Paying my first self-assessed tax bill was really satisfying. That may sound perverse, but I’m happy for two reasons: they sent me an invoice, which suggests they trust me and my return didn’t warrant an investigation; and the fact that I have something to pay means that I made enough money from writing to be taxed on my earnings, which is an achievement of sorts. I could probably have thought more carefully about my expenses claims and avoided paying anything, but taxes are necessary in any society that aims to care for all its members. I’ve received many years of education courtesy of the state and my life has been saved twice by the NHS, so I can hardly complain.
I’ve been trying to take an interest in the launch of the ipad and the potential impact of the various ebook readers on the publishing industry, but I’m struggling. The idea of reading an entire novel in electronic format is unthinkable to me; why would anyone want to forgo the pleasure of turning pages, smoothing them down and – I freely admit – sniffing them? Reading a book is a sensuous experience in a way that staring at a screen could never be. Of course it makes your luggage lighter; of course I could probably double the amount of space in my house if I got rid of all the bookshelves and bookcases, but what would I lose? Some of the books I own date back to the eighteenth century – just think of the years they have come down, the number of hands they have passed through to get to me, the rooms they have sat in, the people who have read them.
I have a first edition of A Room of One’s Own that I like to think Virginia Woolf herself might have handled as it came off the press. I have books emblazoned with my school crest that were given as prizes, I still have my Anglo-Saxon primer, even though I’m unlikely ever to open it again and the only thing I learned from it the first time round was how to say the rather less-than-useful ‘The King went to Reading’.
Often when I take a book down from a shelf and read a forgotten inscription from a friend or a former lover I experience a little jolt of memory that tugs me back to the time and the place I received it. Sometimes a membrane-thin fragment will flutter to the floor, the remains of an inexpertly-preserved pressed flower, and I’ll become for a moment the girl who thought it important to send messages like these to her future self. How can a Kindle match that? My books are the first thing I box up when I’m moving house, the first thing I unpack in a new home; they make me feel safe. My books are a map of my life, and I could never replace them with a mere machine.