Last night, I went to a church. Not to church, you understand, but to a church: the beautiful Christ Church perched on the side of a hill in Bath (which is, by the way, a church with a fascinating history if you’re ever in the area). It’s also where one of Bath’s amazing bookshops, Toppings, hosts some of its regular events. I’ve been to a couple now, and they’re never less than inspiring.
But last night… last night was a bit special. Special enough to brave the dark and the downpours. Last night was THE BONE CLOCKS event.
I am late to the David Mitchell party. I have friends who have read every one of his books the week they’ve come out. I have friends who’ve read and reread them and can track characters from one to another. I have friends who have written essays on his form and style. And I… hadn’t read a single one of his books.
And then I read THE BONE CLOCKS, mostly because I was interested.
And then I finished it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I won’t talk about the book itself here, because there are already enough places on the internet – and, even better, in the real world – where you can find people far more qualified than I am talking about it.
What I want to talk about is the hugging of books.
Christ Church is a working church, filled with pews rather than chairs, which means there’s a fair amount of good-natured shuffling and clambering past strangers to find a seat, trying not to knock over their glasses of wine (because this is Bath and we believe in doing books properly) and apologising profusely for having feet (because, again, this is Bath). By the time I got there, it was already fairly busy: lots of the audience had Toppings bags with their new books in; some were flipping through new books or reading old books… and some were hugging them. Holding them closely to them, cradling them. These books were important in some way. Talismanic. Precious.
I found a seat and settled down, flipping through my slightly less-than pristine copy I’d brought along… and it was only once things got underway that I realised I was doing the same. I was hugging this book to me. I have no idea why, but there I was – book pressed to me like I was afraid someone was going to snatch it and run away.
Later, in the signing queue, people were doing the same. They spoke in hushed tones of “my first David Mitchell”; they remembered how old they were when they read that first book, what was happening in their lives. They talked about how those early books had changed with them, every time they returned to them (and many had, more than once). These books were more than just books. They were maps, well-thumbed. Maps back to who these readers used to be. Maps to who they thought or hoped they would become. Maps of themselves.
I’m an old cynic, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it before. But then, I’ve never read anything quite like that book before.
At the start of the event, Toppings announced that they have made David Mitchell their author of the year. By the end of the event, I could see why: not just from the reading (which, coming as it did from my favourite part of the book, I was already primed to enjoy) or from the searingly honest Q&A afterwards; not even from the time getting my copy signed (which was, in itself, a joy)… but from the number of people hugging their books.