Continuing my journey through the secret world of book bloggers, I spoke to Rob Burdock – also known as Rob Around Books – about Just William, eBooks and the Father of History.
Who are you, where are you in the world, and what made you start a book blog?
I’m Rob. I live on the sunny banks of Fife, in a small town called Dunfermline, which is a stone’s throw from Edinburgh. I started a book blog primarily as a way of spreading my love for reading. 4 or 5 years ago I began thinking that less and less people were taking up books, and I wanted to do whatever small thing I could do to help ‘stop the rot’, so to speak.
Also, I discovered fiction a lot later in life than most people do. I used to read a ton of it as a child – Just William, Famous Five, Secret Seven et al. – but then my interest turned more to non-fiction, and to history in particular. I was one of these people who grew up thinking that fiction was a lesser ‘being’; that reading ‘made up’ stories was pointless and a complete waste of time. Then I picked up Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and in one fell swoop my antiquated narrow-minded opinion changed. Then, as I read more fiction my passion for it kept growing until I felt the urge to share that passion with other people; to use my energised self to try and encourage the ‘non-believers’ to see the real value and power of fictional writing.
What are you into when you’re not reading or writing?
I’m not really a hobby kind of person, but I do collect typewriters if that counts, along with any kind of writing paraphernalia that come from a vintage age. This makes me sound incredibly nerdish I know, but I collect these things not to showcase them but to use them to invoke in me, a sense of a bygone era. I often get dismayed by our fast-moving, computer-reliant technological age, preferring to dwell in simpler times when writing offered a more ‘back to basics’ sensory experience. I adore the smell of ink and the clack of a typewriter, and these things enhance the writing experience for me massively, and in a warm and nurturing way.
Can you name me three books that define you, e.g. each one tells me something different about your character?
My first choice is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, because it’s a book which promotes spontaneity, free-thinking and wanderlust. The first two are ‘qualities’ (for want of a better word) which I strive to propagate in myself. The third is a craving which never fades.
My second choice is John Steinbeck’s A Life in Letters, not only because this author is a daily inspiration to me, but also because I value the written letter greatly. Not only do letters stand as the most intimate form of personal communication, but they also act as a window into the past, where one is able to glimpse into the souls of those who have gone before us. This is especially important to me when the ‘soul’ in question is a writer. I try to not think about the fact that technology is killing the handwritten letter.
My third choice is the Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The chief protagonist is a struggling writer who is continually driven to the point of madness. Need I say more?
What is the best thing about book blogging?
The best thing about book blogging is being able to interact with many beautiful literary minds around the world. I feel blessed when I think about some of wonderful people I’ve met through being a book blogger, and this alone makes up for all of the countless hours that I’ve spent huddled in front of the monitor. (or the book, or the notepad).
I also love it when I discover that I’ve made a small positive difference to another person’s life. My main aim with book blogging, as I said earlier, is propagating a love for reading. And when that love reaches the right person, encouraging them to pick up a book when they haven’t for a long time (if ever), then I feel ultimately fulfilled.
How about the worst?
The worse thing about book blogging is the amount of time that one has to invest in order to try and make it work. It’s ceaseless too, one never feels on top of things. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve wasted entire days or even weekends typing away, only to discover that the ‘to do list’ continues to scroll on endlessly, while the reading pile teeters ever closer to the heavens.
I also dislike the small amount of nastiness that creeps around the book blogging world on occasion. There are some who see this game more as a competition or as a way to elevate their own sense of self-importance more than anything else, and it can cause a lot of unnecessary tension.
What are your top three book related websites?
I can only chose three? Impossible, but here goes. My absolute favourite book-related website has to be ‘Interviews’ section at The Paris Review. This section, which was previously reserved as a ‘subscriber only’ feature, was generously opened up for free public access last year, and it is a truly invaluable for any literary fan who wishes to find out something more about some of the most important authors of the twentieth century, and a particular author, and their writing process.
When it comes to book news I aggregate many sources, but there’s few that can keep up with the frenetic pace of The Guardian newspaper’s book section. Their content is often a little too popular for my tastes, but they cover a heck of a lot of stuff, and miss little.
As a book blogger I visit countless book blogs every day, and I could go harp on endlessly about the ones I love. So I’ll just pick one of the absolute stand out blogs for me – the MobyLives blog maintained by Melville House Publishing, who are based in Brooklyn, New York. The publishing house came into existence as a consequence of the blog. It’s long standing, and an absolute joy to read. It’s a model for anyone looking to find out how a book blog should be.
Where do you get your books?
I get most of my books from the bookshop like everyone else does I presume. As a book blogger I do receive review copies from publishers on occasion, but the majority of books I own are ones which I’ve bought myself.
As I’m more often than not on a tight budget I tend to buy a lot of my books second-hand. But in doing so I get the added bonus of being able to root around in dusty old bookshops searching for literary treasure. If I do buy a new book I always try to support a local independent bookshop (unfortunately the closest ones to me are in Edinburgh), but budget often dictates that I go down the ‘price and convenience’ route and I order online, usually from The Book Depository.
What’s the first book you remember really loving?
You think I can remember that far back? I’m joking. I can always recall the huge thrill I got from reading Just William. I think I first read that book when I was around 7 or 8, and it blew my tiny child mind away.
At this age I spent a lot of summers at my grandparent’s home in a small country village in Cornwall. As an only child I had to entertain myself most of the time during those days, and Just William was a constant companion. I remember setting out on loads of imaginary adventures with William and his gang of Outlaws, and these usually involved running around in baking fields of wheat, and suffering with heatstroke. Regardless, I believe that my love for short fiction probably stemmed from the close and profound connection I had with my Just William book as a child. It’s a shame that I still don’t have that book, because I’d probably frame it.
What book do you wish you had written?
What a great question. It’s a really hard one to answer though, because I’ve never felt the urge to write a book myself. I could pick the easy answer here and say anything written by John Steinbeck (because my love for his writing knows no boundaries), but instead I’ll go for Herodotus’ Histories. I choose this simply because it’s such a seminal and important work. Our knowledge and understanding of classical antiquity would be so much more lacking without this ‘book’, and I can think of no bigger thrill than writing this and having the title of ‘Father of History’ bestowed upon me.
What book do you wish more people had read?
Rather than a particular book, I really wish that more people would embrace translated fiction as a whole. Putting aside the passion that people seem to have in this country for Scandinavian crime fiction, I’m astounded at how readily people discount a novel just because it was originally written in a foreign language.
I can’t understand it. There are hundreds of thousands of outstanding novels out there that have written by non-English authors, and the quality of the writing and the translation (thanks to an army of hugely talented translators – Edith Grossman, Anthea Bell, Frank Wynne, Donal McLaughlin to name but four) is nothing short of startling.
And so I really urge people to go out and pick up a work of translated fiction. It’s the cheapest and most effortless way I know of, to travel the world and to experience some of the magnificent cultures that exist around us.
You are a particularly enthusiastic reader of non-fiction – does that require a different reading style to fiction?
I wouldn’t say that I’m as enthusiastic with my non-fiction reading as I used to be, but yes given my love for it – and the fact that I studied history at university – there’s still a big place in my heart for non-fiction.
That said, my interests in non-fiction have changed a lot recently. Rather than reading my way through the dry academic texts that I used to, I now much more prefer non-fiction in its more creative ‘literary’ form, where fact is presented in a more novelistic way. This passion has been driven by genius writers such as Joseph Mitchell, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, and the remarkable Hunter S. Thompson.
As to whether I think non-fiction requires a different reading style to fiction? Well, it all depends. If I’m reading for leisure then I’ll read non-fiction in exactly the same way that I read fiction. But if I’m reading for research then my process is a lot more regimented. I religiously takes notes anyway when I’m reading, regardless of what I’m reading, but my notes become a lot more orderly and structured when I’m reading for research and/or if I’m reading specifically to expand my knowledge on a subject.
How do you feel about eReaders and digital publishing – exciting or sacrilegious?
I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to books and reading (I think you might have guessed that by now), and for that reason I will always choose the look, the feel and the smell of a real book over that which I cannot tangibly hold in my hands. That said I also embrace the digital revolution, because ultimately it’s about the words. I own two eReaders (a Kindle an an older Sony Reader) and they do play an important role in my everyday reading.
People who imply that readers should choose one form over the other annoy me, because I think that traditional books and ebooks can live side-by-side in perfect harmony (cue for a song). I do fear that one day the traditional book will become nothing more than a distant memory, but I think that that’s way off in the future when everyone is riding around in hover cars, and visiting their relatives on Mars.