COLUMN: January 24, 2013

I DO not like it when people tell me I must read a particular book or watch a particular film.

Perhaps it is my innate sense of fair play, but there are many books and films I have not yet experienced, and it seems like queue jumping.

Also, it is quite a significant investment in time to read a recommended book or watch a recommended film just so that you can tell the person who recommended it to you that he or she was absolutely right and it was a very good film or book.

My advice is to pretend to read or watch the thing, and when your so-called friend asks you what you thought of it say this: “Oh, you were totally right. Brilliant (or rubbish, depending on the tone of the original recommendation). That bit near the end. I couldn’t believe it. You know that bit where…”

At that point your friend will chip in, filling in the blanks, and the heat will be off. You might consider this a risky course of action but I promise you such behaviour got me and several others through the English module of my degree course.

But I mostly do not like being told to sample something because it reminds me of the lowest point of my life, when I did A Very Bad Thing.

It was 10 years ago, and I suppose the statute of limitations is up on Very Bad Things which do not involve physical harm. It’s times like this I wish I’d paid more attention to the Law module of my degree course. Actually, I’m not sure I even did Law.

I am babbling because I do not want to tell you what I did, but I suppose I must.

Ten years ago, I worked for a female editor a couple of years my junior. She was one of those go-getting women that they have these days on the television. She is no longer a newspaper editor. She decided one day she would become a best-selling chick-lit author and sorted that out basically in an afternoon.

We were chatting about books one day – perhaps she was doing early market research – and she mentioned an excellent book she had read. Let’s pretend it was The Very Big Turnip.

“I haven’t read it,” I said, with rightful trepidation about where this was going.

“You must,” she said. “I will,” I said. “I’ll lend you it,” she said.

The next day she handed over a dog-eared copy of The Very Big Turnip and explained to me that she wouldn’t be speaking to me again until I had read it. I momentarily considered the idea that I might employ the English module stratagem, but she was too sharp and, also, my boss.

So I read the book (Have you read it? You must. That bit with the mouse near the end!) and came back into work. I was gently grilled by my editor and came through it unscathed. “Where is it?” she said. “Still at home,” I replied. “I left it on the kitchen table so I wouldn’t forget it, and forgot it.”

When I went home, I was informed that a small child of my acquaintance had found the book on the kitchen table and taken such a shine to it that he had made copious margin notes on virtually every page in what educationalists would regard as emergent writing and everybody else would regard as a massive load of scribbling.

A little bomb went off inside my head. If the book had been the editor’s own I might have got away with it. But it was a borrowed book.

I panicked. I tore out to Borders (RIP), bought an identical copy of the book, then came back home and spent a good two hours foxing the book. I bent back pages, scratched it with a scalpel, yellowed it with a damp teabag, and flung it around the room. In the end it was almost indistinguishable from the original copy apart from the Biro spirals and anatomically inaccurate faces.

The next day I handed it over to the editor. “Here you go. Wasn’t the bit with the mouse…?”

“Are you sure this is my book?” she asked.

I looked her in the eye. “It’s either your book, or I’ve bought a replacement and foxed it in an ridiculous attempt to deceive you. Now what do you think?”

She took the book. I think we both had learnt a valuable lesson.

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