Of blogs, bookshelfies and broomrape

bookshelfie2A 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).

bookshelfie4A 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”).

bookshelfie3What 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.

bookshelfie1And 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!



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6 Responses to Of blogs, bookshelfies and broomrape

  1. Steve Gale says:

    Jon, does your home double-up as the largest public library on Shetland? My non-natural history books are treated rather shabbily compared to yours. I have owned many books that, once read, get passed on, although I do keep my favourites. And thanks once again for a generous plug!

    • Jon Dunn says:

      Only insofar as it holds a lot of books, Steve – my experience as a lending provider is that people tend not to return them and, if they do, the books are shamefully neglected before they return to me. Poor things, their pages folded, their spines broken, tea stains… it’s a catalogue of abuse!

  2. Lorna says:

    Your blog’s got me thinking of the books I’ve parted company with down the years. Some shed as I’ve moved home, or country; others donated to charity after reconciling myself to the reality that life is short and that they were going to remain unread; and one academic tome I sold for $80 when my money ran out while studying in the U.S. It was the only way I could spring some cash for food. I loved that book – its loss still pains me. Great bookshelvies btw!

    • Jon Dunn says:

      Oof, those stories of book-loss make me feel a little panicky!

      There’ve been a few introspective book-related blog posts out there in the British wildlife-watchers’ blogosphere of late. I’m definitely in a minority for keeping all of mine – everyone else seems to be shedding books like crazy. There’s almost a perverse pride in parting with them, it seems; and some insinuation that holding onto them is somehow wrong. A bit hoardy, a little needy, a lot self-indulgent.

      I’m unrepentant!

      • Gavin Haig says:

        Ha ha! I am slightly in awe of you prize hoarders! And envious. I would love to own all the books I have ever had. And – given a fairy wish – every book I have ever borrowed from a library. That would truly be a collection of the soul. But my nature doesn’t allow it; it’s as simple as that. I shall write another book post one day, featuring some that I have kept tight hold of. Of course, I don’t need them, but then that isn’t the point…

      • Jon Dunn says:

        I’m sure one of these days I’ll feature on a Channel 4 documentary – one of those blokes who gets to the kitchen by climbing over books stacked almost to the ceiling!

        You’ve given me food for thought though, Gavin. What if I had to choose a short-list to hastily save from a fictitious fire? A kind of Desert Island Discs / Supermarket Sweep hybrid… That’s one for another day.

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