A great deal of my time in recent months has been spent conducting research for my forthcoming orchid book. A good proportion of this has been online, following tenuous leads through the twists and turns of the internet, chasing stories about flowers, places and people. It has been – and continues to be – a pleasure gathering these threads together to form a coherent whole.
I am easily distracted though. Many of these trails lead me to websites with all sorts of irresistible clickbait. I’ve been distracted by a quest to see all of Britain’s snails in the space of a year; by the compelling weirdness and beauty alike of broomrapes; and by the obsessions so many plant families seem to induce – galanthomania (snowdrops), pteridomania (ferns) and the granddaddy of them all, tulipomania – when the Dutch went crazy in the 17th century for tulips (a mania charted evocatively by Anna Pavord in “The Tulip” – with whom, in a happy coincidence, I now share an editor).
You’ll see there are blogs aplenty amongst those links. I do love a good blog; and there are a number of British natural history bloggers whose pages I come back to again and again. One such is North Downs & Beyond – an absolute treasure trove of fascinating titbits of British wildlife and thoughts about what makes naturalists tick. (Pun intended).
A recent post there concerned the need – or otherwise – for a shelf full of natural history books. With so much information freely available on the internet – and the immediacy and mutability of online information – do we really need all of these books?
I have a small confession to make – actually, quite a big one – I’ve never, ever, thrown away or parted company with a book once it’s come into my life. They’re just too precious to me. My love of the written word means I go back to them time and again – whether they’re novels, plays, poetry or non-fiction. I have favourites, of course – but I have kept them all. (Including the one novel I never finished, Paul Auster’s strangely unlovable “New York Trilogy”).
What this means, in practice, is that I now have a lot of books. I’ve never counted them, but they’re well into four figures these days. As a body of reference and inspiration it’s increasingly valuable to me – there’s detailed information, insight and plain beauty within those covers that simply isn’t out there on the internet, for all the latter’s vaunted complexity and depth.
They take up a lot of space, it’s true. But there’s something immensely comforting walking into a room lined with books floor to ceiling on four walls; I feel surrounded by friends*.
They’re far from an exhaustive library – where the natural history is concerned I’d love to have a complete set of the New Naturalists (mine are just a select few that particularly mirror my interests), for example. I continue to collect first editions of Gerald Durrell’s books, homage to one of the 20th century’s great naturalists and one of the pivotal inspirations to me as a young naturalist and a writer alike. His elder brother Lawrence wasn’t too shabby either – the Alexandria Quartet is still a compelling examination of love’s trials half a century after its component parts were published.
And there are always new books coming out that I’m incapable of resisting – being impulsive and weak-willed means that no sooner has the likes of Peter Marren’s “Rainbow Dust” been published than I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of it.
Meanwhile though, the internet remains a constant companion and distraction – and it’s the blogs I find myself exploring, questing for information, stories and kindred spirits. I’ve a lot more research to be getting on with this year – it will be online, in the pages of my books and, soon enough, out in the field too…
* And now my friends are spilling out all around the house. I need more bookcases!