There’s an ant-like trail of Amazon couriers carrying second-hand books that leads to my door. I very rarely buy books new, more often I find them in charity shops or under the “Available from other sellers” link on Amazon. Being able to instantly order second-hand books online is brilliantly convenient if dangerous on the wallet.

You know that YouTube blackhole that’s it’s easy to get sucked into? One minute you’re watching a video showing you how to make a great beef stroganoff, you click on the next recommended video, and an hour later find yourself watching a three-hour ASMR video on the Mexican moon landing conspiracy?

Well, that’s like me but with second-hand books instead of YouTube.

I worry about getting inebriated one evening and waking up to find a thousand paperbacks being stuffed through my letterbox. So many people are going to get in trouble when Amazon’s one-hour delivery service becomes commonplace. Imagine a swarm of drones buzzing into view as they queue up to deliver your individually wrapped second-hand copies of the entire SF Masterworks series that you ordered ten minutes ago. Imagine the buyer’s remorse.

I’ve just started reading The Child in Time by Ian McEwan. I picked it up after Christopher Hitchens referenced it in his book God is not Great. Ten minutes before I hadn’t even heard of the author, and one recommendation by England’s most famous atheist and I’ve got a book winging its way to me.

The reason I raise it here is because the first two pages of The Child in Time are one of those rare moments when you read something, and you recognise the words, and you understand the sentences, but they’re put together in such a masterful way that it’s like reading a page from a magician’s spell book.

On the surface of it, there’s nothing particularly special about the paragraph I’ve copied below. It uses common words and grammar, the descriptions are clipped and simple, and there’s nothing obviously different to any other author I’ve read, but the paragraph reads like poetry. It drops you right into the action and the scene grows like moss in your head:

It was late May, barely nine-thirty, and already the temperature was nudging the eighties. He strode to Vauxhall Bridge past double and treble files of trapped, throbbing cars, each with its solitary driver. In tone the pursuit of liberty was more resigned than passionate. Ringed fingers drummed patiently on the sill of a hot tin roof, white-shirted elbows poked through rolled-down windows. There were newspapers spread over steering wheels. Stephen stepped quickly through the crowds, through layers of car radio blather–jingles, high-energy breakfast DJs, news flashes, traffic “alerts.” Those drivers not reading listened stolidly. The steady forward press of the pavement crowds must have conveyed to them a sense of relative motion, of drifting slowly backwards.

My absolute favourite sentences are:

Ringed fingers drummed patiently on the sill of a hot tin roof, white-shirted elbows poked through rolled-down windows. There were newspapers spread over steering wheels.

In just two short sentences, I’m right there; I can see the queues of traffic, smell the exhaust fumes, and know the frustrated drivers who just want to get on with their day. Just two sentences, twenty-seven words. Amazing.

I’m only a few pages into the book but I’m already gripped and wanting to find out more.

What’s the secret, Mr McEwan?!

How do you write like that?

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I read a lot and write occasionally.

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