The Joys of Being a Bookworm

reading
Glancing Through by Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944)

Ever since I could coordinate my hands enough to clutch a book, my nose has been buried inside one. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of the long summer holidays when my sister and I were let loose in the children’s section of the library at the college where my father worked. I remember spending hours, sprawled on beanbags, poring over picture books, letting my imagination roam freely.

As I got older I ventured into chapter books but found my first true love in the form of the French comic books featuring Asterix and Tintin. I loved the humour of the Asterix books and was sucked in by the fantastic plots of Tintin’s many adventures. Throughout my childhood I returned to my Tintin collection over and over, I must have read each book hundreds of times, never tiring of the detail, the excitement or the intrigue. It gladdens my heart that my children are now enjoying the now rather dog-eared remnants of my Tintin library.

Tintin
My hero – Tintin

Sharing books I loved as a child with my own children has become such a pleasure. First the classic picture books, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Meg & Mog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar – the words and illustrations so familiar, transporting me back to my five-year-old self. Then moving on to more complex reads as the children get older, enjoying the suspense and excitement of good children’s literature all over again.

My nine-year-old is a chip off the old block when it comes to books, never happier than when lying on his bed enjoying a good read. It has been such a joy to share more of my childhood books with him as he gets older and also to discover new books together. I have especially enjoyed reading him my copy of Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke – a wonderful Victorian-set mystery – which has allowed me to experience these books in a new light, seeing them through my son’s eyes.

The teenage years

As I moved into teenagerdom I was nothing if not an eclectic reader, enjoying both the literary delights of Victorian Gothic and the more earthy delights of Jilly Cooper’s Riders. Every birthday and Christmas I requested book tokens, which I would amass with glee and set off for Blackwell’s, Oxford’s most famous bookshop, where I would take my time selecting books for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.

One of my seminal teenage texts was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. The book transported me from my rather staid Oxford middle-class life into the American world of greasers and socs. The characters of Pony-Boy, Soda-pop and Johnny so vividly drawn I almost felt I knew them myself, although in truth they were characters far removed from my actual peers. I remember fighting to read the words through my tears when Johnny exhorts Pony-boy to ‘Stay gold’.

DSC_2057
A lovely pile of Brontës (note the bookmark in Jane Eyre, I am currently re-reading it again!)

My teenage years also saw the start of my obsession with the Brontës. I devoured their collective works and then further stoked my admiration for them by reading Lyn Reid Banks’ wonderful fictionalised account of their lives, The Dark Quartet. The escapism I found in their novels, with their strongly drawn female characters, helped me muddle through my teenage years and cemented the role of books in my life as a respite from reality.

Reading memories

Into my adult life books have remained central to my life – when I first met my future husband I gave him a fairly hefty reading list as I was so keen to share my favourite books with my now favourite person (and full credit to him, he happily read every book I slung his way and twenty years later remains my most frequent book-share buddy).

Books have a way of associating themselves with a certain time in my life. My carefree twenties working in London was a golden time for reading as I had an epic hour and a half commute from my home in south London to my job in north London. The perils of riding the underground while reading a good book are legion. It was during this time I first discovered the joys of John Irving and the perils of trying to suppress my guffaws while on public transport (tip: always have a tissue handy when reading John Irving, you will invariably need it to either dry some tears or pantomime blowing your nose as you try and disguise the snort of laughter with a faux coughing fit). I also associate this period with reading James Ellroy – getting so drawn into the intrigue of American Tabloid that I forgot to get off the tube at my stop and I actually gasped aloud when the twist of LA Confidential was revealed, much to the bafflement of my fellow passengers.

DSC_2056
John Irving’s The World According to Garp

Reading associations are not always happy. I read a lot less during my early thirties as I was in the thick of child-rearing. My one reading opportunity was as I struggled to get my limpet-like daughter to detach from me and go to sleep. I sat for hours in a dim room, straining my eyes as I ploughed through John Galsworthy’s The Forsyth Saga, hoping my daughter would fall into a deep enough sleep to allow me to peel her from me and escape. I’m not sure if the frustration of this period has coloured my perception but that book became more of a chore than a pleasure.

Books = work and pleasure

For the past decade or more books have been not just my chief pleasure but also my job. Although I dream of one day writing a novel, non-fiction is my genre and I love nothing more than spending hours in the library researching my next book. In my writing career my magpie-like nature and eye for a quirky story has served me well and I am constantly reading everything from the news, blogs, literature, history books, opinion pieces – searching out curious tales, interesting histories or amusing lists to use in a book or article.

It was this miscellaneous skill which collided with my love of books to produce The Book Lovers’ Miscellany. Here I was able to put my love of books to work creating a

3D low res
The Book Lovers’ Miscellany

smorgasbord of bibliophilic delights – writing potted histories on ink, paper, book binding, comics and quills. Curating lists of best-selling books, writers who were rejected multiple times, the most prolific writers, the oldest writers to be published first time and the most influential books of all time. And telling the stories behind Penguin paperbacks, dust jackets, Mills & Boon and the Detection Club.

Writing and researching The Book Lovers’ Miscellany was like writing a love letter to books, writers, writing and reading. It is a celebration and a culmination of all the many hours I have had my nose buried in a book and I really hope it will delight my fellow bookworms, reminding us all how much pleasure we can take from a humble book.

The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is out 29 September 2017 and is available to order here.

Advertisements

Book announcement: The Book Lovers’ Miscellany

Exciting news, in September 2017 my next book will be published by Bodleian Library Publishing. I wanted to share here the gorgeous cover art and some more details:

3D low res

The  Blurb

Ever wondered how ink is made? Or what is the bestselling book of all time? Or which are the oldest known books in the world? Highbrow to lowbrow, all aspects of the book are celebrated and explored in The Book Lovers’ Miscellany.

From a list of unfinished novels, a short history of the comic, the story behind Mills and Boon and an entry on books printed with mistakes to a guide to the colours of Penguin paperback jackets and a list of the most influential academic books of all time.

Between these pages you will discover the history of paper, binding, printing and dust jackets; which books have faced bans; which are the longest established literary families; and which bestsellers were initially rejected. You can explore the output of the most prolific writers and marvel at the youth of the youngest published authors; learn which natural pigments were used to decorate a medieval bible; and what animal is needed for the making of vellum.

The ideal gift for every bibliophile, The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is full of fun facts, potted histories and curious lists, perfect for dipping into and sharing.

It was so much fun writing and researching this book as it allowed me to combine my love of history with my book-wormish tendencies. I really hope readers will be equally delighted by delving into its depths and I look forward to hearing your feedback!

Pre-order your copy here.

Bodleianalia at Oxford Literary Festival

I am very excited to announce that I will be appearing at Oxford Literary Festival onBod_jacket Monday 27 March, 2017 at 4pm in the Weston Library to talk about my book Bodleianalia: Curious Facts About Britain’s Oldest University Library.

I will be sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the Bodleian Library, sharing fascinating facts, the quirks of fate and the eccentric characters who have helped make the Bodleian the world-renowned library it is today.

Please join me for what I hope will be a wonderful celebration of the history of Oxford’s famous library. You can book your tickets here.

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: One of QI’s ‘Most Interesting’ books of 2016

It is with great excitement that I have discovered Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins has been included as one of QI’s 10 Most Interesting Books of 2016!

THE BADGE OF INTERESTINGNESS

QI (Quite Interesting Ltd) is delighted to announce the first annual Quite Interesting Book of The Year award. qi-badge

This is a list of ten books, selected from the many hundreds read over the course of 2016 by the staff researchers at QI (in Stephen Fry’s affectionate coinage ‘The QI Elves’), which have particularly astonished and delighted them.

A place on the list entitles the publisher of the book to put one of these on the jacket of the winners:

A Quite Interesting Book of the Year 2016

Just as an Academy Award is colloquially known as an Oscar, this magnificent golden sticker also has a name – a Sorrento – after the neologism for ‘the thing that goes round and round as a YouTube video loads’.

The list of ten Quite Interesting Books of the Year will be announced in the first week of each December in good time for Christmas shopping.

Here is the 2016 list:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman (Current, hardback)

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey (British Library publications)

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing (Borough Press)

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, by Astrid Lindgren Translated by Sarah Death (Pushkin Press)

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe (Faber)

 The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright (Bloomsbury)

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet publishing)

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the

Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf (John Murray)

 I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (Bodley Head)

1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted  by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller (Faber)

There is more information about each winning title on the list below, in the form of a mini-review written by one of the QI Elves.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the Elves have rather immodestly included one of their own books at number 10 on the list.

This is because the interesting nuggets of information in 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted have been painstakingly mined from the contents of dozens and dozens of books, including (of course) the other nine on the list. So, if it’s not quite interesting, something has gone seriously awry…

Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘The QI Nisse (Danish for Elves) as I call them, constantly have their noses in books as they ferret out facts for QI. Now I know their favourite reads, all my Christmas shopping just got a whole lot easier.

John Lloyd writes: ‘Over the last 14 years, I’ve found the QI Elves’ taste in books to be extremely reliable. Or else.’

Anne Miller, QI Elf, writes: ‘At QI we read everything from cereal packets to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These are our favourites and the ones we would hope to have if stranded on a desert island.’

Those titles in full:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman

Sam Arbesman is a brilliant ex-Harvard mathematician and complexity scientist. His last book, The Half-Life of Facts, is about how almost everything we think we know eventually goes out of date and becomes wrong. We liked it so much it was featured both on QI and in our last-book-but-one 1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways. The theme of Overcomplicated is that modern technology is so complex no one really understands it, so that everything from phones, aircraft and cars to hospitals and financial systems behave in unexpected ways and seem to have a mind of their own. Fascinating, alarming, insightful, full of examples and funny.

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey

This book reveals nature through the eyes of those who first encountered it, gathering first impressions of exotic plants and creatures from across the globe. As well as being packed with gems – like the fact that in 17th-century India, mangoes were shaken up inside their skins and drunk as smoothies; or that pelicans’ throats were once used as tobacco pouches – it’s an exciting, firsthand insight into the mindsets, language and beliefs of our ancestors.

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing

Ewing’s debut novel is set on a Scottish island where five children are the only survivors of a virus that has wiped out everyone else. Narrated by eight-year-old Rona, the children organise themselves into a new life. They go ‘new shopping’ by raiding the houses of the deceased, visit the ruined school to practice writing and try to take care of each other. Written by a Scottish GP, who spent time living and working on the Barra in the Outer Hebrides, this book is chilling, compelling and impossible to put down.

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 by Astrid Lindgren.

Translated by Sarah Death

Astrid Lindgren kept a painstaking diary during the Second World War which has only recently been translated into English. She had a job working at the Postal Control Division that involved steaming opening letters to check their contents. She also scoured newspapers for updates on the war, which she recorded carefully in her diary along with dispatches from her life in neutral Sweden. Stories about 12,000 Russians perishing in Finland sit next to her deciding to buy shoes for the family before the prices go up or taking everyone to Skansen, an open air museum on Christmas day. An early entry sums up the feelings of deep confusion: ‘Anne-Marie came round this evening and we have never had a more dismal “meeting”. We tried to talk about things other than the war but it was impossible. In the end we had a brandy to cheer ourselves up, but it didn’t help.’

Animal: The Autobiography of A Female Body by Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe’s debut blends her trademark wit and humour with autobiography and evolutionary history as she examines our collective pasts for clues as to how and why certain behaviours and norms have developed. From ancient diets: ‘The skinny women of pre-history perished. We can cry for them later’, to body confidence, and from consent to childbirth, Animal is packed with jokes, smart observations and comes with an extensive further reading list. A brilliant read which is as funny as it is remarkable.

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The scarcely believable cruelties of the slave trade have been visited before in fiction, but never with such harrowing precision. The story of two slaves, Cora and Caesar, escaping from a Georgia plantation using an underground railroad, pursued by Ridgeway, a slave-catcher of Terminator-like relentlessness, explodes off the page, swiftly asserting itself as one of the great mythic journeys in modern literature. In his sixth novel, Colson Whitehead has produced a classic: lyrical, deeply shocking yet somehow full of hope.

The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright

This is the book that the QI Elves were fighting over during research for Series N. It’s absolutely crammed full of brilliant facts including that most ‘Latin names’ aren’t Latin. It’s full of naming mishaps – the Hydrangea serratifolia has smooth leaves but its name means ‘with serrated leaves’ because the sample examined had been nibbled. There’s also the unfortunate case of William Hemsley who wanted to name a bramble species to honour the Cockburn family and christened it Rubus cockburnianus.

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

As well as being one of the most vital figures in the history of botany and zoology, Humboldt was an intrepid adventurer and a fascinating character. Darwin volunteered for the Beagle voyage because he was inspired by Humboldt, and once wrote of him, ‘He, like another sun, illumines everything I behold.’ Wulf captures all of this in her biography, which is littered with Humboldt’s own brilliant writing and observations, and leaves you wondering why he doesn’t occupy a permanent spot on every school curriculum.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

Science journalist Ed Yong’s weekly email ‘The Eds Up’ is an office favourite so we were excited to get our hands on his first book. I Contain Multitudes takes an in-depth look at a subject which is tiny (physically) yet huge (significantly) and reexamines the world around us by focusing on all things microbes. Among the book’s revelations is the fact that the bacteria on your arm are more similar to those on a stranger’s arm than they are to the bacteria inside your own mouth.

 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller

A sparkling new selection of 1,342 facts from the QI team, including the humdingers that Google searches for ‘How to put on a condom’ peak at 10.28pm, emoji is the fastest growing language in history, tanks are exempt from London’s Congestion charge, 1 in 3 children pretend to believe in Santa Claus to keep their parents happy, black coffee drinkers are more likely to be psychopaths, the world’s only Cornish pasty museum is in Mexico, and in 2015, America’s ‘National Hero Dog Award’ was won by a cat.

 

Exciting new project

Famous Last Words by Claire Cock-Starkey
Famous Last Words out in Spring 2016

I am very happy to announce that I have signed up to write a number of books for the wonderful Bodleian Library Publishing.

The first of which is Famous Last Words, a collection of the last words of notable people. It has been a delight to research and collect final words – so many brilliant stories, historical insights, poignant moments and profound ideas have been found among this collection.

Famous Last Words will be published in spring 2016. See here for the: Bodleian Library Publishing Spring 2016 catalogue (the cover design in the catalogue has since been changed to the one pictured here, which is much nicer I think!).

Watch this space for the announcement of more books with Bodleian Library Publishing and British Library Publishing in 2016 and beyond!

Having a silly name: help or hindrance?

I wasn’t always a Cock*. I grew up as a Starkey but as one does, I fell in love with a Cock (quite literally A. Cock, my husband’s name begins with ‘A’) and decided to get married. We spent many hours discussing what our surname should be. My poor husband had grown up teased and tormented about his name but as his brother had already changed his name and he was the only other son, he had an urge to continue the family name.

A Cockerel
A Cockerel

I really wanted us and any future children we had to have the same surname but was not keen on committing myself and our children to a future of ridicule. The only solution seemed to be to create new, hybrid name, but would it be Starkey-Cock or Cock-Starkey?

Deciding on a name

We sounded out both names and as my sister suggested tried announcing our names as BBC Reporters (actually she suggested musicians playing Glastonbury but being more journalistic types our ambitions lay elsewhere) and see which sounded the best (or should I say least bad). Thus we decided ‘This is Claire Cock-Starkey, reporting from the White House for BBC news’ sounded infinitely better than the unfortunately descriptive sounding ‘Claire Starkey-Cock, reporting from the White House for BBC News’.

And so it was decided, on our wedding day I signed my new name into being (but due to arcane laws my husband had to go through the kerfuffle of actually changing his name officially through deed poll). We became the only two Cock-Starkeys in the whole world (we have since added three more mini Cock-Starkeys to our clan).

An early credit
An early credit

I realised early on that the key to having a silly name is to say it with confidence. People are so scared to say ‘cock’ that when calling my name at the doctors surgery or phoning to sell me insurance they frequently stutter, ‘Is that Mrs uhum *cough* Starkey?’. ‘Yes,’ I reply loudly and clearly ‘Mrs COCK-Starkey’. My husband has been known to be even bolder and state ‘Cock, as in penis’ when spelling out our name.

I had always wanted to be a writer and when I fantasised about writing a novel I began to imagine taking on a pen name, as it seemed rather romantic. But when I got married I was already working as a writer and was about to get my first credit on a book. I didn’t have time to consider if my name would be a help or a hindrance to my writing career but soon rejected the idea of a pen name. I wanted my efforts to be linked to me, the actual real me, not some mysterious invented character.

Why having a silly name is good

And so my full name now exists on nine books, it is indelibly out there in the literary universe, and so here are four reasons why having a silly name is good:

  1. It is memorable. Sensible, common, dare I say vanilla names are so forgettable. When you read my name you might snigger, you may even get a mental image of a cockerel (or those of a dirty mind may picture a giant phallus), you might wonder where such a name came from, but you won’t forget it.
  2. It is unique. When you googled my old name there were quite a few Claire Starkeys, a gymnast, a student, a business executive. But there is only one Claire Cock-Starkey and that makes it easy to be top of Google.
  3. Double-barrelled names make you seem posh. Tru fact.
  4. People won’t get you confused with anyone else. Case study: David Mitchell. I am a big fan of the Cloud Atlas writer and when I went into a bookshop to ask for his latest tome, the assistant had to ask ‘which David Mitchell, the Cloud Atlas one or the comedian?’ as both had books out at the same time.

    Doesn't fit on spine
    Doesn’t fit on spine

The only bad thing I can think of about my name is the fact that it is so long. Sometimes forms aren’t long enough to fit it in, it doesn’t fit neatly on the spine of a book, and when composing a tweet or writing a short author biography it takes up half my word count.

* For those American readers who see nothing rude or funny about a cockerel, in the UK cock is an especially porny slang word for a penis.

Do you have a silly name? I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!

How to Skin a Lion Challenge: The Conclusion

Over the last few months I have been blogging about my challenge to try out some of the outmoded advice in my HTSALx600upcoming book How to Skin a Lion.

It has been a fun adventure and I have learnt some new skills that I will put to good use.

The most interesting challenge was trying the 1856 recipe for making mushroom ketchup (incidentally it has also been my most popular post with over 90 people reading it – seems there is a crowd of mushroom-lovers out there!). The recipe itself was a bit vague so I had to freestyle a bit, but I was really excited to try this forgotten condiment.

I imagined myself as a Victorian, chowing down on some meat with mushroom ketchup at a back-alley Ale House. Unfortunately this is not how it turned out and it seems my modern palate cannot deal with the amount of salt used in the original recipe.

I am still interested in trying to find a less salty recipe for mushroom ketchup and hope to mushroomsx600have another attempt at making it in the future.

I really enjoyed trying out some of the ‘mystical’ advice and although I am a sceptic at heart I was fascinated to see if any insight could be gained through trying to tell my fortune with playing cards.

The fortune-telling thus far has not proved to be accurate, but it was a good way to self-analyse and provided some useful starting points for introspection.

Trying to assess someone’s character through their facial moles was always going to be dubious and it didn’t disappoint but it kept me amused for a few hours while I searched for celebrities with moles who I could analyse!

The most useful skills I learned were how to darn (although I certainly need some more practice!) and how to bandage an arm, which was actually pretty simple but definitely a good skill to have.

The instruction I am most likely to use again is how to make lemon barley water as it was really easy but tasted delicious and fresh and I think makes a perfect drink for a summers’ day.barleyingredientsx600

There is a lot more advice in How to Skin a Lion that I would love to follow, such as some of the recipes for making lip balm and ginger wine, but unfortunately due to being Victorian recipes they use ingredients that are either frowned upon – spermaceti (the oil from a sperm whale’s head) or very hard to source (sugar loaf).

However even if I can’t actually try all the advice and recipes contained in the book it is still really interesting to marvel at how things used to be done and take pleasure in collecting and sharing lost or outmoded advice.

Just a few weeks now until How to Skin a Lion comes out, so hopefully some readers might stop by this blog and report on trying out some of the advice themselves, that would be wonderful!

Smithsonian article on most interesting and accessible libraries around the world

As a bibliophile I have always been drawn to libraries, from my lovely local village library where we stock up onBritish_library_londonx600 books for the children to the beautiful rare books room at the British Library, where I conduct most of my book research.

The chance came up to pitch an article to the Smithsonian online magazine and I immediately thought of writing something on the most interesting (and importantly) the most accessible collections around the world.

It was a real joy to research and so difficult to chose just eight libraries but I am proud of how the article turned out. Have a read of it here and please leave a comment about your favourite library.

On being interviewed by the Cambridge Evening News

A couple of weeks ago a lovely journalist, Lydia Fallon from the Cambridge Evening News came to interview me about my new book How to Skin a Lion.HTSALx600 I was a bit apprehensive as I tend to talk a lot when nervous so I was slightly concerned I would say an awful lot about not very much. But luckily Lydia had some great questions and I think I managed to represent the gist of my book. The newspaper copy came out on Friday 10 April and you an read it online here. It’s pretty exciting to see my book in my local newspaper!