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Emma Townshend

The Independent on Sunday's gardening columnist, Emma Townshend has a garden in West London which she regularly hears passing children refer to as "the Amazon Jungle". She has spent years researching Victorian horticulture and teaching history of science in adult education, while growing the biggest plants she can. Her basic ambition in life is to keep up that important neighbourhood reputation.

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Can book swapping topple the mighty book group?

Posted by Emma Townshend
  • Friday, 21 August 2009 at 12:45 pm

I went last night to Windsor, for the first Firestation "Book Swap", organised by prolific blogger, Bookseller columnist and publisher Scott Pack. I was expecting a good evening, because Pack's blog writing is funny and thoughtful, as is that of his co-host, blogger and author Marie Phillips. Both instructed us to bring along a book to swap with a stranger. The evening turned out to be delightful for several reasons, not the least of which was the free homemade macaroons. Mmmm. 

The invited guests were Jessica Ruston, new glamour novelist on the block (let's swiftly distinguish between glamour novelists and glamour models - Ruston's book is a sleek, sexy black and silver affair about the world's most luxurious hotel); and the Observer's Robert McCrum, who was charmingly bossy about what we should all be reading: Strunk and White, "essential", and [addressed to me] "The new Anne Tyler, what on earth are you thinking of, swapping that?". "I've read it," I stutter, "so someone else can have the enjoyment now?". I sink into my seat and am glad the houselights are so bright they make picking out individual audience members nice and difficult. 

All the writers present got asked questions right off the normal book event radar - ranging from "how long could you manage without the internet?" to "I've just wormed my cat, how long will it take to work?". But for me the best bit was the book swapping. Despite having to do it under the hawkish and possibly disapproving eye of Robert McCrum, we all threw ourselves into this with enthusiasm. Everyone had brought top quality things with them - an old Faber Rupert Brooke got swapped for Emma Darwin's latest historical fiction; Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Flat Earth News by Nick Davies and Netherland by Joseph O'Connor were also all on offer. One girl wandered around saying sadly, "I can't get anyone to swap with me", but when she revealed what she was trying to swap, her failure became more clear: it was an account of the sex abuse investigations in Pitcairn Island in the 1990s. Still, by the end even she had found a home for her uncheerful offering. 

I found the whole event really heartening. It was lovely to hear from the writers, but chatting to people about what they'd been reading and why they were giving it away was the most interesting part. And I like the democracy of swapping, as opposed to the totalitarian rule of the book group, where you have to spend time reading someone else's choice even if you know you will hate every minute of it. In the case of the bookswap, I came away with such goodwill towards everyone involved - just the sort of mood in which people buy lots of books. I can't help thinking this is exactly the kind of blog-linked, local event that publishers should be really encouraging, a sort of odd cross between a public reading and a book group. Plus those delicious macaroons....

The next book swap is scheduled for September 17th, in Windsor Firestation Arts Centre, tickets £5. 


Book Swap as anti-rigor mortis of the novel?
thejester2009 wrote:
Friday, 21 August 2009 at 03:42 pm (UTC)
The venerable Gore Vidal once expected the Death of the Novel to occur sometime between Robbe-Grillet's oeuvre and that of Anthony Burgess, but judging by this encouraging account of a book-friendly initiative (back to the reader instead of the novelist) the imminent rigor mortis has been avoided adroitly. Your prose is Scarlatti-like in its immaculate rhythm and delightful twists and turns. Keep it up!
Re: Book Swap as anti-rigor mortis of the novel?
emma_townshend wrote:
Saturday, 22 August 2009 at 12:19 pm (UTC)
Although those Sony E-Readers and Kindles might be about to herald some more imminent death threats... :-)
paulmaxsi wrote:
Friday, 21 August 2009 at 04:40 pm (UTC)
can't bear to part with a book. have never lent a book to anyone. am always will to purchase a copy for someone but do not touch my book. i have books that still in shrink wrap after 30 years. i am investigating ways to take my books with me when i leave this earth. i cannot stand the thought of my friends or relatives mistreating my books.

i know i am strange.

p. bloomberg
old man
Re: books
emma_townshend wrote:
Saturday, 22 August 2009 at 12:17 pm (UTC)
Like you, I used to keep hold of absolutely everything. (And like you, I love to buy a book for friends, but don't like to lend...) But then I realised that holding on tight means that you don't open the way for anything new to arrive! In the last year I've given 300 books to Oxfam, which is about my yearly average (I get sent quite a lot of stuff for work) and it means that the books in my house are ones I've chosen to continue to live with. It really was a weight of my shoulders when I suddenly thought "you know, I've been meaning to learn German since I was fifteen... apart from anything else, the vocab has probably changed since I bought that book... it's TIME for it to go." It made me realise that my life is actually short, and that holding onto books imagining that one day I will have time to read them, is a way of denying how actually short life is. Being realistic about the amount I can read, and about the amount of books I can own, has helped me be more realistic about mortality itself. I think for a lot of book owners, it might be similar?
Re: books
afsaf wrote:
Saturday, 22 August 2009 at 03:30 pm (UTC)
Not for me: I hope to die surrounded by a pile of unread books. Whether this is because they have facilitated my demise by falling upon me is optional
Re: books
paulmaxsi wrote:
Sunday, 23 August 2009 at 08:45 pm (UTC)
my wife and i have a very large apartment but, i have run out of space. i am hiding things in space i should not be using. at one time my wife rented a storage locker for me. i had 40 years of the new york times stored in trunks. not whole papers but articles i found interesting. i probably had 20 trunks. well the fee got outrageous. the local school district would not take them or would the library. so for days i went though them taking what i thought were the best and throwing the rest out. then we decided donate the paper as scrap. i also gave some front pages to the young ladies at the storage facility. i do not think they ever read or kept them. i have two large trunks in the room i am in filled with newspaper articles. i have them in three ring binders in my clothing closet. i have them everywhere. i just cannot stop saving articles. i have a huge magazine collecting. my wife had custom made bookshelves made for the bedroom an labeled over 200 magazine containers like you see in libraries for them. i have to be very careful when buy a magazine because i will not throw them out. they are all in mint condition. i had to stop subscribing to "countrylife." lack of room but from time to time i still buy a copy at the news stand. i am coming to the end of collecting british stamps and post cards. i know nothing about them except if you send the royal mail money (in scotland) they will send you stamps and postcards for collectors (no more room for albums after 20 years). i collect menus. no more room on the walls for my british toy truck collection.

i need to take your advice. i must give away to have room for the new. and what about my 300 plus photo albums. they take up book shelf space i could use for books.

as anyone can see if you saw my home i have a problem.

i am just finishing bugs and the victorians. and am into caldedonian jews. i have on order the history of scotland yard, british bears, the history of canadian bood, the history of tipping in america, and the smell of the continent by munson james.

there really is no help for me. but stick with me--please.

p. bloomberg
old man, glendale, ca

oh, i must read my copy of the history of soup!
Re: books
emma_townshend wrote:
Monday, 24 August 2009 at 07:14 am (UTC)
Wow, my first thought is you sound like a fascinating person, my second thought is that your wife must have a kind heart :-) (Especially the magazine shelves!)

I think it's worth thinking in these sorts of situations (and believe me, my house used to be a starter version of yours) about why it is that we hold onto things. I had a childhood that in some ways was lovely, in some ways very unsettled, and I think books for me represented security, knowledge about the world was a way of securing myself, shoring up your position. Perhaps if you could work out what it is about all of this which makes you want to keep things in such a 'complete' way... It sounds to me as if you are particularly interested in history... Do you feel somehow that the past will be lost if you don't personally save it?
Re: books
paulmaxsi wrote:
Monday, 24 August 2009 at 08:24 pm (UTC)
i think i am trying to leave things behind so the very few left behind will remember me. wishful thinking.

what i did to insure that there will me a memory of me and my wife is to write a series of plots for a tv show that could have been and got them copyrighted. i now have an offical government record that i existed. i also registered an idea for a musical based on the life of heddy lamar with the screen writers guild in hollywood.

why i want to be remembered is the question.

p. bloomberg
old man
glendale, ca
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