I’m a sucker for books about bookshops and publishing, with an embarrassing number of books on this subject, even some of that tacky sub-genre about books where someone inherits an unlikely bookshop and a customer falls in love with them. Sadly these are all in rural areas of France or Germany, in America or Australia and sometimes the bookshop is on a barge, not downtown Nottingham, but I can dream.
Two days off from the cutting edge of contemporary literature that is Five Leaves Bookshop (a description not universally shared, by the way) and I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller. To anyone tempted to say “get a life”, I can only say “this is the life”…
The Diary, recently published to acclaim, covers a year starting 5th February 2014. I might have missed the reason the book covers that strange calendar year, but if feels stranger that the book has only been recently published. Given that the author lives in Wigtown, the cornerstone of the year was the ballot on Scottish independence. It seems a long time ago now.
Wigtown is a “book town” with several bookshops and a large festival. The Bookshop is at the heart of this with the shop also providing a gathering space for visiting authors and a “festival bed” that can be booked in advance. The cover tells us that Bythell is a misanthrope and bibliophile. The former is not completely true, but if any of the Five Leaves’ workers talked so publicly and critically about our customers they’d be out on their ear. I should have seen the traffic light red warning on the cover: “warm, witty and laugh-out loud funny” said the Daily Mail. It was certainly not warm or witty to to write of the last day of one of his workers who, as she was leaving, was given a hug. “She hates physical contact, so it was particularly gratifying to see how uncomfortable it made her”.
Ir’s not all Black Books by any means, though it perhaps sells well in the wake of that programme. Some of the author’s comments did ring true, however. I can’t find the exact quote but if someone does come in and shout something like “Books! I could spend a fortune and all day in here!” it is a guarantee that they will spend nothing and be gone in ten minutes.
Having spent more years than is healthy working in the new books trade, I realise how little I knew about the second-hand world. Where do they get the books from, for example? Death and downsizing mostly, often involving the author in long drives to pore over collections that might or might not hold gems. Many such collections seem to be covered with cat hair. Bythell augments his sales by a subscription-based Random Book Club and bits and pieces picked up at auction. But throughout the book there are gibes followed by rants against Amazon for driving down the price of second-hand books, even charging 41p commission on the, then, £2.80 standard postage charged via to consumers on purchases via their Marketplace.
Other than occasional coups, sold privately, standard income is over the counter or via Amazon or ABE (owned by Amazon…). Day by day the totals are noted. Only on one day, during the book festival, do sales top £1000. Mostly they are in the low hundreds and, during the dog days of winter, tens. The nadir being the last day of the diary. Five online orders but only four paying customers in the shop, till total £18.50.
There is some genuine humour in this book, especially in the relationship between the owner and the incompetent and contrary part-time worker Nicky, whose specialism was bringing in squashed and unidentifiable food found by dumpster diving. But I did not laugh out loud.
As the number of second-hand bookshops declines, so has the literature about them increased. But I tell you what, borrow this book from the library and wander in to Jermy and Westerman on Mansfield Road and spend your £14.99 there. That will help keep our city’s main second-hand bookshop alive. And if you buy second-hand online, check Alibris first as they are not owned by that big river.
Do you remember the Henry Root Letters? In 1980 the pseudonymous Henry Root wrote letters to, typically, pompous and right wing figures saying how much he agreed with them, though suggesting they might go a bit – or a lot – further in their policies, enclosing a pound (with the promise of a lot more where that came from) and suggesting that unless he heard from them in advance he’d be round to their office on such and such a date to discuss ways of further collaboration. The recipient was left with the problem of what to do with the pound and how to deal with Mr Root, not least his impending visit. The letters were just the side of sanity, reflecting the sort of politics represented by the current UKIP. The pleasure was in seeing how the pompous responded, not knowing they were being sent up or that their responses would be published.
I remembered Root, and the charming Mrs Root, when reading How To Be a Public Author, which fails in a similar quest. The pseudonymous, though well-read, Plug, an aspiring writer, turns up at prestigious readings by the cream of world literature – Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguru, Thomas Keneally et al seeking advice on how he, Plug, can also become a famous author. The book is at its best when puncturing the pomposity of the important reading but is spoiled by too many wee (I don’t mean small) jokes and too much about inappropriate behaviour caused by an excess of alcohol topped up by book-reading free wine. Being drunk is rarely a funny subject. Plug (in real life Paul Ewen) can certainly write humour – his account of being stopped by the police when collecting horse manure outside Buck Pal is good, as is the subsequent tale of taking the manure with him to a reading. Plug is, professionally, a gardener so the manure will come in handy in his day job.
Plug – you do geddit, don’t you? – manages to have the writers say silly things in response to his questions. And that’s it, really.
How to Be a Public Author describes itself as a book of fiction. Most clearly is, maybe all. Maybe even the illustrations of title pages sighed to Francis Plug at the start of each title. Eventually, though, I no longer cared.
Heather Reyes is a contributor to the Five Leaves’s book London Fictions, writing about Virginia Woolf, and is the editor of the city-pick collections of literature from the world’s best loved cities. Our paths have crossed a few times over the years so I could hardly resist picking up her book on reading. I picked it up some months ago but have just got round to opening it to discover that it is not just a book on reading, but a meditation on reading in relation to her discovering she was very ill, with a prognosis of four to five years. How did I not know? I felt I should get to work immediately and read it in one sitting. Somehow that felt important.
This is not a maudlin book, far from it, and though Heather writes that it is not a book about illness but a book about books, there’s always a sense of time running out – indeed, talking about Turkish literature she ends the chapter lamenting her lack of reading with “…there is so much … so much … And that’s just one country. What about all the others I’ve missed out on or scarcely touched at all. So much to know, still, so much to enjoy, understand, experience. I want more time. More time.” And discussing an early incident when she was asked to dispose of an elderly person’s books she remarks “What will happen to my books?”
Not that this stops her buying. In the period she is writing she buys forty books, many of which she discusses here. The start of the book was picked for her – when she was facing a time when it was unlikely she’d have the energy to do more than read so she opens with a pre-treatment French holiday which includes stocking up on those beautiful austere French books with just their author, publisher and title on the cover (Heather reads easily in French). This is the hardest chapter, partly because of the shock of the illness and partly because the average reader – well, this very average reader – did not know any of the writers mentioned and can’t speak a word of French. But stick with it. Along the way I drew up a little list of must reads, including a travel writing book about France itself and was reminded to read Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, one of which is buried in a pile somewhere at home.
But for me, the most interesting parts of the book were not about reading or about not reading. She writes about her father, an immigrant who left school at thirteen but became a successful businessman, an adviser to the UN, who crafted a roll-top desk with his hands. After his death Heather found an inscribed copy of her first novel on his shelves with a bookmark between pages twelve and thirteen. He was an autodidact who could not read fiction. I wanted to know more about him, about her family.
Along the way we learn the first book she bought independently – a Penguin Classics book of essays by de Montaigne (to my shame, I can remember the first record I bought, by one Elvis Presley, but not my first book) and share with her pain at revisiting the burning of the library at Alexandria. We discuss books that change your life, including Heather’s daughter reading To Kill a Mocking Bird and deciding on a career in law. She is a Human Rights lawyer.
There is more to discuss of course, and more to read. The book ends with Heather’s husband Malcolm pouring her a glass of white wine while she gets on with her reading party – her guests ranging from Aeschylus to Zola.
The Reader Organisation is a large, dynamic and well-funded organisation which, typically, runs reading projects in prisons, care homes and other areas to improve health and well-being by reading projects. Of course TRO might argue it is small, dynamic and underfunded, but with arts money so tight it is good to see that a fair amount of it does go to such a worthwhile project.
One of its projects is The Reader, a quarterly, devoted not to its social and welfare activity but to discuss books and authors seriously but accessibly, in an attractive format. Naturally editions vary but the issue I’ve just read is from Spring. It includes fiction from May-Lan Tan, who we’ll hear a lot more of in the future, an interview with Erwin Jones about prisons (Jones was a lifer who turned away from crime to write about prisons for the Guardian), regular writer Jane Davis remembering Doris Lessing and the ever entertaining regular Ian McMillan writing about his dawn tweeting and walks to the shop. The reading Recommendations feature this issue is on “rights of passage” novels. That there is a feature on Tolstoy and a really hard books quiz at the back tells you this isn’t for everyone. I’m not even sure it is for me every issue, but always worth checking out.