In the library with Matthew Battles and Annie Spence

Two books for you today, connected in the loosest sense by the fact that they are both written by librarians and are, in part at least, about libraries. Otherwise they couldn’t be more different, which makes them interesting companions.

Matthew Battles – Library: An Unquiet History

Matthew Battles is a rare books librarian at the Houghton Library at Harvard University.  What he’s written is a sort-of history of the library, via a series of essays covering the libraries of Ancient Greece, Rome and the Arabic and Chinese empires; changes in the way libraries were perceived during the Renaissance; the purpose of libraries; the destruction of books (via such diverse events as the mythical desecration of the great Alexandrian Library by Caliph Omar and the very real Nazi book burnings); and the categorisation, storage and eventual retiring of books.

The opening essay – ‘Reading the library’ – makes for a gripping if uncomfortable experience, as Battles explores his time working at Harvard’s Widener Library, with its ‘…ten levels […] fifty-seven miles of shelves [and] 4.6 million bound volumes…’. If you wanted to set someone off on a downward spiral of despair at the limits of one reading life, this is the way to do it. I’ve always loved libraries in a profound, almost spiritual way but I realise my ability to be in them is the result of a constant subconscious effort to suppress the thought that they contain thousands of books I won’t read in order to maintain focus on the few that I will. In a way, browsing in a library is the ultimate expression of hope – if you thought too much about how little time for reading you really have, you’d end up a gibbering wreck frantically pulling books off the shelves at random and discarding them after a sentence or two.

In the same way that you dip in and out of the shelves of a library, Battles’ is the kind of book best read by dipping in and out of the essays, depending on what grabs your attention. I tried to read it in one swoop, from beginning to end and found my interest waned a bit as a result. The writing can be a little impenetrable and dry at times and, if I were the sort of person who could do such things, I should probably have read the chapters that appealed to me and left it at that. Snippets of enlightening information have lodged in my mind (such as the fact that early libraries were so light on books that categorisation wasn’t even a requirement, and alphabetic categorisation was a pretty late addition to the systems in place). There’s some interesting info on Dewey, actually, who may not have been the unequivocal force for good I might have previously thought. And it was really fascinating to consider libraries as political tools: the means by which various people secured power, toppled dynasties or exercised their intellectual authority.

My overriding takeaway from reading the book, though, is a renewed appreciation for the libraries I use (big shout out to The Hive in Worcester, one of my all-time favourite places to be) and my own personal library at home. It’s impossible to read a book like this without feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the fact that I can surround myself with books, collect them for sheer love of them (without needing to be embarrassingly rich) and share them with others with such ease. I am very lucky.

And now for something COMPLETELY different (picked up at Wenlock Books as it happens)… Annie Spence has spent the last 10 years working at various public libraries in the American Midwest. Her book (as somewhat evident from the title) is made up of a series of letters written to books that have been significant in her life – for good or bad. A lot of serious stuff is written about books (and don’t get me wrong, I take books pretty seriously myself) so it was fun to read something a little more irreverent. Spence’s letters come from a place of deep love, but she’s also witty, breezy and sarcastic. I thought she was hilarious and I love the conceit of talking directly to the book, or its protagonist, as if it became a discrete entity the second it left the author’s ‘pen’, which in many respects I believe it does.

One of my most interesting takeaways from Spence’s book is that we have long relationships with some of the books we read, just like some of the people who come in and out of our lives. Some books are a brief conversation on a bus, others are lengthy, often emotional experiences, that shape and change us over the years or are somehow changed by us along the way.

Not all of the letters are humorous either – one of the most powerful is addressed to The Fledgling, a book I haven’t read (thus proving that really isn’t an issue, for anyone who was wondering), and describes how a childhood favourite helped Annie find her way through the explosion of uncertainty and temporary loss of self that comes with new motherhood. Moving and powerful, and the subject matter of the book was secondary: “You comforted me in a way that no one else’s words could have managed, reminding me of my own natural soul. Of the person I am when I don’t have to be anything else.”

And yes – some letters do offer an insight into life as a librarian. From the relationships they have with the reading public (there are echoes of Shaun Bythell here) to the decisions they make when ‘weeding’ the shelves.

Ultimately, I thought this was a great read and definitely has something new to offer in the much-beloved ‘bookish people writing about books’ category. Every library should be so lucky as to have an Annie Spence in the stacks.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books I could re-read forever

Top Ten Tuesday was originally created by The – sadly no more – Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted over on Jana’s That Artsy Reader Girl. If you like books and lists, it’s a no brainer…

This week’s topic is – Books I could re-read forever.

I found this monstrously hard, I’ll confess. So I’ve cheated a bit and created two lists. One is made up of those classics that the majority of people reading will have heard of and the other – expanded on a little more – is made up of those books that perhaps say a little more about my personal reading highs. I considered adding a third list of the books that didn’t quite make the first two but decided nobody needed that level of cheating on a Tuesday.

The Classics – these are (somewhat obvious) books that I adore, have read at least twice (in some cases quite a few more times) and will read again

  1. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
  2. Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
  3. Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle
  4. JRR Tolkien – The Hobbit
  5. Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere
  6. William Goldman – The Princess Bride
  7. JK Rowling – The Harry Potters (I’m looking forward to reading these with my daughter)
  8. C S Lewis – The Narnia Chronicles
  9. Norton Juster – The Phantom Tollbooth
  10. LM Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables (and the rest)

The Others – books that are a little less ‘universal’ but meet the criterion of books that I not only love but could (and have) re-read time and time again 

  1. Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger: One of my favourite ever books. Lively is a genius and her exploration of memory, history and time, coupled with one of the most beautiful fictional romances, is the book that keeps on giving.
  2. Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible: One of the most gripping, murky and atmospheric books I’ve ever read. Domineering evangelical Baptist, Nathan Price, takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. And things gradually fall apart.
  3. EM Delafield – The Diary of a Provincial Lady: For the humour, the wit and the utter Englishness of it all. Completely wonderful.
  4. Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: I wholeheartedly adore books with the ability to blend the world we know and the world of magic and faery in such a way as to make the end result utterly believable. This book does that, while simultaneously creating some of the most memorable characters in fiction. (See also Neverwhere)
  5. Mary Wesley – The Camomile Lawn: I read this for the first time when I was quite young, perhaps in my very early teens. All of the casual, war-driven bed hopping and f-bombs thrilled me and something about the terribly clipped, stiff-upper-lip Britishness of it all still thrills me a little today. Calypso and Polly were the older sisters I would have liked to have.
  6. Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus: For anyone who’s ever thought about running away to join the circus.
  7. Lucy Wood – Diving Belles: Perfectly-crafted and perfectly-themed short stories that blend Cornish folklore with a touch of magic realism, and then firmly root themselves in the natural world.
  8. Vikram Seth – An Equal Music: Utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. The world of professional musicians is a fascinating one and Seth writes about a musical life in the most evocative and understanding way. When the summer shifts to autumn, I always get a yearning to re-read this one.
  9. Hilary Mantel – Beyond Black: A brilliant, dark, thought-provoking and absorbing story about a working clairvoyant and her troublesome spirit guide.
  10. Jess Kidd – Himself: When I read this for the first time, it socked me right in the gut. It’s bleak, harrowing, wickedly funny, charming and very different to almost anything I’ve read. I’m still a little in love with Mahoney.

Armistead Maupin – Logical Family: A Memoir

I first discovered the Tales of the City series when I was quite young and I LOVED it. The people, the place, the incredible coincidences. And the idea that everyone might have their tribe or niche. It’s a powerful thought. I’ve read those books a few times now and likely will again: few writers can create characters that you come to feel are friends. After reading them that first time, I remember discovering that they might once have been considered controversial and struggling to understand it – who couldn’t like these people? What had they done that was so awful?

Of course, the answer is nothing. But a few years further on I was a bit more aware of where those people came from, the man who wrote them into being and just what a powerful thing he did by putting their stories out there. My fascination with Maupin was born out of those books, because you always want to be reassured that someone who can create great people is themselves ‘great people’, don’t you?

Fortunately, having read his recently published memoir, Logical Family – a term Maupin coined to describe the people who make up your support network when your biological family turns out not to be the best fit – I’m just as awed by Maupin and his achievements as I’d have hoped to be.

Some people, either because of their circumstances, personality or, in Maupin’s case, both, become completely bonded to the key events of their times. Maupin is inseparable from his adopted homeland, San Francisco, and the freedoms of the liberating gay community of the 1970s, the Aids crisis, and many of the key political events along the way, such as the death of Harvey Milk. He’s met, hung out with or developed life-long friendships with everyone and I almost admire his restraint when I think of the bloated gossip-fest he could have written.

The book is a tale of two halves. Firstly, there’s his surprisingly conservative upbringing (could there be an environment more stereotypically antithetical for a young man discovering his homosexuality than a former slave-owning family from North Carolina, nostalgic for their Confederate roots?). Parts of the book feel like an apology for that past, given that Maupin went along with many of his father’s conservative Republican ideals in order to win his approval. Secondly, there is his sexual and cultural awakening in San Francisco, where he arrives as a journalist in 1971.

Memoir is the right word for this book given that it is more a series of glimpses, many without elaborations. Maupin is a master of the episodic story, likely the result of a craft honed over years of writing daily 800 word chapters for Tales of the City, which was serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle before being collected together in the novels. Logical Family is similar in tone. Anecdotes and key events are pieced together in the manner of a patchwork quilt: there’s enough to present a brilliantly engaging whole, but also a lot of surplus material left on the floor.

One article I read made the point that there is surprisingly little in the book about Maupin’s ‘logical family’ – for example, his lifelong friends or his husband, Chris – although he does make reference to many of the friends and father figures he lost along the way, including the late Christopher Isherwood. I think this is true but I also think it’s allowable. Enough is given away to shine light but I understand him wanting to keep something back.

You do find out about the inspiration behind some of the Tales of the City characters. And who, contrary to suggestion or opinion, was not an inspiration.

Ultimately, I thought this was a warm, funny, honest and inspirational read. I’m fortunate that my life has thrown up precious little cause for controversy and I’ve been able to live largely unbothered by the kind of hateful prejudice, fear and injustice that marks Maupin’s life. But I still felt powerfully affected by his idea of living a life true to who you are, of not squandering the life you’ve been given. In many ways, I could stand a lesson or two in authenticity, of being a bit more true to who I am, perhaps with the intention of living a few less moments where I walk away from a situation wishing I’d made slightly different choices. Maupin is brave and inspirational, no matter who you are or where you stand.

Wenlock Books – in real life

I mentioned in my last post about The Diary of a Bookseller that I’d long wanted to visit Wenlock Books. And then, like sending a letter up the chimney at Christmas time and having your perfect present arrive as if by magic, a free day just dropped into my lap*.

A view down the high street in Much Wenlock

So I took myself off to Much Wenlock, pottered in the sunshine, ate lunch BY MYSELF in a cafe with a wood-burning stove and then spent a couple of hours browsing in Much Wenlock’s two bookshops – Much More Books and Wenlock Books. It was bliss.

I have nothing but good things to say about Much More Books, which has plenty on offer and where I happily parted with some cash. But it’s true to say that Wenlock Books has my heart. It’s a perfect blend of old and new.

The front…

On the ground floor, you’ll find the ‘new’ in a clean, bright space where the books are more evenly spaced, the colours sing against the white walls and the selections are so perfectly curated that it was a little like wandering into a real-life manifestation of my TBR list.

… and the side.

Upstairs, the skeleton of the historic building is apparent in the wooden rafters. Here the ‘old’ or secondhand books are packed in on wandering shelves that run around the walls, in and out of various nooks and reading corners (all comfortably furnished with a chair).

In a relatively small space, there’s an absolute ton available and it’s hands down one of the best selections of fiction I’ve come across with quite up-to-date titles sitting alongside classic 19th and 20th century writers who you never seem to stumble upon in charity bookshops. There was also an outstanding biography / memoir section, but more on that another time.

Upstairs front… with space for tea and reading

If I can’t live or work there, I hope I can at least visit again soon.

And I’ll share the new additions to my library another day.

*Not strictly true – this never actually happens these days. In fact, my lovely husband offered me a day to myself and I bit his hand off like some kind of slavering hound.

And the upstairs corridor.

Shaun Bythell – The Diary of a Bookseller

Most people who like books have dreamt at one time or another about the possibility of owning a bookshop. I know I have. Mine looks a bit like Wenlock Books in the village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire. I haven’t been there yet because since moving to the area solo trips for browsing books in lovely places have been at a premium, but I’m planning a day out in the spring. I’ve read and seen enough to know that it looks JUST like my imaginary bookshop though. Old building with beams and rafters, wooden floors, nooks AND crannies, and the sort of meandering shelves of books that hook you and lead you onwards and inwards.

Sad as it makes me, I’ve (nearly) accepted that owning my own bookshop isn’t on the cards. Those who have the guts and gumption to do it though are high on my list of people I admire. Shaun Bythell is one of those people and his book, The Diary of a Bookseller, makes clear that you need a fair amount of gumption, as well as patience, persistence, stoicism and, perhaps most vitally, a sense of humour. Or certainly an appreciation for the absurd anyway.

Bythell’s secondhand bookshop – The Bookshop – is in the southwest of Scotland, in Wigtown, designated Scotland’s ‘book town’ in 1998. It’s the north-of-the-border answer to Hay-on-Wye and also comes complete with its own festival, the annual Wigtown Book Festival. It sounds like somewhere I will almost certainly go one day, whether my long-suffering family wish to join me or not…

Running a bookshop always seems like it should be a terribly community-minded sort of endeavour, a bit wholesome and rosy-cheeked, so I rather loved Bythell’s grumpy misanthropic vibe. Bookshops, as it turns out, bring out both the best and the worst in people. There are hilarious stories about customers and staff alike, a chance to poke around behind the scenes of the Festival – Bythell is a key figure and his bookshop feeds and waters the literary great and good for the duration – and a really honest look at the realities of the industry, warts and all.

It’s a sobering read in parts and made me realise I’d been a bit naive. I knew all about how hideous Amazon were for the book trade but I didn’t fully understand why. Somehow, I’d never picked up on Amazon’s acquisition of Abebooks either, which was a sad thing to learn. Get your grubby tentacles out of my books Amazon! But then there’s the issue of whether a total boycott hurts the independent booksellers who are forced to use these platforms for some of their trade. No easy answers but it has sent me down a rabbit hole of discovery to find the best way of supporting bookshops if it’s not always possible to just go into them.

Bythell’s book reaffirmed my love for books and the people who love them. It’s a brilliantly dry and witty collection of recollections that somehow manages to make pessimistic misanthropy feel warm, fuzzy and engaging. Ultimately it left me rooting for Bythell because of the somewhat Sisyphean nature of his task, grateful that someone, somewhere is prepared to do it, and feeling glad I can help by doing one of my favourite things. Buying more books.

Rabih Alameddine – An Unnecessary Woman

In addition to the physical TBR books on my shelves I have this insane spreadsheet in my computer that records all the books I once noticed/read about/passed on the street and thought I might like to read one day. There’s a fiction and a non-fiction sheet and I’ve been adding to them for some time now.
After some serious pruning, I’ve reduced the fiction sheet to about 360 books and the non-fiction sheet to about 250 – an embarrassment of reading riches. I’m completely aware how insane it is. At my current reading rate, that’s about 6 years of reading were I to focus exclusively on that list for the entire time. Silly. But I love having it and it’s a great source of inspiration when I’m visiting bookshops or libraries and want to narrow things down somewhat.

One of my goals for this year was to focus on the TBR so I’ve been alternating between the physical books and this list. It’s alphabetical, so one of the first books I spotted was Alameddine’s lovely, poetic novel about Aaliya Saleh and I’m so glad I made a note of this book (whenever I did so) and finally got around to reading it. Vindication! I can keep the insane list!

Alameddine, if he’s not there already, should be immediately inducted into the ‘men who write women well’ club, because, in Aaliya, he’s created a wholly believable lonely, bookish character who resonates with the sort of truth that makes me sad I’ll never meet her.

Aaliya is 72 and lives alone in the Beirut apartment that has been her home since she divorced her husband many years before. In the eyes of her family, she is ‘unnecessary’ and there has been much bitter wrangling over whether she should give up her home to her half brother and his family who have put her under repeated pressure to do so. Sustaining her in lonely and occasionally troubled times – Aaliya stayed put throughout the Lebanese Civil War, watching as it tore apart her city – are the books to which she has dedicated her life. There are those that she has read and those that make up the thirty-seven volumes she has translated into Arabic, packed into boxes and shut away in a dark room.

The book is a kind of portrait of Aaliya. More ruminating than plotted, it drifts through past and present, often shifting seamlessly between them, with the city of Beirut as backdrop. In this sense though, it is more successful at presenting an image of a life, in its complete sense, than more conventional narratives. Aaliya has not done many of the things that mark a conventional life. Her body is now ageing, her emotions are beginning to fight back and she is beset by memories of both her past and the lives she has absorbed through the books she has read. The book is soaked with regret, which makes it hard to read at times. But there is also joy, awareness and a celebration of self.

The back cover copy describes the story as ‘a love letter to literature, to reading and its power to define who we are’ and I couldn’t agree more. There’s also a strong theme of illumination present throughout, both metaphorically and literally, in the sense that Beirut is still a city where it cannot always be assumed that the lights will come on when you flip the switch. There’s something particularly potent about the sense of pause that happens just before daybreak and Alameddine makes repeated use of this. As Aaliya waits for the sun to rise or the lights to come back on, there is ample time for philosophy, reflection or revisiting the past.

Both Aaliya and Alameddine are clearly extremely well-read and the narrative is littered with bookish references. But the story wears its scholarliness lightly – all the quotes and allusions (certainly to a book lover who considers herself moderately but not impressively well-read) felt inclusive and an integral part of the story, rather than show-offy asides. Ultimately, the book asks interesting questions about whether books can change us, whether they can offer solace and whether they are of greater or lesser value than people or experiences.

I don’t think there are right answers, of course. But regardless of the life she has lived, out of Alameddine’s writing comes the sense of a very necessary woman indeed, with the right to shape whatever kind of life she has chosen to lead.

Shiny new-ness (otherwise known as ‘my reading inbox’)

A snapshot of the shiny book-related loveliness that came into my home over the Christmas period and during the post-Christmas sales:

I’m currently reading Matthew Battles’ book Library (a history of the library as we understand it today) and have been left feeling extremely fortunate that compiling a personal ‘library’ of sorts is no longer something that is the exclusive preserve of the super-wealthy or those with the means to hire a few hundred scribes.

It’s also left me aware that the idea of the book as something to be admired for its beauty as well as its content is a relatively new idea in the history of the written word. So I feel doubly lucky to be looking at such beautiful things.

However, given that my own personal library goals are now more skewed towards curation than acquisition, the books that stay are having to jump a few more hoops than previously and a couple had to go to make way. Thinking like a librarian (or even a bookseller – thanks Shaun!) definitely helps me let go more than I could before.

But in the meantime, there is this mound to look forward to. I’ve already read The Diary of a Bookseller, of which more later, but where should I go next? I’m thinking Armistead Maupin but could be persuaded otherwise…