When I was a bookseller I loathed gift books, those brightly packaged offerings artfully placed by the till in late October to catch Christmas shoppers’ eyes. Rather like the groaning humour table, these piles were usually made up of what I thought of as non-books, most likely unwrapped and tossed aside never to be looked at again. Still, given that bookshops make most of their profit in the Christmas quarter – along with just about everyone else in retail – they’re a necessary evil. You might wonder why, then, I’ve decided to review a couple of books that could easily fall into that category. The answer is that their contents are actually worth reading. Both are from a series, begun in May, published by Pushkin Press in conjunction with the London Library to which six more titles have been added in celebration of the London Library‘s 175th anniversary and, no doubt, to catch that Christmas trade. The idea behind the series is to give readers a flavour of the magnificent collection housed on the library’s seventeen miles of shelves.
The most appealing title for me is Lady Colin Campbell’s A Woman’s Walks with its jacket illustration of a fearless, bonneted climber scaling a crevasse. In fact there’s just one alpine outing in the nine short travelogues which take us to Italy, France and London, a sample of the original book first published in 1903. There’s much to amuse and entertain here. History is woven seamlessly through vivid descriptive passages all laced with colourful anecdotes and forthright opinions wittily expressed: Lady Campbell seems to have had a particular dislike of Germans, never mentioned without reference to their fatness. From a tour of Billingsgate Market where she’s defeated by ‘five or six courses of fish, followed by roast lamb… …plus vegetables, bread and cheese’ but not by inches of ‘liquid mud and fish-scales’ on the floor, to delighting in an Italian hotelier’s shock when she turns up alone and with no luggage after missing a train connection, Lady Campbell is a spirited, determined and amusing companion. This delightful book leaves you wanting to accompany her on more of her travels.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the other book in the series which caught my eye was On Reading, Writing and Living with Books. My favourite of its six entries is Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ which includes the question many readers ask themselves albeit less articulately: ‘How are we to bring order into this multidudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?’ There’s an encouraging letter from Charles Dickens to his chum Wilkie Collins who plucked up courage to send Dickens his novel, and another to George Eliot in which Dickens shrewdly and tactfully wonders if the writer of Scenes of Clerical Life is a woman. Eliot was delighted apparently. Three more essays complete the collection: George Eliot on the responsibilities of authorship; Leigh Hunt on his personal library and E. M. Forster’s celebratory piece on the London Library’s centenary in 1941, poignant in its mention of the library as a target given the Nazi detestation of ‘tolerance ‘ and ‘disinterested erudition’ – it was hit in 1944.
You might think that of these two On Reading… would be my favourite but actually it’s A Woman’s Walks – I do love a bit of sharp observation coupled with acerbic wit. My only gripe is that these little books are published as paperbacks rather than pricier but more durable hardbacks. After all, these are the kind of gift books readers will want to come back to rather than tossing them onto the charity pile with barely a glance.