Christmas has very definitely arrived at the bookshop. Crowds of people pulse into the little shop, clotting around tables in order to pick up fistfuls, armfuls, bagfuls of books, leaving the till ringing, pumped full of its pecuniary lifeblood.
For the bookseller, lunch-breaks are a fond memory, wrapping skills are at a premium, and – most satisfyingly – so is good advice. For this is the time when bookselling expertise comes into its own.
As Christmas inches closer, shoppers look increasingly desperate. By Christmas Eve, some customers will be looking so unbelievably stressed, I will worry that if they don’t find the right present within the next five minutes then they might crumple into a heap on the floor, crying, slowly rocking to and fro. Being able to point the shopper in the direction of a good present for Auntie Betty, cousin Mavis or son George is particularly rewarding when one feels one has staved off, if not an ambulance, then at least a valium or two.
But there is one situation that never fails to surprise me:
‘Please can you help me, I need to buy a present for my son.’
‘OK. How old is he?’
‘And what sort of books does he enjoy reading?’
Silence. The person appears to be trying to examine a spot on the top right of their forehead. ‘Oh, well, he doesn’t really read books.’
‘Not any books?’
‘No. Well, I mean he used to when he was younger. He loved the Lord of the Rings. But since university and getting a job, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a book.’
‘What sort of work does he do?’
‘Oh he’s in the city.’
‘Right, perhaps a book on economics or the financial crisis?’ I offer.
‘Oh no, he’s not really interested in any of that.’
‘Well what is he interested in?’
‘He loves The X Factor. And he plays football every Saturday.’
Then why, I long to ask, why are you buying him a book? Is it because we’re the only shop near your house that’s still open after five thirty? Is it because you feel some sort of urge to continue educating him in a positive way? Is it because he’s already got all the X Factor merchandise, and ten pairs of football socks?
Of course the details vary, but again and again, customers get utterly stuck trying to buy a book for someone who doesn’t read books. But publishers have cannily come up with a solution to this Yuletide problem … humour books.
From the end of September onwards, mini hardbacks and tiny paperbacks begin to trickle into the shop. Priced between £2.99 and £12.99, each one will illicit at least a passing chuckle from a Christmas shopper. At the bottom end are titles such as Don’ts for Husbands and at the top end (although I worry that perhaps that makes them sound a little highbrow) are titles like Sexually I’m More of a Switzerland – a collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books.
In the instance above, I would bring the lady over to a table crammed full of these little books and point out ones like A Simples Life, the faux-autobiography of the meerkat from the telly adverts; Delete this at your Peril, a collection of spoof replies to spam emails; and perhaps even I Could Go On … unpublished letters to the Telegraph, the follow-up to last year’s success, Am I Alone in Thinking.
I’m pretty sure that the lady would have a little giggle at them and would then buy the meerkat book for her son, perhaps picking up a Don’ts for Husbands as a stocking-filler too. On Christmas Day, I expect that the son’s immediate disappointment on being given a book would be relieved by seeing the friendly face of the meerkat, his stalwart companion from X Factor ad breaks. He’d probably have a little flick through and then put it next to his loo, to be opened in future idle moments of constipation.
I’m not sure what it is that offends me about humour books. Perhaps there’s a rather unattractive element of bookish snobbishness. ‘You mean you’d rather buy this rubbish over Tolstoy?’ a little bit of my brain scorns. But I’d like to think it’s more of a feeling of mournfulness for a lost book. These pages will never be read and loved and cherished in the way that books deserve.
People who read and love books rarely even glance at these little humour books. The history nut will be drooling over Neil MacGregor’s stunning A History of the World in 100 Objects, or Amanda Foreman’s latest tome A World on Fire. Literary biography enthusiasts will be poring over Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy, or looking at How to Live, Sarah Bakewell’s unusual biography of Montaigne. For poetry lovers there’s the stunning new Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, or Don Patterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Fiction readers are utterly spoilt for choice – once they’ve negotiated their way through the latest Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, and the Booker shortlist, there are also several recently published collections of letters and diaries – like those of Saul Bellow, for instance. If someone were to give one of them the meerkat book, they’d treat it like a slap in the face.
Occasionally a customer might say to me, while he or she is somewhat guiltily watching me zap piles of expensive books for them at the till, that it must be hard for me to resist all the books, when constantly surrounded by them. It really is hard. There are so many brilliant books, especially at this time of year. I’m trying to whittle down a Top Ten for the Spectator’s Arts blog, and finding it incredibly tricky to limit myself to just ten good books.
And, perhaps because I spend all day among them, I love buying books as Christmas presents for friends and family. Over the weeks I realise that X would love that particular book, and Y might enjoy another. But, of course, there are some friends of mine who don’t share my love of books. That’s when I go and buy panettones, or chocolates, or clothes, or jewellery, or something else from the multitude of possible Christmas presents that are arrayed over our High Streets, markets and the internet. I don’t just decide to get them a silly little ‘loo’ book.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps humour books really are essential to surviving Christmas.
For many, Christmas is rather a stressful occasion. Adults going ‘home’ to their parents for the day, or a few days, swiftly regress to acting like teenagers. Couples argue over which set of parents they’ll spend it with; siblings who haven’t seen each other for months are forced together to pull crackers over mince pies and end up sniping at each other; young children get overexcited and exhausted and start crying by the time it’s the Queen’s Speech, having already jealously trampled on toys that their cousin/sister/mum’s best friend’s son has been given.
Yes it’s a time for families to be happy and cosy together, but the reality is that many families are rather complicated and this yanking everyone together for a day can be disastrous.
Perhaps this is when humour books come to the rescue. Perhaps, after a heavy Christmas lunch, when everyone’s run out of things to say and you realise you’re stuck with them, in the middle of nowhere, until the following morning, then you can open something like A Simples Life (the meerkat book) and find yourself giggling.
In the post-Christmas lunch slump it’s unlikely that you’d get very far with anything more heavyweight, partly from gluttony-provoked exhaustion, partly from wine followed by port and brandy, partly from children careering around the room either on sugar highs or in tears, and partly due to the endless adult interruptions – ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ from the mother, ‘Did you say something?’ from the grandparent, ‘What’s that you’re reading?’ from the father. This is not the time to start War and Peace, or even Bartlett’s biography of Tolstoy. It is, in fact, the perfect time to dip into something reasonably mindless, something from which you don’t mind being disturbed, and something that might even make you respond to the interruption mid-laugh, or at least mid-smirk.
In light of this, perhaps I’d be inclined to buy Parlour Games for Modern Families, a rather charming book in a Cath Kidston sort of way. I’d hope that rather than trying to hide with one’s nose in a second-rate book while half-listening to a painfully limping conversation, this little book might prove sufficient to cajole everyone into a game of Charades, or Blind Man’s Buff, or even – and I expect this one might go down the best – Murder in the Dark.