I am pleased to host on my publishing-themed blog an interview with a librarian. Often librarians can be overlooked in book-themed blogs, but I want to champion the likes of Matthew and other such individuals like him. With 25k followers on Twitter alone, he is fast becoming an influencer in the book blogging world. He has such a strong passion for books and writing and it keeps him very motivated in everything he does. Read on to find out more about him…
Please introduce yourself and give me an overview of your career so far.
Hi, I’m Matthew Selwyn – author, blogger, student, and librarian. I’ve been writing a book blog – www.bibliofreak.net – for around four years now, which I set up with the intention of forcing me to think more critically about books I had read and also to get me into the habit of writing regularly. I suppose it has succeeded on that score, as after writing the blog for a couple of years I started work on my first novel (****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy). This was released late-2014, and I’m currently finishing the first draft of my second novel, so I’ve certainly begun to get the hang of writing regularly! I’m also lucky enough to work in a great academic library, which is somewhere I feel completely at home.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of working as a librarian?
There was a recent YouGov poll that put author and librarian as the two most desirable jobs in Britain, which made me insufferably smug for a few days. I am incredibly lucky to have fallen into a lifestyle that means I am around books all day – what better way to spend a life? – and I’ve always found the cosy world of libraries more appealing than the more profit-focused publishing industry, so things couldn’t have fallen out much better for me. My university has a gorgeous Victorian library, and being paid to spend time there is an absolute dream for a bibliophile like me. I’ve also worked in public libraries, and I love the sense of being part of a community and supporting people who wouldn’t have access to books, computers, knowledge, a friendly ear, and all sorts of other things, that libraries can provide. Obviously, though, the biggest advantage to working in libraries is a staff library card: almost unlimited borrowing right, priceless. (Yes, I am that sad / easily pleased.)
You state on your blog that you “love discussing opinions with others, and arguing various viewpoints. With that in mind I hope my blog creates an atmosphere that inspires debate, and that readers will interact, disagree and generally have a chat with me through comments.” Do you think it’s important that people have debates and differing opinions on literature?
I’m not sure it’s important necessarily – it’s good for people to be able to respond to art in whatever way they like. It is, after all, a very personal thing. For me, though, I know talking about literature and hearing interpretations and opinions argued has helped me develop as a critical reader. It is fun too. Reading, for all that I love it, is a very isolating experience; to be locked away from the world with only the words of an author far removed for company makes for a fairly lonely hobby, so being able to share that hobby with other readers is great, not just for its literary value but for its social value too. Given half the chance, I’d lock myself up in a remote hideaway with a big pile of books and only emerge when I’d exhausted my reading material. Curbing that instinct by making discussion part of my reading process certainly helps me to be a less insular hermit. Sort of.
I am incredibly lucky to have fallen into a lifestyle that means I am around books all day – what better way to spend a life?
You clearly read a lot of different types of books. Why is it important for you to read / review a large range of book genres?
I think I’m still finding myself as a reader – if that doesn’t sound too pretentious? I was a bit of a late-bloomer when it came to reading, so I’m still finding my way around the literary landscape and discovering what catches my imagination. It is important to broaden your mind as much as possible, too, and reading across different genres certainly helps me to do that. I haven’t yet found a particular genre that suits me better than any others – I suppose, like a lot of things, one day I fancy a particular type of book and on another I’ll want something completely different. I have realised, though, that I want a level of substance to books I read. When I was younger, a good story would do it for me, but now I want books to do something more as well: to address, on some level, the big issues of the world and existence.
You’ve recently interviewed big names – Philip Zimbardo being one of them. To what extent do you try to explore areas other than general publishing and books in your blog and your work?
I have things that really interest me (humans, mainly – funny old things that they are) and so I suppose you can approach all sorts of things, art and beyond, from different angles that tell you something about human nature. Professor Zimbardo was a really interesting interview – having studied psychology he’s someone whose work I am familiar with, and his recent focus has been on how technology is affecting what it is to be a young man in the modern world. This is almost exactly the theme that my debut novel deals with and it was wonderful to be able to exchange thoughts with such an influential thinker. The whole area of how digital space is changing our lives is fascinating: a lot like reading, it has the potential to be hugely isolating. Equally, in such an uncontrolled environment the flow of information is really forming the minds of young people today. We only have to look at the number of recent radicalisations where social media has played a key role to know this, but I think we, as a society, should be looking at the less dramatic cases – the way in which our attention spans are being obliterated, our ways of interacting with one another completely changed, and the mindless prejudices that are propagated through the internet (for me, the way men interact with pornography is particularly interesting/worrying). I suppose my own writing very much drives the focus of my attention – at the moment I am particularly interested in mental health issues – and this filters through to my reading and the interviews I run on the blog. I try to make sure I cover a range of topics, but inevitably it’s my own interests that inform a lot of the content.
Recently you’ve started collecting books. Why did you decide to start doing this and what are your favourite editions in your collection so far?
Something about human nature makes us want to possess the things we covet, which I suppose is the root of most collections. When I started out, I had some lofty notion of setting up a library later in life, which would be a philanthropic project of sorts. I’d like to keep a personal library and share it with young people to inspire them to enjoy reading. Public libraries have been a big part of my life and there is nothing quite like browsing a collection of books and knowing you can take any of them home. I suppose I had (ok, have) in my mind that I will one day have a small, antiquarian library that I’ll let anyone and everyone use, provided they’re prepared to listen to me banging on about books whenever they come round. I have that librarian instinct to want to document and preserve books too, I think, and so knowing that I’m looking after what are, to me at least, important items gives me pleasure.
I collect mainly modern first editions at the moment, my bank balance not stretching to anything more extravagant. There is the added bonus, beyond affordability, of being able to come across these in any second-hand bookshop with a bit of luck, which is a good deal more fun than being restricted to antiquarian bookshops where everything is carefully catalogued and priced. Far more romantic to stumble upon a nice looking first in the corner of some newly discovered bookshop.
I have quite a few signed firsts of Martin Amis’s books, he being one of my favourite authors. My favourite of these is a funny little book he wrote in the 1980s on the subject of the arcade game Space Invaders. Invasion of the Space Invaders is often missed off of Amis’s personal bibliography and is rarer than a good number of his better-known titles. It’s a real juxtaposition to much of his high-brow writing and I really like having a book that gives an extra dimension to Amis as a young man rather than as an author. If I had to choose between that and my first of Money, it’d be the little green men any day of the week. On more traditional lines, I’ve got a 1920s copy of Alice in Wonderland, which is a lovely book with beautiful printing and illustrated plates. It’s something I hope to read to my children one day, and it is books like this, which combine aesthetic appeal with history that typify what I really enjoy about collecting books. A brand new paperback just doesn’t have the same appeal.
Digital vs. Print – which has your heart and why?
In case my eulogising in the previous answer didn’t rather give the game away, I am very much a print man. I like the idea that each copy of a book has a unique history, even if I might never know what it is by the time it makes it into my hands. The tactile experience of reading a physical book is something digital will never be able to replace, despite the evident portability benefits, etc. I’m by no means against e-books – they are a great tool, and I’m not precious about changing technologies: books themselves are a technology to convey the words within them, and everything moves on. There is a historic element to print books though. It gives me great pleasure to know that copies of Jane Austen’s books, for example, that were around at the time when she was alive are still around today. When things have gone completely digital that’s something we’ll feel the loss of quite keenly, I think.
And finally, what have you read recently that really had a lasting effect on you?
Good question. I think the best book I’ve read this year has been The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. There have been quite a few poor reviews of the book but I found it profoundly moving. It is, ostensibly, a fantasy novel but more importantly it is a rumination on memory and the endurance of love, amongst other things.
You can check out Matthew’s brilliant book blog here: http://www.bibliofreak.net/
To find out more about Matthew as an author and his books, visit http://matthewselwyn.com/
You can follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/thebibliofreak
Do you have a question for Matthew? Put it in the comments below and I will get it answered for you!