Veronica Zundel waxes lyrical about the touch and smell of books, and reminds us of the treasure to be found in the ultimate library of books

Time to be honest. I own a Kindle – a very old one. It’s around somewhere, though I’ve lost the charger and I doubt it would charge anyway now. I also have Bluetooth ear buds, but have never got round to downloading the BBC Sounds app on my phone. My husband reads books on his phone or tablet, but for me that has no appeal at all. Why would I want to scroll down a dingy-looking grey screen when I can have the joy of turning pages, feel a smooth satiny cover and, most of all, take in the inimitable smell of a new book? And even an old book, unless it has been really abused, has its own distinctive, peppery smell that transports me to the magic of dusty archives…

Nothing beats a real book. My fellow writers know the joy of finally holding in your hands a published book with your name on the cover, something you can sign at a launch and which, if good enough, can be treasured by the purchaser.  

For the joy of books

For the past few months I’ve been volunteering, just once a fortnight, at the local Oxfam bookshop. I normally spend up to half of my time on the till, though our touch-screen till is very obstinate and has to be hit hard, which often results in my accidentally charging £225 for a novel instead of £2.50. It’s such fun to be able to say to a customer: “I read that, it was brilliant” or “What a great find; if I’d seen that first I’d have snapped it up.” It’s so satisfying when an earnest young boy comes in looking for a book on gemstones and you find him two. If I had my life again, the life of a bookseller would be really tempting (I did consider librarianship but thought I was too talkative). 

Books can be an escape into a new world, or a thoughtful reflection of the one we live in. They can inform, encourage, expand our viewpoint or infuriate. I find after reading a novel, even a trashy one, I can’t read another straightaway – I am still too immersed in the world of the previous one. I need to ‘decompress’ before venturing into another. The same with a non-fiction book – like someone who has just eaten a big meal, I’m too stuffed with facts and insights that I need to digest before I can devour some more.

The book of books

Christians are often, along with Jews and Muslims, called ‘people of the Book’. I don’t think this is entirely true, though it is true that it was the early Christians who invented the handy portable format of the ‘codex’, or bound book, as opposed to unwieldy scrolls. We are really a people of the Spirit – Jesus promised to leave us his Spirit, not his written word. However, we do have a rich library of 66 diverse and sometimes contradictory books that chart the story of God choosing a people and that people gradually, over centuries, discovering more, and revising their ideas, about that God, until “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). We prize that library, and need to turn to it often, but we do not venerate it in the way that Muslims venerate the Qur’an, having to bathe before reading it, and forbidden ever to turn their backs on it. 

Personally, I am glad we have such varied and multiple witnesses in our Bible, rather than a single document purportedly dictated from on high. It makes the Bible feel more authentic that not all of it agrees with all the rest – I see it as a human, though divinely inspired, record of a relationship with a real God.

Having said that, the more I read and write about the Bible, the more I find remarkable links and resonances between one part and another. It is not perfect – only God is that – but it bears the stamp of divine intervention, the fingerprint of God stamped all over it. I have an ex-boyfriend, now a retired vicar, who had an overwhelming spiritual experience in Africa and came back vowing never to read anything again but the Bible. I don’t know how that went, and it seemed like a pretty bad idea to me. But whatever else we read, and I hope we read lots, the Bible is the one that’s always worth re-reading, and that will always yield new gems.