This is my first non-fiction Five Books I’ve Read post and to no one’s surprise it’s about readers, book collectors and bookshops, although I suppose it could have been about travel or food. Here then are five books I’ve read about the wonderful world of books, each with a link to my review.
White Spines is Nicholas Royle’s entertaining memoir of book collecting, perfect for the more nerdish bibliophile which might well be you, dear reader. Royle is a very particular collector whose imprint of choice is Picador, the white spined variety although he has stretched to black Picador Classics over the years. The one that first caught his eye was Anna Kaven’s Ice, just a decade after Sonny Mehta set up the list in 1972. Since then, Royle’s obsession has taken him into a multitude of second-hand bookshops. I loved this funny, discursive book, stuffed full of bookish anecdotes. As a short story writer, novelist, publisher and editor, Royle’s thoroughly immersed in the book world with a multitude of contacts. Kudos to Salt Publishing for their attention to detail, decking Royle’s books out as an old school Picador and including a puff from Picador author and bibliophile Cathy Rentzenbrink on the cover.
Which leads me neatly to Rentzenbrink’s own reading memoir, Dear Reader, an unadulterated treat for those of us who spend as much of our time as possible with our heads stuck in a book. Using her reading as a framework, Rentzenbrink divides her book into chapters of her life, each followed by a section devoted to favourite reads on an appropriate theme. She’s a warm, open and empathetic writer, enthusiastic in her bookish recommendations. Inevitably the bookselling chapters chimed most with me, packed with stories from her time as an events manager my favourite of which is a chat with Lauren Bacall in the unpacking bay. Who wouldn’t treasure that? She and I are very different people – Rentzenbrink’s an extrovert, I’m the opposite – but there were a multitude of ‘me, too’ moments in her book, from the solace of reading during the most difficult times to not being able to remember being taught to read.
Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously is a different sort of reading memoir. Like both Rentzenbrink and me, Miller did his time as a Waterstones bookseller before becoming a commissioning editor in publishing. Somewhere along the line he lost the art of reading attentively. Not only that but he’d spent much of his life pretending he’d read books he hadn’t, even to himself. When he starts reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita it’s a glorious revelation. He and his wife set about putting together a list of fifty books which he dubs ‘The List of Betterment’. In between his reading, there are a multitude of digressions, many of them very funny but also several making some serious points about the way we read today and the distractions at every turn – literary festivals, bookshop events, radio shows, not to mention Twitter and bloggers…
As a bookseller, I’d have had piles of Henry Hitchings’ Browse stacked up in strategic piles at Christmas. Hitchings recalls his own experiences behind the till in his introduction setting us up nicely for the fifteen essays that follow featuring authors from Ali Smith to Dorthe Nors, Andrey Kurkov to Daniel Kehlmann, all about bookshops. Some are entertaining, some more sober, all are interesting to the anoraks amongst us although my favourite is Kehlmann’s which takes us to Dussman’s in Berlin, a bookshop I fell in love with on a visit in 2016. It’s full of enjoyable bookshop yarns including Ian Sansom’s memories of working at Foyles in the ’90s when Christina Foyle still ruled the roost and Danny La Rue lived above the shop. Sansom left after two years, although he jumped rather than waiting to be pushed as so many Foyles booksellers were in those days, just before their employment rights kicked in.
Christina Foyle pops up in Jorge Carrión, Bookshops. Apparently, she took a trip to Stalinist Russia to negotiate a deal for books slated for burning. Who knew? Carrión isn’t a bookseller, current or ex, but he has spent an inordinate amount of time in bookshops on his travels and has a great deal of interest to say about them. He takes his readers on a journey around the world, dropping in on his favourite bookshops, from his home town of Barcelona to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Tangier, Paris to Denver, Colorado. This eruditely discursive book, full of bookselling history and passionate in its tone, explores bookshops as reflections of society and engines of social change, as places of resistance, cultural centres, meeting places and havens. He ends on a pleasingly optimistic note about the future of the bookshop, albeit a very different future from its history.
Any books about the book world you’d like to add to my list? Both fiction and non-fiction recommendations welcome.
If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.