My reading life: Eirian James
As Palas Print bookshop in Caernarfon celebrates 20 years, its owner considers how books have shaped her life.
I cannot remember a time without books. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in my grandparent’s house looking at pictures in Llyfr Mawr y Plant with my aunt, Mair, who was 10 years older than me, as she read the stories out to me.
I cannot remember that there were many more books in the house, maybe a bible, a hymn book, but I do know that Mair was an avid reader, and I wanted to be like Mair.
Once I could read myself (I remember it ‘clicking’ as Miss Davies ran her pink nail- varnished finger under the words in Jaci Soch, there was no stopping me, and I was a voracious reader throughout my childhood.
I was very fortunate that mum would take us to the library every single week, and that dad would buy any book we wanted, no questions asked, and I do feel that this instilled in me a love and respect for books very early on.
I was at the exact right reading age when Y Lolfa published Dafydd Parri’s Cyfres y Llewod, and was always excited to know when the next one would arrive… not quite Harry Potter fever, but not far off!
Everyone in my family knew that I enjoyed books, so there were plenty of books every birthday and Christmas, each one a new discovery, a new journey into the unknown.
As a teenager, I would spend my pocket money on books and records, swapping anything from Agatha Christies to Jilly Cooper with my school friend, reading and discussing Charles Dickens and Steinbeck in our very own mini-bookgroup with my dad, and was again fortunate to be the target reading age for a new series of Welsh language books for teenagers which included Mochyn Gwydr and Jabas, that even the boys in class would read and enjoy!
The library was still a very important place to find books, and both my mum and the librarian would suggest and recommend books, and though I didn’t always enjoy every recommendation, I began to understand that reading for pleasure was important, but that sometimes it was worth putting a bit more effort in, and that it could also help you understand a bit more about what was going on in the world, and that you could travel anywhere through books.
The books we read in school can often have an impact, and I still don’t like Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which we studied in school, frightened me, and shook my faith in human nature… on the positive side, studying Welsh and English literature at GCSE and A Level did broaden my reading and understanding and helped me develop a more critical view…. It was always instilled in me by my parents to read for pleasure as well as for school / college, and this was key.
So, while I was trying to critique Kate Roberts for A Level Welsh, or preparing an essay on Dafydd ap Gwilym in University, I was also discovering the world and gaining a broader understanding of injustice and unfairness, inequality and the fight for equality and justice through reading Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Margaret Atwood, while studying R S Thomas’ poetry and Shakespeare’s plays I was enjoying Adrian Mole and Tolkien…. and to this day, I think this pattern continues.
I read for pleasure and I read for work, as I now own and run my own bookshop.
After leaving University I worked in the south Wales valleys, and read books set in the area to gain a better understanding of the history of the towns and villages I was working in.
Here is where I discovered Gwyn Thomas, Rhys Davies, Raymond Williams and Honno Press, who published long forgotten books by women from Wales.
I later worked across south and mid Wales visiting bookshops to tell them about the latest literature from Wales, and discovered books, classic and new, relating to every corner of Wales.
This was, at the time, my dream job… working with books and talking to others who loved books on a daily basis.
I was also fortunate enough to have an opportunity to work at the Hay Festival Bookshop, to meet the authors behind the books, to enjoy the buzz of an event that celebrated books, reading, literature, and more, in the company of like- minded people.
Reading is viewed as a solitary exercise, but for me, it connects me with the rest of the world.
Friends, colleagues, neighbours would continue to recommend books to me, and I discovered authors as diverse as Sebastian Faulks, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende…
At 30 I was very fortunate to be in a position to buy an existing bookshop in Caernarfon, and over the past 20 years we’ve worked hard to develop the shop that is, hopefully more than just a place to come and buy a book.
My aim was to create a space which is safe and welcoming, where people can discover the joy of books and reading on their own or with our support.
It was also important for me to connect readers with authors, and to open up the space for events and allow discussions between readers and authors (and to be able to attend such events myself!)
The joy of running a bookshop is that I get to be with books all day every day, to talk about books, choose books, listen to others talking about books, discover books, and to discover and gain a better understanding of the world through books.
A customer talking about a favourite book or author, one I’ve not heard of, is exhilarating, a new discovery.
Helping children to choose their next book is fun, and there is an element of surprise with every box of books that arrives at the shop – maybe a newly published book we’ve been excited to see, or an old favourite coming back into stock, an intriguing customer order, or just something beautiful… but it is also, a lot of hard work and can be exhausting and overwhelming at times.
While I enjoy choosing new books for the shop, I also worry about not having the ‘right’ books, about recommending the ‘wrong’ thing, about missing something important that we should be introducing to our customers….
The way I read has, inevitably I think, changed somewhat since having the shop. Though I continue to read primarily for pleasure, I’m also always reading catalogues, reviews and information sheets about the latest books, as well as having a book, or two or three on the go.
I think I’ve become more impatient and critical as a reader, and I’m more prepared to give up on a book if I’m not enjoying it after say 100 pages than I would have been in my teens and 20s.
I have also stopped feeling guilty about not reading books I ‘should’ read.
I also sometimes return to old favourites, mainly classics, if I get lost in the overwhelm of so many books to read, just to ground myself again with good literature, and I love the escapism of an easy read when tired, maybe a detective novel or something funny.
I still believe you can discover the world through reading, and that books are important for gaining an understanding of our world, a way of starting a conversation, of connecting with others and of understanding different viewpoints.
I like nothing more than to curl up in bed with a good book… apart from maybe talking about that book with people in the shop, discussing the issues raised or what we liked and didn’t like….
I love the serendipity of discovering a new book to enjoy, and hope that that is what an independent bookshop can do, allow customers to find a book they didn’t know they wanted to read, alongside those they know they want.
My top 10 favourite books change quite often, depending what I’ve been reading and on my mood. I always have a stack of books by the side of my bed ready to read, and I personally cannot imagine being without books.
We always have our favourite books in stock in the shop, and the list of books, both Welsh and English, in this category just keeps growing.
Some of my favourite, more recent books include O Tyn y Gorchudd, Angharad Prices’ wonderful imagined biography of a great aunt. Published 6 weeks after the shop opened, it still has a place in my top 10!
Both Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart had a huge impact on me in our first year in the shop, …. through reading East West Street, by Philippe Sands I learnt a lot about the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th Century, and though I read it a few years ago now, it has helped me to have some understanding of what is happening today in eastern Europe.
Mynd, a compact volume of poetry by Marged Tudur, is a very moving meditation on death and grief, and On the Red Hill by Mike Parker is probably one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading before it was published, and a joy to read, defying categorisation it blends biography with history, nature and politics, and is a beautiful book about a house, a place, a home.
Pigeon by Alice Conran, Llyfr Glas Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros, Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner, Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, Rachel Trezise’s Fresh Apples and Easy Meat, Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangiers, Awst yn Anogia by Gareth F Williams, Ymbapuroli by Angharad Price, Pridd by Llyr Titus and Saith Oes Efa by Lleucu Roberts, …. and I haven’t even started on children and young people’s books!
I could go on, and on and I wouldn’t be able to stop at 20… and ask me the same question tomorrow, and the answer will be different… I feel privileged to have such easy access to so many books and to be able to read such a variety of voices from Wales and the world.
Recently, following a bout of illness exacerbated by the challenges, anxiety and loneliness we have all experienced during the Covid epidemic, reading Rutger Bregman’s Human Kind, along with others, and reading on a daily basis has helped me regain my balance, my faith in human nature and in developing a renewed passion for doing what we do, as we celebrate 20 years of running an independent bookshop and look forward to the future.
For me reading is how I understand myself and the world around me.
The world is constantly changing, and we are constantly changing, and the books I read help me to navigate this constant change which can be exiting and overwhelming, joyous and hard all at the same time…. and the work we do day to day is, hopefully, about playing a small part, alongside libraries, schools etc in helping others discover and develop that joy of reading.
You can find out more about Palas Print, including opening times here.
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