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Project 52 ’11 19: A Surplus of Hay

May 26, 2011

On the 28th of April my sister and I went on a day trip to Hay-on-Wye.

Hay, if you’ve never been or never heard of it, is nestled just inside the Welsh border at the northerly-most tip of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It is well worth a visit despite its relatively inaccessible location, even if you are reliant on public transport. Twice I have braved the train to Hereford and a twenty-file mile bus ride onward to Hay, and twice I have risked missing the only bus back to Hereford and being stranded overnight. It is well worth the early start and a journey almost certain to go wrong, and it is well worth the two times I have ventured there recently and the times I will visit it in the future. It is a haven for books and book lovers.

Hay-on-Wye boasts a huge number of bookshops for such a small town (Thirty, according to the website), which range from general, all-genre stores to specialist, crime fiction shops and poetry shops. If you can’t find the book you’re after in Hay you’re either very unlucky or they never printed it in the first place. There are tatty chapbooks and rare publications selling for thousands; writers you have heard of and plenty you haven’t; new and exciting publications and rare and exciting old gems. If all that wasn’t enough, then they are currently holding their annual Festival of Literature and Arts (May 25th – 5th June) which boasts many famous authors and writers who are giving talks and taking part in discussions. I should like to be able to attend the festival one year and to soak up the atmosphere. I follow Hay Festival on Twitter (@hayfestival) and their output has been full of retweets from excited performers and regular festival goers alike, all enthusing about what a magical few days it is and how intellectual the very air of the place is. (I like to think Artsy would be at home there and we should maybe set up our own trestle table one year). I love the place.

One of the problems of going there is that I tend to over-spend on books. My recent visit made me realise that I still have books I bought from last year’s visit which I still haven’t completed or even begun yet. I made a pile of all the books on my shelves which are pending reading –


It’s about two feet high and it makes me seriously consider the amount I must have read during my lifetime. I’m only twenty-four and not the World’s most prolific of readers (certainly a lot less than I used to) but I can’t help but feeling that I must have read through an enormous height of books already. Can you imagine having read through a mile of books? It’s scary to think that I might have already done so. The books that I currently own must represent a fraction of the books I have actually consumed and yet it still feels like there is so much in the world which I ought to get round to reading but probably never will. There are so many books out there which are considered classics or “must reads” but how may people have ever tackled even half of them? New publications come out every day and whilst quite a substantial proportion of it is only useful for lighting fires, there are some which are worth you giving up a number of your finite hours on this Earth to read. It is really hard to know how to wade through the dross and actually settle on something worth taking the time to read.

 Not all of the books in this particular stack are ones which I bought from Hay and the pile does not contain any plays or poetry or any non-fiction, just the prose fiction which I am yet to read. It also does not contain any books which I have already read but have bought a different edition of (I recently found an early hardback copy of Adams’s Watership Down in a charity shop. It was in very good condition and included beautiful illustrations and a fold-out map. For £2 I couldn’t refuse it even though I already own a modern reprint of the book). At the moment I am reading the yellow book in the middle of the pile: T. E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Never heard of T. E. Lawrence? I bet you have without realising it. He was more famous as Lawrence of Arabia and this book (one of several he wrote) recalls his exploits and the circumstances during the Arab revolt against Turkey during the First World War, which was covered (more or less) in the famous film which bore his moniker. I’m 150-odd pages into a 700-odd page book and I still can’t tell you whether I’m going to like it or not, which is a strange position to be in.

 The book at the bottom is a beautifully-illustrated and presented rendering and collection of traditional stories of Britain. Things like Robin Hood, Beowulf and King Arthur as well as original stories and folk tales. It was quite expensive but I think worth the money. (I managed to persuade the shopkeeper to throw in the topmost book for free as I’m of a rare breed – a fan of Thomas Hardy). It is the sort of book which I intend to dip in and out of and it is not the sort of thing which has to be read sequentially or all in one sitting. The same goes of the book sat on top of it which is a gorgeous edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes. Again expensive and again worth it.

 There are also three P. G. Wodehouse books. I have fallen in love with P. G. Wodehouse ever since I was gifted The World of Jeeves for Christmas. He was a very prolific writer so there will be plenty for me to read over the next few years. I was going to write a review of one of his books for Artsy, but I didn’t think I could do it justice or explain how much I love his humour and the effortless use of language. With The Golf Omnibus, I intend to sample a wider spectrum of his work as I have only really touched upon his Jeeves and Wooster stories so far. Although his storylines can be quite formulaic at times, I really adore his writing style and his sort of tongue-in-cheek/sort of completely-in-love-with portrayal of a very uniquely English set of characters and circumstances. The whole of his output seems to be a feel-good, rose-tinted view of the past written with startling wit and humour.

 There are a few books in the pile which I have inherited from my sister: Walter Greenwood – Love on the Dole; Edgar Allen Poe – Selected Tales; Virgil – The Aeneid and H. G. Wells – Kipps. I’ve never read any Greenwood before, but I recognised the title and thought I’d give it a go, being as Sarah was about to give the book away. Poe is one of the writers who I’ve been meaning to sample these past few years and I think a collection of relatively short tales is probably the right place to start. It is another book which I can dip in and out of or abandon altogether if it turns out I just cannot get along with his writing. Virgil is there because I read Homer’s Odyssey a while ago and quite enjoyed it (and it also helped me to make sense of James Joyce’s Ulysses, whose storyline is based upon The Odyssey) and I’m willing to give another Greek classic a go. A lot depends upon the translation, I suppose, and whether or not the style into which the original story has been rendered is to my liking. I’d hate to think I’d given up on a text completely just because of a poor translation. I am a fan of H. G. Wells so when I saw my sister was throwing out a copy of Kipps, I had to rescue it. She told me that she didn’t enjoy it as much as other books by him which she had read, but I am looking forward to make my own assessment. This, coupled with Selected Short Stories should be enough Wells to keep me occupied for a while.

 My adventure story addiction is fed not only by Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, but also a number of books in the heap, notably the John Buchan and the Richard Adams. I read the book Adams published after his much-praised debut, called Shardik. It followed the exploits of an enormous bear through timeless, locationless jungles, and the tribe who fated it as a reincarnation of their god. The book wasn’t awful, but it lacked the vitality of Watership Down and I felt that it should have ended at least 200 pages sooner (when the bear dies). I’m hoping that Plague Dogs will recapture what made the first Adams novel so universally popular. Buchan books are quite numerous and a large selection of then represent the pulp fiction of the time. They are just cheap, empty adventure stories but I love them for their escapism and excitement. I’d never heard of Castle Gay or The Island of Sheep until I came across them in obscure corners of Hay bookshops. It is little finds like that – unknown books by writers you know and love as well as well-known books by writers you’ve never read – that are why Hay is special and worth a visit.

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