the feelings that Things can rouse in me; remembering my indignation the day that their Old Toys were lumped into black plastic binbags as though they were rubbish on the way to their new homes. 

Moving from station to station at Clays, my eyes were greedy for text as I tried to spot which book was being printed here, which there, hoping irrationally for each one to be some story already known and valuable to me. Until it was text, it was all art, and as I approached one surface covered by a huge uncut sheet, its pale blue lines of printed letters seemed to my fanciful eye as Significant as if Agnes Martin had hand-drawn them herself. As I grew closer I comprehended that here were four different spreads from a book repeated in columns again and again and again…The rush of the machinery calmed in my ears as I leaned forward and read the subtitle on one page: “A person who keeps sighing forever”. 

A person who keeps sighing forever

A person who keeps sighing forever

A person who keeps sighing forever

A person who keeps sighing forever

A person who keeps sighing forever

What book was this? I checked the running head: Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki. “There is happiness in having less…minimise anything you have in multiples…get rid of anything you haven’t used in a year”. Oh, irony! This wasn’t the book for me. 

A few weeks later I was in another kind of factory altogether, this one founded as a reactionary response to the rise of mechanised production: The Leach Pottery in St Ives, founded by potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in 1920. Leach wrote in his manifesto, A Potter’s Book, in 1940, that he understood the need for mass production but rued that: “So many of the things we have thus contrived to make are inhuman”. Although each potter at The Leach Pottery was expected to be able to turn out many vessels every working day, Leach articulated the difference between machine-made goods and those made swiftly by an experienced maker. 

I find pleasure in witnessing automation: the whirring mechanics of the printers, the shooting through of the pages, the arms that bring things forth and then retracts, forth, retract, forth, retract. Slice, withdraw; slice, withdraw; slice, withdraw. But I wonder too at the same economy of movement found in a potter’s work, when all unnecessary movement is eliminated from the process, allowing for speed. The resultant pots are not beautiful because they are all the same: they are beautiful because they seem at one glance the same but are in fact endlessly different, for as Leach said: each repetition holds within it the potential for the expression of the man. 

Each one, an expression of one man or woman, in one moment, on one day, with one brush, laden with one paint, one bucket of glaze, one fire. So do we make each book different – this one mine, this yours. How can you find the book that is yours, unless you stand before the shelf yourself, and pick it up, weigh it, open it and choose it? The gift – this book – was chosen for you, bought for you, handed to you: it is yours if you weigh it in your hands and feel it is so. Bookshops offer us the chance to make stories our own. Without them for a few months in 2020, we were just Buying Machines, with binbags for rucksacks and algorithms for souls.

Leach wrote that pots made by individual makers, “like all other forms of art, are human expressions: pleasure, pain or indifference before them depends upon their natures, and their natures are inevitably projections of the minds of their creators…We may hope to find in good pots those innate qualities which we most admire in people.” 

So I am not wrong to feel that my much-missed coffee cups, so Right when I hold them in my hands, have a spirit of their own that makes them mine, even as they sit in a cupboard 3,500 miles away. When I animate vegetable and mineral, stone and feather and paper with feeling, it is with the desires of their finders and makers and owners. In this way do we see the human spirit in all things, and name them beautiful, and consequentially ourselves as beautiful too. Books, beautiful books, are the Things that we love and love to touch, to hold, to treasure and to choose in person: thank goodness for bookshops — home to us all, and not too far away. 

* the song is Looking Out by Brandi Carlile

The kittens are Justin Case and Comet.