Tag Archives: books

Nothing to Declare

As I, along with the rest of my travel-weary family and the multitudes of other similarly afflicted passengers inched our way towards a Customs Officer at Auckland International airport, my thoughts necessarily drifted to another long-ago passenger, Oscar Wilde, who on arrival at the New York Custom House, is said to have uttered, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”.  Likely, amid this throng of humanity, were ‘remain’ and non-Trump voters, who, on arrival at the customs desk, might reasonably echo this 19th century sound bite.  Whereas, I had nothing to declare but my waywardness.  Evidence of which—one hardback and one paperback—lay concealed in my suitcase.

In truth, it wasn’t that I’d fallen off the wagon, but rather, stepped off it briefly to save a couple of books in imminent danger.  Let me explain.  We were holidaying in Cambodia and naturally, added to the ‘to see and do’ list was, ‘find bookshop(s)’.  Finding them was not difficult. In fact, I discovered two fine Phnom Penh bookshops—D’s Books and Bohr’s Books—near our hotel.

What did prove difficult was comprehending the reality of what I’d found.  Book-selling in Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted.  Thanks to unrelenting humidity—even in January relative humidity seldom drops below 41% and can reach as high as 99%—Cambodian booksellers must contend with, what Andrew Lang once described as, “the first great foe” of books, damp. And, despite seemingly excellent air circulation in addition to overhead fans and air conditioners, its destructive presence—foxing in particular—was all too evident.  So, if you’re in Cambodia spare a thought for these tenacious book-folk and please do buy some books.

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Books & me: Quantitatively Speaking

How I see my books has always been a view through rose-coloured glasses.  The imaginative lens that overlooks the rising tide of books and frequently underestimates the depth relative to my reading strength. That conceives of beginning a secret bookshop—think Brazenhead Books with better amenities—Front Room Books, a deliciously acceptable front for further acquisitions.  So, buoyant and bespectacled, I remind Ali, “You can never have too many books”.

fullsizerender-1-glasses-on-top

Looking back it was inevitable really.  Loss of buoyancy and glasses, a direct consequence of lugging twenty-two boxes of books single-handedly from the basement.  And it was, as I reached for a towel to halt the twenty-two rivulets of sweat coursing down my face that I began to wonder if I might indeed be sinking in this sea of books.

Which brings me to what I’ve been doing lately.  Counting and cataloguing the sea of books; reminiscing with those into which I’ve dipped and dived, while shamefacedly confessing to others that I’m still dithering at their pages edge.

reading-roll-call

I have unwittingly, it would seem held an audit of my reading.  And so, faced with the evidence that unbridled book acquisition does in fact interfere with actual reading, I have resolved that 2017 will be a year of determined reading and book-buying abstinence.

gifts-from-the-sea

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Ex Libris

Is there a better way to spend a free Friday than foraging amongst tables of retired books at the Christchurch City Libraries yearly sale? Clearly the lengthening queue of assorted Cantabrian’s I encountered recently would suggest, there is not.  Gathered well before the nine o’clock opening and in expectation of a bumper crop this year, we came equipped with all manner of conveyances for the harvest; wheeled suitcases, the large canvas hold-all, backpacks of varying sizes and the modest reusable shopping bag.  We were, I fancied – wages and location aside – the bibliophilic equivalent of the seasonal picker.  As it was we stood, an occasional pleasantry exchanged with a nearby queuer, in otherwise muted anticipation in the foyer of the Christchurch City Council’s Pioneer Recreation & Sport’s Centre, home to the sale for roughly the past ten years.  Sans Lycra we appeared incongruous beneath signage offering directions to Aerobics, the Den and Dance Studio and Fitness Centre; the juxtaposition of the corporeal and the cerebral.

Shortly we would be hurrying towards the Stadium; two thousand, one hundred and fifty square metres of sprung wooden floor and configured for three basketball courts, three netball courts, six volleyball courts and twelve badminton courts.  While logic said space was the reason for this rather odd choice of venue – we used to be cheek by jowl in the Stringleman Room at the Christchurch Convention Centre – immobile amid activity I could not ignore the nagging feeling that perhaps a vigorous workout would be better for me and immediately regretted having let my gym membership lapse.  Such is the persisting unease between bodies and books; a preference for action over contemplation

Although I grew up in a home where books were valued and reading encouraged, the rider it seemed, was context; tucked-up-in-bed-with-a-book, legitimate at night-time, morphed into lolling-about-with-a-book past certain daylight hours. My mother would look disapprovingly at any bedridden, book-holding child past nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, you needed to be up and ‘doing’ and reading was certainly not considered ‘doing’.  Evidently other mothers experienced similar despair if their offspring favoured sedentary rather than active pursuits.  An avid reader throughout childhood and adolescence, New Zealand writer Kate de Goldi says her mother’s preferred phrase to describe her book induced indolence was, “the laziness drips of her”.  And, author Brigid Brophy, in a 1974 essay written for Bookmarks: Writers on their Reading, remembers her mother demanding, she “stop reading books and get out into the fresh air”.  Now, oddly enough, given the almost umbilical connection many children – mine included – have with their electronic devices, books are enjoying new status as an eminently favourable childhood pursuit, “the young should be immersed in a culture of the sentence, not the screen”, espouses Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Dirda in, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life.

So perhaps it’s just my age; at fifty-three could this be my Montaigne moment?  Because even Michel Montaigne – probably about fifty-three – when he wrote of books, and the companionship they afforded him, as the third and “much more certain” kind of relationship, more so than friendship and love, also worried about their detrimental effects on the body saying:

Books exercise the mind, but the body, whose interests I have never neglected either, remains meanwhile inactive, and grows heavy and dull.  I know of no excess that does me more harm, or that I should avoid more strictly in these my declining years.

(Montaigne Essays Book Three: On Three Kinds of Relationships)

Of course my twenty-first century angst was perhaps less pressing than Montaigne’s, he died six years later in 1592, although not from inactivity secondary to reading, but from a peritonsillar abscess.  Improved life expectancy aside I remained uneasy, surely I was at even greater risk given the ease of acquisition – thanks to the e-reader I needn’t leave the comfort of my bed – and the proliferation of books since Montaigne’s time.  But an abundance of books can overwhelm and ironically I’m just as likely to suffer from reading paralysis or, conversely, worried about ever catching up, wolf them down without pause to savour their taste; the goal in this instance, as reading guru Robertson Davies wrote in, A Voice from the Attic: Essays on the Art of Reading, is wanting “not to read a book”, but “to have read it –no matter how.”  If I succumb to the latter, the effect of this hurried approach to reading is likely two-fold, not only will my body become “heavy and dull”, but worryingly, so too will my mind.

 “Goody, it’s open”, announced someone nearer the front of the queue and suddenly – thoughts interrupted – I joined the dash towards the stadium doors.  Past the complimentary plastic library bags for the ill-prepared, and a few roving Friends of the Library volunteers, admiring the results of their labour, we scattered, drawn to tables laden with our preferred diet of books:  Fiction & Literature, Travel, History, Sport, Art and, for the undecided, ‘Something for Everyone’.  As always I began with ‘Fiction & Literature’, the books atop the table stacked three deep and still plenty of cartons lying in wait below.

Across the table I spied, Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier in America, and stretched over to claim it.  Grasping the hardback copy I felt its heft in my hand, its absence from the row hardly noticeable, there were so many books.  Odd as it may seem, this venue reminded me that just as the reading of a physical book is a uniquely bodily experience, so too is their acquisition; walking and stretching and crouching and grasping and lugging.

Here at least, physical books were very much alive and no shortage of readers willing to forsake the effortless, in favour of ferreting, presumably hankering for the feel of paper rather than polycarbonate between their fingers. So maybe I could relax, confident that active acquisition would offset any perils associated with later inactivity.  Still, I would need to choose carefully, because what “our embarrassment of books” should show us, says Gabriel Zaid (translated by Natasha Wimmer) in So Many Books, is to accept how little we will ever know, “and maybe the measure of our reading should therefore be, not the number of books we’ve read, but the state in which they leave us.”

Shelf-indulgence

“But as it is in all great discoveries, a good library arrangement is not achieved at once, but is a slow growth through difficulties met and conquered; some of the best portions of it will be those which have flashed across your mind when there seemed no pathway out of the thicket of difficulty in which you were struggling.”

B.R. Wheatley (August, 1878). Desultory Thoughts on the Arrangement of a Private Library.  The Library Journal, Vol.III, No.6.

 

Some months ago the topography of our living-room altered momentarily although this time self-inflicted not seismic.  Popping-in you would have been obliged to step gingerly lest you trip over or topple the piles of books dotting the living-room floor.  Navigating safe passage to my small island of carpet – an excellent vantage point for surveying the now empty shelves – you might have asked “packing or unpacking?”  Accustomed, as Christchurch residents have become to these antonymous queries – insured or uninsured? Damaged or undamaged? Repairable or unrepairable? Fazed or unfazed? – I would have struggled to give you an unequivocal reply.  In the shaky days following February 22nd 2011 they accentuated the immediacy of our topsy-turvy life; now three years on their black and white certainties skip deftly across the gully of stuck-ness in which many still languish.  Seemingly I was in a twilight zone between packing and unpacking.

Most of my books, like undecided jurors, remain sequestered in the basement.  They’ve been out for three years, naturally I’d expected them back sooner.  When the ground beneath Christchurch convulsed at 12:51pm on February 22nd the hitherto harmonious coupling of shelf and wall was sorely tested.  The book-laden shelves covering the south wall of our living-room were given short shrift, jostled forward on their plinth by an agitated concrete block wall.  Just as in Watty Piper’s story The Little Engine that Could, when something small prevails despite an ostensibly impossible task, complete shelf collapse was averted by one little L-bracket holding on – “I think I can, I think I can” – long after the others had given up.   While grateful that nearly four metres of shelving and several hundred books were not face down on the living room floor, surely there was a limit to the amount of shaking even one plucky little L-bracket could withstand.  I’d read Howard’s End.  A falling bookcase and shower of books was partly responsible for the death of an ailing Leonard Bast.  A self-deputised rapid inspection was undertaken and the shelves summarily ‘red-stickered’ – unsafe – in engineering parlance.  Over the next few days the books were duly evacuated.  In the months following February 22nd legitimate EQC (Earthquake Commission) inspections were undertaken.  The north wall of our living-room was indeed ‘munted’ – post-earthquake vernacular meaning ‘broken’ or ‘ruined’ – but, although impressive, the stepped cracking in the south wall behind the shelves was deemed cosmetic only.  Brotherly brute-force and a masonry drill bit re-anchored the teetering shelves.  Disappointingly, this wasn’t the green light to unpack the books.  The ground, jelly-like continued to wobble – by mid-January 2013 the Christchurch Quake Map had mapped 11,000 quakes – while post-quake bureaucracy resembling over boiled toffee, had become impenetrable.

For a self-described accumulator of books the empty expanse of shelving was at once dispiriting and thrilling.  I remain hopelessly attached and attracted to the book as object and, although I endeavour to curb my book-buying to books I might actually read, there are some that have made it home on looks alone.  It was an exuberant, abstract dust jacket – designed by Jacob Koster – cloaking Robin Muir’s 1960 novel, Word for Word that caught my eye and imagination, its apparent random daubs of colour reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock canvas. Word for Word lying down

Similarly, Ringdoves and Snakes – an account by British journalist Patience Gray, of her and sculptor Norman Mommens eleven months on the island of Naxos in the mid-1960s – I noticed when ferreting through a motley assortment of books in an out of town second-hand shop.  It was purchased for the princely sum of fifty-cents on the strength of its intriguing jacket illustration and monotypes of Mommens marble carvings made while on Naxos.

Ringdoves

For me the singular success of the book is its ability to befriend and bewitch in a way no e-reader can.  I inevitably gravitate to someone’s bookshelves but have yet to feel any gravitational pull towards someone’s e-reader.  Perhaps this is because e-readers are devoid of context, whereas books carry with them the imprint of previous readings and, as Alberto Manguel says in A History of Reading, we are influenced by envisaging them in another’s hands.  I doubt I would ever have read Rupert Brooke’s poems had it not been for the look and feel of the leather bound volume that bore his gilt engraved signature.  I found it thirty years ago in Smiths Bookshop.  Equally compelling was ‘Jerusalem 1942’ written on the flyleaf; had a Kiwi soldier had found solace in these poems?  Or perhaps they had been read in Jerusalem, the isolated settlement on the banks of the Whanganui River?   There is, I suppose, a vulnerability and yet chutzpah about actual books on actual shelves and maybe that too is part of the appeal.  Whether chosen, bestowed or requisite books stand, as presumably reliable witnesses, publicly declaring certain truths about our identity.

I have missed being surrounded by, and reminded by my books.  Perhaps it is because, as essayist Charles Lamb said “I love to loose myself in other men’s minds.  When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.”  And so, as their absence lengthened some have been retrieved from the basement.  Now these books – mentally classified as BB (before basement) books – jostle for space among a disturbing increase in AB (after basement) books.  Evidently I had not envisaged the actual shelf classification conundrum this now haphazard company of books would present.  I am by character, as writer Anne Fadiman describes herself, in an essay, Marrying Libraries from her 1998 book Ex Libris, “a splitter”, my books segregated both by topic and location.  A bookcase in the hallway holds History, Biography, Drama and Travel books, while attic shelves are home to Art, Architecture and Interior Design.  Literature, shelved alphabetically, layer the living-room shelves with under plantings of Poetry, a small patch of favoured Children’s Literature and a flourishing bed of Books about Books.  Now, as I contemplated the relandscaped living-room, it seemed proof that meticulousness in uncertain times would be counterproductive.  A radical rethink of book arrangement was called for.

Feeling quietly confident I dug, from one of the twenty-two boxes in the basement, Professor Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Book Shelf.  I knew the Professor – of both Civil Engineering and History at Duke University – had devoted the appendix of his book to addressing the vexing question of shelf arrangement.  Titled Order, Order Professor Petroski proffers, in his words, “in no significant order, and without any claim of completeness or exhaustiveness” twenty-one options – each complemented by explanatory text – intended to whip even the most errant of book collections into shape.  He categorises his options according to ‘public’- reasonably obvious upon casual inspection – and ‘private’ – requiring Holmesian prowess to recognise – “orderings” of books.   Suggestions include; at No. 9 by “read/unread books”, No. 10 “by strict order of acquisition”, No.17 “according to new or used”, No. 19 “by sentimental value”.  Number 21 looked promising, “by still more esoteric arrangements” ergo the book arranger is given carte blanche.

I had an idea; associative shelving.  A bit smart-alecky? Maybe. But I’m always alert to and interested in finding connections – some obvious, others less so – between books on my shelves.  By bringing certain books together I would create an arcane memory map of authorial, textual and contextual links.  Unwilling to relinquish my alphabetisation crutches just yet, I began by gathering books and essays by a long favoured American author, Paul Auster.  Alongside Auster I shelved J.M. Coetzee, who since 2002, has lived in Australia.  The two authors met for the first time in 2008 at an Australian Literary Festival and, over a three-year period, began writing to each other.  Broaching an array of topics that included philosophy and the financial crisis, through to musings on friendship, love and marriage, their letters were collected in Here & Now: Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee Letters 2008-2011.  Now shelf-neighbours, I imagined them resuming those trans-Pacific conversations.

Auster Coetzee books

Before she could read her father’s books Anne Fadiman was building castles with them.  Her essay, My Ancestral Castles, is an affectionate chronicle of a childhood literally immersed in books, Fadiman’s parents had around seven thousand between them.  I felt certain she would delight in sharing shelf space with her late father Clifton Fadiman and her husband George Howe Colt.  Resisting the urge to construct with rather than shelve these books, Ex Libris, Rereadings and At Large and At Small, now stand contentedly between Reading I’ve Liked and The Big House.  Among my books were other writer’s accounts of their childhood reading and the books they love.  Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built still hides in the basement, but I did have Into the Looking Glass Wood by Alberto Manguel.  The first essay in this collection, A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood is, as the title suggests, Manguel’s adventures – beginning at age eight – in and out of Wonderland with the irrepressible AliceMusing on the attachment he feels to the edition in which he first read a book, Manguel recalls in detail his illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland.  As a child I read and now possess my mother’s copy of Alice in Wonderland.  It, like Manguel’s, is illustrated by John Tenniel and has the same “thick creamy paper” he describes.  And while his smelt “mysteriously of burnt wood” mine, lying cramped in the basement, would probably just smell musty.  In Alice’s absence I pulled from one of the piles Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, another of Manguel’s favourites.  He writes affectionately about Kim in A Reading Diary and although my Kim is not, as his is, from the 1914 Bombay edition I shelve it beside his books.  I don’t think he would object.

Fadiman Manguel 2

It occurred to me – reading aloud aside – that although the act of reading itself is insular it is opposite in effect.  There is no dichotomy between reading and life.  Great books help to socialise us – some like an attentive parent, take us gently by the hand, while others thrust us unaccompanied into the world – but both broaden our understanding of it.  Inevitably, my mysterious book assemblage, was less about forming a library and more to do with recalling the neighbourhoods I roamed as a reader.  And, like all good neighbourhoods, there were always writers ready to share their reading wisdom.  Alan Bennett and Julian Barnes, both keen-eyed observers of life, have introduced me to writers I was otherwise ignorant of.  If not for Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, I may never have stumbled across Denton Welch, and anyone who solemnly announces – at age seven – that “a flea would despise the amount of lemonade I’ve got Mother” must surely be essential reading.  Similarly, after reading Julian Barnes essay The deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald, I felt rather embarrassed at not having read her work before and set about rectifying this with all the fervour of a new convert.   The vulnerable and dispossessed inhabit Fitzgerald’s sublime novels so beside them I have placed Chronicle of the Unsung, by New Zealand writer Martin Edmond.  I think she would approve.

Bennett Barnes books

Admittedly some of my book groupings did seem decidedly odd. For instance, I shelved Bookman’s Holiday by Holbrook Jackson, beside Long Ago in Rouen, written by my mother’s godmother, weaver Ida Lough (nee Withers) and No Ordinary Woman: Ria Bancroft Sculptor, because of a bookplate.  Bookman’s Holiday, carries the bookplate of Canterbury artist and publisher Leo Bensemann.  Bensemann, Aunty Ida and her close friend Ria Bancroft, were all members of The Group, formed in 1927, it was an alliance of like-minded and mutually supportive Christchurch artists.  Likewise, American essayist and critic Sven Birkerts and exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky might seem an unlikely pairing until you read Birkerts book The Gutenberg Elegies in which he outlines the circumstances of their chance meeting and the subsequent impact Brodsky had on his writing life.  Other book groupings were perhaps more obvious; who other than Ivan Turgenev – Andre Gide perhaps? – would Robert Dessaix wish to bump into on his shelf.   Striding beside Iain Sinclair are Daniel Defoe and William Blake, while Terry Castle leans tentatively against Susan Sontag.  And it is sheer mischief on my part that Salam Rushdie has Marianne Wiggins at his side.

Jackson, Lough, Bancroft, Defoe etc books

I worked steadily and the floor was mostly clear of books when Ali returned home.  Eager to show-off   my newly ordered shelves I beckoned her into the living-room.  She listened attentively to an animated explanation of my esoteric book arrangement and why certain books were now shelved together.   Standing together surveying the shelves she wrapped an arm round me and said gently “they look great darling, what a lot of fun you’ve had with your books today”.

“What do you mean fun” I blustered.  This had been hard work.  But Ali was right of course, as mysterious as it might be, my book arrangement was also playful.  It was dynamic rather than static, which in a way, succinctly sums up my relationship with books.  I like to look at them, handle them, think about them, commune with them and sometimes even inhale their smell.  Writer Duncan Fallowell has said “books are like oxygen”, and I agree, for me too they are a necessity, providing everyday sustenance for my soul.

Bookshop Alchemy

This morning I closed the last page of 18 Bookshops, author Anne Scott was closing the door on the Atlantis Bookshop in Museum St London. This slim volume is a paean to eighteen bookshops past and present all with literary or personal importance to the author. Reading these essays it occurs to me that Scott is also describing encounters with bookshop alchemy. Alchemy, according to Robertson Davies in his description of theatre alchemy is “something which has attained to such excellence, such nearness to perfection that it offers a glory, an expansion of life and understanding, to those who have been bought into contact with it.” Whether the late great Davies would countenance such comparison I’m uncertain. However, the following passage does indeed suggest a “glory, an expansion of life and understanding”, for Scott, who over the decades was “bought into contact with” Compendium Bookshop in Camden and importantly with bookseller Mike Hart.

“A fellow Scot named Mike Hart arrived to work at Compendium in 1982. On my visits across the next decade, he turned my reading to Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Alastair Gray’s Lanark, and a closer understanding of James Kennaway’s novels. These were all Scottish and easily bought at home: but at Compendium Mike would take a book in his hand, turn it over and think, then open it fast at a page, and read from it, so swift and clean and quiet that I heard the words straight from the writer’s mind, the pretences of paper and print exactly gone. A paragraph, a stanza, and he would finish, leave the book open at the place, and go away”.

The truly book obsessed will, I suspect, agree this happy alchemy is not experienced in every shop, new or used, claiming the status of ‘Bookshop’. Left to fossick to my heart’s content in a newly discovered bookshop my family is often bemused when I emerge moments later declaring miserably “It’s not a real bookshop!” Call me a literary snob if you must, I prefer idealist as I’m invariably on the lookout for the bookshop of my imagination. It is a mix of Brazenhead Books, Michael Seidenberg’s secret bookshop in New York City, and the long departed Marks & Co. in London.  Although I’ve yet to find this bookshop perhaps, as Seidenberg says, it is “hiding in plain sight”!

As one, among those described by Nicholas Basbanes as the Gently Mad, I unashamedly judge the merits of a particular location relative to whether there is a bookshop, preferably second-hand, within cooee. Pukerua Bay, at the southern end of the Kapiti Coast, is meritorious not because it’s the birthplace of Sir Peter Jackson but because it’s home to Archway Books. The shop sits unassumingly beside its vivacious neighbour; the ice-cream crowned Pukerua Bay Store. Archway’s books beckon quietly. Inside and you are beguiled with shelf after heaving shelf of used books. It also has a shelf marked ‘Books about Books’. Yes, a ‘real’ bookshop.
It seems fitting then that 18 Bookshops was purchased from another ‘real’ bookshop, Smith’s Books in Christchurch. The pop-up shop in the Tannery Emporium, on the corner of Garlands Road and Cumnor Terrace opened in November last year, twenty-one months after the February 22nd earthquake. I greeted owner Barry Hancox with a heartfelt “Thank God you’re back!”

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Smiths Books Pop-up shop Woolston Christchurch

Although Smiths continued to trade on-line following the quake, I confessed I found little joy clicking on a one dimensional shelf lined with untouchable books. Writing in 2001, publisher and editor Jason Epstein agreed that although Internet booksellers and e-books would fundamentally alter book distribution less certain was how they would change retail bookselling. He pointed out that “a civilisation without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature.”  In quake-hit Christchurch the unimaginable happened. Suddenly, either by destruction or decree the city was without Smiths Books, Liberty Books, Fortuna Books, Pacific Books, Scorpio Books and the London St Bookshop in Lyttleton. Lamenting a few broken and inaccessible book-shops seemed trifling; this time death accompanied destruction. I remembered a 1992 London Review of Books cover photograph, it had mesmerised me at the time and I’d seen it again recently in Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. It shows three men perusing the shelves of the Holland House library in West London, badly damaged by a fire bomb in 1940.  Manguel’s description of this image now seemed particularly poignant.

From: A History of ReadingAlberto Manguel

From: A History of Reading
Alberto Manguel

“Through the torn roof can be seen ghostly buildings outside, and in the centre of the store is a heap of beams and crippled furniture.  But the shelves on the walls have held fast, and the books lined up along them seem unharmed.  Three men are standing amidst the rubble; one, as if hesitant about which book to choose, is apparently reading the titles on the spines; another, wearing glasses, is reaching for a volume; the third is reading, holding an open book in his hands.  They are not turning their backs on the war, or ignoring the destruction.  They are not choosing the books over life outside.  They are trying to persist against the obvious odds; they are asserting a common right to ask; they are attempting to find once again – among the ruins, in the astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants – an understanding”.

Why did I feel the loss of these shops so acutely? If I needed a book surely Whitchoulls or Paper Plus would suffice? No. My book buying has always been more than just a market transaction, the book more than merchandise. It dawns on me that ‘real’ bookshops represent how I want to buy books. The atmosphere is different somehow; an egalitarian society of books where the long forgotten rub shoulders with today’s bright young things. I am not assailed by the latest publishing sensation or the ‘must read’ from this week’s celebrity book-club. I feel at home in these shops. A deliberate and pernickety book-selector I’m usually reading against the current as does the splendid Alan Bennett who, when asked about his preferred reading matter said; “If a book is all the rage I tend to wait until the heats gone off it before I read it. I don’t like to be in the forefront with books.” Here there are no remainder tables, no impression of beleaguered book-sellers hurrying unsold stock back to the publisher. The books wait quietly, (it’s they who choose you); their sellers’ patient, knowledgeable and generous. Many of them modern day alchemists pointing out paths to reading perfection.