Posts Tagged ‘books’

Second-hand book-hunting with Cosybooks

June 12, 2013

 

*********************Introducing the first guest blog ***********************

 

This special spot is a chance for you to meet, or, indeed, reacquaint yourselves with, other talented book bloggers.

The first guest blogger is Cosy Books – a Canadian librarian, who has a penchant for brilliant twentieth-century novels written by women. A taste that I, for one, share. Here she takes you on an illuminating tour of second-hand book buying in Canada.

If you would like to contribute to the Emilybooks guest blog spot then get in touch here.

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If you have been following Emily’s blog for a while or landed here via a link from another blog you probably already know that a keen interest in books is a connecting thread.  While my fondness for reading reaches back as far as I can remember a certain group of book bloggers has made it possible for me to achieve an even greater appreciation for the written word.  This camaraderie has also unearthed a side of me which never existed before I carved out my own tiny space in the world of book blogging.  As a circulation clerk at a public library I nearly always borrowed my books but over the past few years I have turned into a book buyer on a mission.  It’s a nice way of saying that accumulating books at a rate faster than I can find space for them has become a pleasurable pastime.  Woeful posts by bloggers surrounded by bursting shelves only serve to reassure me that my guilt about unread books is unwarranted and that my collection is practically inadequate.

Since 2009, my reading has been centred around twentieth century authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, E M Delafield, Dorothy Whipple and their contemporaries.  Since I have yet to meet another person in my daily life who has struck up a conversation about any of the aforementioned authors you can imagine how rare it can be to find their books in nearby shops.  This makes the hunt more challenging than if I were spending the day on Charing Cross Road, but not impossible.

Little Boy LostSo where have I found some of my favourite treasures, you might ask?  The best place for turn-over is called BMV Books.  They have a few locations in Toronto with my favourite being on Bloor Street.  Each day there are green plastic book bins dotting the floor waiting to be unpacked and shelved.  There is no catalogue so if you’re looking for something specific you have to be willing to dig for it.  The books are mostly used but in excellent condition. BMV also get batches of books sold back to them from local university students so you get an idea of what has been on offer in the English courses that term.  I was thrilled one day to spot the orange Penguin edition of Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, pushed back a bit further than the other books and for the pittance of only two dollars.  The Persephone edition was already on my shelves but that image of the little boy on the cover has always haunted me so I just had to bring it home.

The Tortoise and the HareAnother interesting place, albeit filthy, for some outstanding older clothbound books has been our local Reuse Centre.  Picture a massive warehouse full of the contents of your grandparents’ attic or garage sale rejects.  It’s an intriguing mix of dump run/nostalgia tour.  The lighting is horrible, my contact lenses go dry and you can taste the dust but it’s where I found a gorgeous black Virago edition of Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare.  The cover design features a young lady wearing the most stunning pair of red tights and I’ve never seen another copy like it.  The funny thing is that it was discarded from the library where I work but it must have been ages ago.  A couple of years ago I brought home a first edition copy of New Bond Story by Norman Collins as well as a first edition of Flowers on the Grass by Monica Dickens for the same price.  Books such as these are housed separately from the paperbacks but the room resembles something more akin to a hallway at five metres long and barely wider than my shoulders and I’m not very big!  Bending is done very carefully and usually sideways!

The Way Things AreAnother place I loved to visit was called Nostalgia Books in Port Credit.  Nestled at the end of a long high street and a bit past the bridge over the harbour it was a nice destination when I had the day off from work.  The owner, David, was passionate about books (of course) but he also enjoyed people.  When he discovered my daughter had chosen to do a minor in English Literature he asked if I could keep him updated on her reading lists just for interest’s sake.  This shop was where I found my first green Virago, The Way Things Are by E M Delafield, and I beamed all the way home.  Last month my husband and I took a drive out to the shop but were saddened to find brown paper covering the windows and no sign of life.

For an anglophile living in the land of maple syrup and moose (I’ve only seen one that’s been stuffed but I’m going for effect) there can be no greater book hunting expedition than in England.  I could spend ages browsing along Charing Cross Road or the Southbank book market, admiring the faded spines and drinking in the aroma of aged chimney smoke you sometimes find emanating from the pages.  I can hardly believe it has been almost two years ago since I met up with my friends from Book Snob, Stuck in a Book and Mrs Miniver’s Daughter for a bit of second-hand book shopping while I was on holiday.  Mary was dreading a case of tug-of-war should we both spy a prize at the same time.  There was no need to worry though as they were more than helpful in handing over all sorts of titles they thought I would enjoy.  The charity shops in Canterbury where my daughter did her MA were oh so tempting but those dreaded luggage allowances are always at the back of my mind.

Look at all Those RosesRegardless of where my books have come from I never fail to get a tiny thrill from the signature of a previous owner along with a date.  My favourite inscription is in the front of a first American edition of Look at All Those Roses, a short story collection by Elizabeth Bowen published in 1941.  I have Rachel (Book Snob) to thank for this one.  It reads:

For Scott Merrill from John Butler in affection –

Elizabeth Bowen’s wisdom

May 1944

A story within a collection of stories but one which will have to remain a mystery.

Persephone, Elizabeth and Harriet

May 9, 2012

I love Persephone Books. I admit that they momentarily sank a little in my esteem when they were featured on Made in Chelsea, but I can’t get too high and mighty about that as I was the brainless fool guiltily watching Made in Chelsea and noticing.

To clear up any possible resulting confusion, Persephone Books is not in Chelsea. It is in Lambs Conduit Street, which is one of London’s best streets, full of other Bloomsburyish delights, such as Folk, The People’s Supermarket and (nearby) Ben Pentreath. Persephone Books sells, with a few exceptions, books written by women, usually ones that were written during the fertile-yet-overlooked years between the wars. Best of all, not only do they sell books, they publish them too. Their books are paperbacks, yet have sturdy jackets, which are plain grey, drawing attention to beautifully patterned endpapers, chronologically appropriate to the book. They are printed on good thick paper, with nice solid print. To date Persephone has published 98 books. (Incidentally, there is also a very beautiful collection of Persephone Classics which have lovely paintings on the covers. I wrote about Monica Dickens’ Mariana, one of these classics and also one my all time favourites, here.)

You can probably imagine my excitement when I discovered that Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books, writer and feminist extraordinaire, had discovered EmilyBooks. It made my month. In her fortnightly letter to keen Persephonites she noted my mention of Persephone in a Spectator article. It just so happens that Persephone have just published Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins, so when she found my blog and saw my piece on The Tortoise and the Hare, also by Elizbaeth Jenkins, she saw fit to link to it. Oh joy! When I wrote to thank Nicola for the mention, she very generously sent me a copy of the new Persephone book.

And what a book.

Harriet is terrifying. I was gripped by it in a truly horrific way, like the way people can’t help but turn to stare out of the window when they drive past an accident on the motorway. Here is the gist of it:

Harriet is a ‘natural’. (Yes, it’s an old-fashioned word but it sounds kinder and less clumsy than saying she’s not quite right in the head.) In spite of this, she has quite a happy life, having a substantial amount of money, a well-meaning mother and taking pleasure in pretty trinkets and fine clothes. Along comes Lewis Oman, a handsome auctioneer with not much money and very bad intentions. He carries on with young, pretty, terrifically vain Alice Hoppner, whose sister Elizabeth is married to Lewis’s brother Patrick.

Lewis decides to get Harriet’s money and to this end he woos her and persuades her to marry him. Harriet may be thirty-two, but she has never yet been romantically pursued and she falls at his feet. Her mother realises something is up but can do nothing to stop them. Harriet is too old to be under her legal protection, the circumstances are too suspiciously sudden for her to be able to get Harriet certified as a lunatic, and so powerful is Harriet’s love for Lewis that she pays no attention to her mother’s objections.

So Lewis marries Harriet and gains her fortune. It isn’t long before he’s manipulated the situation so that he has farmed her out to Patrick and Elizabeth for a pound a week, as they need the money. Lewis, meanwhile, sets up a very comfortable home nearby with Alice, who pretends to be his wife.

Harriet is gradually deprived of more and more. First her fine clothes, then her own place to wash, then food, then even the freedom to move. Eventually she is reduced to a filthy, lice-infested creature, regularly beaten, kept in a small dirty room with a boarded up window, starving to death.

Worst of all, this is the fleshing out of a true story, tightly based on court records of a notorious Victorian court case – the Penge Mystery.

Elizabeth Jenkins certainly had it in for marriage. You might remember how upsetting I found The Tortoise and the Hare. Well this makes the dying marriage in that look positively heavenly! I wonder what drew Jenkins to examine unhappy marriages to such an extent in her novels. If these fictional portrayals of married life are really how she imagined it to be, then it’s no wonder that she refrained from tying the matrimonial knot herself.

A little aside here to say that I read the majority of Harriet on Saturday night when I was feeling rather unwell. I had cancelled all my plans and had slept through most of the afternoon. The husband was out on a stag do. I awoke at elevenish, feeling ghastly and not sure what to do with myself. There was nothing much to eat, other than a dwindling supply of frozen hot cross buns from Easter, and I was feeling too shaky and fragile to go out and buy anything. So I ate a hot cross bun and felt sick and read Harriet on the sofa. I finished it at about two o’clock in the morning and was in a terrible state. There I was, confined to our flat, feeling dreadful, starving to death… not unlike Harriet herself!

When the husband arrived home a little later, reeling from the stag, he found my behaviour to be peculiar to say the least. ‘What is it, Ems?’ he asked. ‘Why are you so tearful and upset? What’s wrong?’

The dreadful thing was that because I’d reacted so miserably to The Tortoise and the Hare, sobbing uncontrollably in a way that he’d found completely puzzling, I felt I couldn’t admit to being in such a state thanks to another Elizabeth Jenkins novel. All I could say, quite feebly, was that I was all alone and wasn’t feeling well and he hadn’t left me any food. He was terribly unimpressed.

Yes, this is a very upsetting and shocking novel, but it is completely brilliant. It would be so easy to write it badly. Here’s a sensational court case, full of drama – greed, murder and evil. How easy it would be to overdo it! Jenkins takes an altogether different and masterful approach. Instead of revelling in the horror, she employs a magpie’s eye for finery.

The book is as much a fashion magazine as a chronicle of despair. When we first encounter Harriet, we learn not only of her ‘sallow countenance’ but of her ‘garnet earrings and a shield-like brooch of pinchbeck pinned to the front of her dress, which was a handsome blue silk’. Throughout the novel, everything is rendered in exquisite detail, be it the rose-red velvet looped on Harriet’s mother’s mantelpiece or the lilac crepe dress of Alice’s fantasies. Appearance is everything.

Perhaps paying so much attention to fabrics and surfaces is a kind of feminising of a horror story. Certainly a surprising amount of horror lies dormant in these luxuries. For instance, Harriet’s mother catches Alice wearing one of Harriet’s favourite brooches, which confirms her suspicions of something being wrong. One of the most chilling moments in the book is when Elizabeth sees Alice ironing:

Then she saw for the first time what Alice was doing. All around were spread pieces of a dress that had been unpicked and was being pressed before it was made up again; pieces of stiff silk, a beautiful, deep blue like a jay’s wing. Elizabeth looked away without saying anything.

The same comparison to a jay’s wing was used earlier in the book to describe one of Harriet’s dresses. Alice wanted the dress and now Alice has got it. What a metaphor! Alice is taking Harriet to pieces. She is taking her finery and refitting it to her own design. She is stepping into her shoes – or into her dress – as Lewis’s wife. It is a brilliantly revealing scene.

This keenly focused attention to appearance also calls up its opposite – disappearance. Harriet’s mother eventually realises something terrible is happening to her daughter and tries to find and rescue her. She looks and looks, but to no avail. Harriet has been made to disappear. Alice has ostensibly become Mrs Lewis Oman in her place. Harriet is confined to an upstairs room, seen by scarcely anyone. On Harriet’s mother’s suspicions, a policeman is stationed at the end of the road to keep an eye out for anything untoward, but Harriet doesn’t leave the house – she never appears – so he has nothing to report.

It is with tragic irony that when Harriet does actually disappear – when she dies – it is her physical appearance that gives the others away. In the words of the doctor at the subsequent trial:

The body was fearfully emaciated and filthily dirty all over, particularly the feet. The skin of the feet was quite horny, as if from walking without shoes for some time. There were lice all over the body. On the head I found real hair and false hair very much matted. We pulled the false hair off with forceps to get to the scalp.

It’s too terrible for words. Except, of course, against the foil of so many words throughout the novel describing beautiful tactile things, here Elizabeth Jenkins has found the perfect words to convey the terror and the horror of it.

The Emily Game

August 30, 2011

‘Next time we have friends round,’ I tell the fiancé, ‘we MUST play The Emily Game.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he replies.

‘I’m not being stupid! It’s the best game ever. It’s so much fun.’

‘We can’t ask people over and insist on them playing a game all about you.’

‘No you nitwit, it’s not all about me, it’s just named after me. It’s all about books.’

‘Emily,’ he says, his voice taking on a sterner tone, ‘we are not going to play The Emily Game.’

Well, just in case you should be coming round to ours anytime soon, and feel like playing The Emily Game (we can wait till he’s not in the room, so he need never know), let me explain how it came about.

This weekend was my hen weekend. Everything about it was kept Top Secret, to the extent that I was blindfolded for the final half hour of the car journey and then taken to a strange provincial tearoom, filled with china cats and even sporting an anti-foreigner sign, while sinister preparations were being made in my absence.

I returned to the mystery location to see a parade of my closest girlfriends lined up underneath bunting made of Penguin covers and pages of books, and a big sign that announced:

Emily’s Literary Hen

How glorious! How extremely clever. First there was the literary bunting, then the literary drinks menu, including such classics as ‘The Scarlett O’Hara’ – Southern Comfort, cranberry juice and lime – complete with the quotation:

‘Don’t drink alone, Scarlett. People always find out, and it ruins the reputation,’ Rhett Butler.

Then we moved on to such baked treats as Proust’s Madeleines and a Gingerbread House, followed by a dinner taken straight out of A Room of One’s Own.

But I digress, for the most important bit of the weekend was surely the invention of The Emily Game.

This took place at the end of the Woolfian dinner. Everyone began to look a bit shifty over their crumble and then the Maid of Honour announced it was time for The Emily Game.

‘How long does she get?’ asked one eager chicken.

‘Let’s say a minute.’

‘No, thirty seconds.’

‘Ten.’

‘Help!’ That was me. ‘What do I have to do? What is The Emily Game?’ I feared that everyone would do cruel impressions of me. (In fact, that didn’t happen till later in the weekend, and then, more precisely, it was a rather inaccurate mime of my recently-discovered talent for performing a spontaneous saxophone solo – with no saxophone.) But no, the rules of The Emily Game are as follows.

  1. In advance of the game, each person – except for Emily – has to prepare a prop which suggests a book.
  2. Each person takes it in turns to present her prop to Emily.
  3. Emily then has however long to ask yes/no answers about the prop or book to deduce what book it might be.
  4. If Emily succeeds, everyone else has to drink. If she fails, she has to drink.
  5. Variation: I suppose it doesn’t just need to be Emily who guesses, but people could take it in turns to guess/present their prop.

For instance, some train tickets were Anna Karenina. A bottle of TCP, with labels carefully replaced with ‘Medicine’ and a list of various ingredients including ‘Horse strength throat lozenges, antifreeze and dark brown gloss paint’ was George’s Marvellous Medicine. My cousin Tessa, with a pillow stuffed under her top was – ingeniously – Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There was also a brilliant charade with a red petticoat for The Railway Children.

A marvellous game.

Spectacularly good fun.

I strongly recommend it for any literary parties or salons.

And, if you were to feel like bringing along a prop next time you see me, well then, I would be delighted to introduce you, personally, to the delights of The Emily Game.

Finally, can you guess the novel from the prop below?

Clue: The novel is set in India.

A Literary A-Z

May 3, 2011

Time for episode two in the series – D,E, and F.

D


‘Dahl for D’, someone commented on the first installation of this literary A-Z. But what about Dickens, eh? Or Dalrymple? Or Dostoevsky? Or, for that matter, Donne? D seems to have particularly rich pickings.

Dahl is indeed a strong contender – for his adult short stories, fantastically weird and chilling, as well as his better-known children’s work. But, one doesn’t have to look hard to discover that he was not a very nice man. As Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian put it:

No matter how you spin it … Roald Dahl was an absolute sod. Crashing through life like a big, bad child he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met with his grandiosity, dishonesty and spite.

In light of the stiff competition, perhaps this nastiness is reason enough to put Dahl to one side.

William Dalrymple is in the shortlist because his book From the Holy Mountain was the first piece of travel writing I read. A friend at school gave me a copy and I was absolutely blown away by it. It also meant that I spent most of my GAP year writing a journal in a rather overblown literary style. I think that luckily it’s now got lost somewhere.

Dostoevsky, yes he’s good, but, personally, I never get on as well with the Russians as I’d like. The writers that is, not the people. Some of my best friends are Russian.

So D, when scrutinised a little more rigorously, comes down to Dickens versus Donne. It’s a strange clash – the master of the neverending sentence versus the master of concise imagery.

Dickens is undoubtedly one of the great British novelists. His sentences may be long, but you want to get to the end of them because of his brilliant plots. Bleak House, I remember a friend telling me, five minutes before one of our first year exams at Oxford, was the first ever detective story. His stories endure, now adapted for television, film, stage, musical …

But, Donne. Well, ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’ was Johnson’s famous critique of his metaphysical images. And it is by pulling out the gaps between different ideas, ‘yoking’ them so violently together that he achieves such surprising, unique, concise, and effective images. The lovers are ‘stiff twin compasses’, so that when one ‘far doth roam’ the other ‘leans, and hearkens after it,/And grows erect, as that comes home.’ (I can still remember sniggering about this at school.)

And if I’m honest, and I’m a bit ashamed of this soppiness, I’ve got to choose Donne, because, to my mind, he writes about love better than anyone else. ‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,’ from ‘The Good Morrow’ is beautiful and perfect. It can’t be beaten.

 E


I’ll cut to the chase here. Eliot versus Eliot. Another case of novelist versus poet. George versus T.S.

George Eliot is magnificent. Middlemarch is widely accepted as one of the greatest novels of all time. Virginia Woolf said it was ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. I have always preferred Daniel Deronda, for reasons which I go into in this earlier post. Her novels are full of terribly astute observations, such as this one from Middlemarch:

Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot?

Clever lady. And great plots too.

T.S. Eliot. Well he’s also clever. At times, admittedly, he’s more than a little obtuse. I remember spending hours puzzling over his Four Quartets at university. I decided that to try to get to the bottom of it, I’d draw pictures of what I thought he was saying. I ended up drawing endless circles, and decided that that was the whole point. It didn’t go down particularly well in my tutorial. There are some marvellous images in his poems, some, which Johnson might have thought were also yoked by violence together. But I feel particularly fond of T.S. for his playful children’s poems. Whenever I get in a muddle about something like:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

Then I console myself with something from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, be it Macavity, Mr Mistoffelees, or even Growltiger:

His manners and appearance did not calculate to please;

His coat was torn and seedy, he was baggy at the knees;

One ear was somewhat missing, no need to tell you why,

And he scowled upon a hostile world from one forbidding eye.

But enough deliberating … I’m going for George Eliot. Just because I think it would be wrong not to.

F

F is obviously Forster. But I shall swiftly mention some other excellent Fs too: Fitzgerald, Flaubert, Fanon, Faulkner. Now back to Forster.

Forster is possibly my favourite writer. Full stop. I think he is a genius. His novels are a perfect mixture of neat, satisfying plot and meaty ideas. He is very good at writing about the English. Especially the English abroad. How do the English respond to a different country, to a different landscape? (I wrote about his use of landscape here.) And how do English good intentions make everyone else suffer?

I suggested to someone in the bookshop that he might enjoy Forster, to which he replied that he thought Forster was something one read only at school. It’s a terrible shame that Forster’s work has accrued the dust and must of a classics, the forbidding black jackets, the scary expectation of something impossibly high-brow. Really his novels aren’t difficult at all. And to prove my point, I shall end this post with is ingeniously mock-casual opening to Howards End, which I defy anyone to find intimidating:

One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.

If you haven’t read any Forster, well one may as well begin with Howards End.

Houses, parks and secrets

December 20, 2010

Yesterday I decided that I’d had enough of being ill and stomped along Parkland Walk, a long and narrow strip of nature reserve that stretches along an old railway line, from Finsbury Park up to Alexandra Palace. Originally a suburban offshoot from the main line, there were plans to incorporate this bit of track into the Northern Line, under the rather romantic name ‘The Northern Heights Plan’. Unfortunately, the onset of the Second World War put a stop to the idea, and the line subsequently dwindled – with its last passenger train in 1954 and last freight train in the 1970.

It’s a beautiful walk, and one which provides the added satisfaction of getting somewhere, cutting through the houses far better than pavemented streets. And it was especially beautiful yesterday, bleached white with the snow, which lay thick on the ground and neatly lined along branches, sprinkles of powder wafting off with the slightest breeze.

There are several extraordinary things about this strip of park – the old station platforms, the heavily graffittied bridge, the views down across roads, train tracks and out across the skyline. (Please excuse the awful photos which were taken on my mobile and don’t begin to do it justice.)

But what really strikes me about the walk is that houses are rarely out of sight. Rows of suburban roofs spread out from behind the trees, the mess of branches only thinly screening their windows and gardens.

I wonder whether the houses are pleased with the changes to this strip of land. Now the window frames aren’t rattled by passing trains, now their brickwork doesn’t pass by in a flash to vacant-eyed commuters. Now lazy chatter drifts towards them over the trees and they can hear children playing, perhaps the occasional misfired snowball might splat against a wall. Perhaps they’d be allowed a wry smile when hearing the harsh pants of joggers, or the fizz of graffiti artists’ aerosols, at work on the railway bridge. They stand over this land with incredible knowledge. They have seen and heard everything that’s happened here; they know its past, its secrets.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent Visitation tells the story of a house in the German countryside, from its construction to its eventual demolition, and the different people who have lived in it over time. It is a novel in which things are always being hidden – people in crates and secret cupboards or behind a pile of wood, silverware sunk in the lake, porcelain buried in the garden. And this pattern of hiding things is a strand in the more intricate pattern of filling gaps. Concrete is poured into the cavity of a tree to give it support – something which reminds me of Rachel Whiteread’s concrete sculpture House, which renders the negative space of a house.

Because a house, in some sense, is just a gap to be filled – a surprising amount of space caught within four walls. And its occupants, as they come and go through the years are the fillers of this space, making their small marks and indentations as they live in its rooms, sit in the garden, hide in its cupboards. Nothing is hidden from the house – it knows every hiding place better than anyone, it is party to every secret.

While Whiteread’s House shows the interior space of a house so marvellously, it omits the space outside its four walls. In Visitation, the remit of the house spreads down through its garden to a lake. A house doesn’t exist independent of its site, but is affected by what goes on outside, the sounds, the happenings, the changes.

And so while these houses that line Parkland Walk have certainly been keeping an eye on what goes on inside, privy to all sorts of daily domestic dramas, they’ve also got an eye outside – watching this space undergo an astonishing change from railway to park. I bet they have some stories to tell.

 

The Funny Thing About Christmas Books

December 13, 2010

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?’

‘Twenty-two.’

‘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.

Some literary mistakes

October 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.

 

There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.

Autumnal books

September 27, 2010

The weather has turned. Now summer is definitely over and autumn has set in, with its premonition of winter cold.

At this time of year I have two contradictory impulses. One is to hibernate, to protect myself from the cold. We brought our avocado tree inside from the terrace, knowing that now it needs a bit of warmth and care to survive. When I was very young and used to have a pet tortoise, this was the time of year when we used to bring ‘Fred’ – who we later learnt was in fact a female tortoise – into our garage, tuck her up in a cardboard box of hay and let her sleep until the spring. (I think tortoise care has become slightly more high-tech since the eighties.)

And so I too want to be tucked away, under piles of blankets, jumpers and other warm things, have long hot baths, eat porridge for breakfast, soups and stews for dinner, drink endless cups of hot things – toddies, tea, coffee – no longer iced fizzy drinks. It becomes that much harder to get up in the morning, as the nights get longer, and that much more tempting to spend the evening in, watching a film, reading a book, rather than putting on many layers of clothes, finding an umbrella, venturing out only to get wet feet and an upturned brolly within ten paces of the front door.

But this time of year is also the beginning of something new. It’s when everyone’s back from holidays, starting a new school year, a new Jewish year, new jobs, new flats. It’s the time of year to socialise, to cluster together with friends – dark afternoons in pubs, rainy days playing board games, big lunches and crisp walks. There is a glut of birthdays – parties – and then the run up to Christmas with even more parties. It’s the time to go out and celebrate and dance and drink, perhaps relying rather too heavily on a whisky jacket for warmth.

But the book world is one of the few places where these two contradictory impulses can be happily brought into synthesis.

For the start of October sees the Frankfurt Bookfair – a jam-packed few days during which 300,000 publishers and agents from all over the world meet each other for hectic half-hours to pitch books, deal rights and otherwise shape the near-future of publishing. It’s a new start for books.

And it’s the best time of year for published books. All the houses put out their biggest hits, hoping to get reviews and rising sales in the build-up to Christmas.

It’s the most exciting time to be working in a bookshop. Every week, innocuous cardboard boxes are unpacked to reveal beautiful new hardbacks, glistening with promise. Ah yes this is the one I was reading about in the Guardian last week. Oh, wow, this is the follow up to XXX! Gosh, this one looks beautiful … I suppose the book that arrived on the greatest wave of anticipation was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – ‘launched,’ as The Sunday Times rather brazenly put it, ‘on a tsunami of hype’.

And it’s also the busiest time of year. The bookshop is at least twice (usually three or four times) as busy in the few weeks before Christmas as it is the rest of the year. People want more help, everyone has presents to buy – ‘What can I get my father-in-law?’ ‘What should I get my four-year-old niece?’ ‘Help! What can I get for my boss?’ All questions which come pouring in, leaving one to proffer up an array of books, while dashing between the somewhat fraught customers, wondering if there’ll be any books left to sell the following day. There’s a fantastic feeling of helpfulness. A feeling that, oh, this person has no idea what to buy and I can suggest something that might be perfect. And the grateful smiles and sincere thanks. (And the new-found pleasing dexterity at wrapping books up.)

This all ties in with the instinct of excitement at a new start, at a fast-approaching Christmas. But what is so perfect about books is that they are ideal cold-weather friends.

No more ‘light summer reading’, ‘beach reads’, ‘airport paperbacks’. No no no. Now is the time of year when one can spend time and concentration really reading. Time for new meaty books. Or time to go back to the Classics. Or the Russians. Time to read books that are really long, because now is the time when there is time to read them. Now is the time when you might wake up on a Sunday to pouring rain and really can’t be bothered to leave the house. The time when you make a pot of coffee and get back into bed and spend hours reading because you have a sneaky feeling that the rest of London is still in bed too.

And this impulse to read more, to ‘curl up with a good book’ is perfectly timed, as it is just now that all the best books are being released. So yes there is the new Jonathan Franzen, and there is also the new David Grossman, John le Carré and Peter Ackroyd. It is also time for many of last year’s hardbacks to go into paperback – so we have the new Orhan Pamuk, the new J.M. Coetzee, the new Alice Munro … There are invariably hundreds of new biographies – this year there’s Tony Blair (of course), Stephen Fry, Deborah Devonshire, Chris Mullin to name just a few. And all the new meaty hardback non-fiction, State of Emergency, Them & Us, Mao’s Great Famine, the new Martin Gilbert, the book about Lucian Freud …

It’s so exciting!

And perhaps it’s the one time of year where I don’t feel even the slightest twinge of desire for a Kindle. How wonderful to look and touch all these beautiful new books – because these ones are, really, beautiful. How marvellous to get back to one’s flat and make it look that much cosier with these new books lining the shelves. Heaven to wake up and see them all sitting there in a row, asking to be read, waiting for you to look outside at the rain and offering you such a blissful alternative. I don’t care if it’s a heavy book, because I don’t intend on lugging it around with me any further than from the sofa to my bed – I’m not going on holiday. And I don’t want to go on holiday. Why would anyone go on holiday now, when they can laze around such an inspiring, marvellous, wonderful winter bookland.

When I grow up, I want to be …

June 18, 2010

I was looking through some children’s book reviews in the bookshop, when a particular title leapt out at me – The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I was instantly transported to being eleven-years-old, when I was utterly immersed in Will’s quest to fight The Dark.

For those of you who missed out on this particular episode of childhood fantasy adventure, the series of books boils down to Good versus Evil, with the main character discovering that essentially it’s all down to him.

Several fantasy plots reduce down to this Manichean scheme. It’s very appealing, especially to a child. It’s a world in which everything is completely black and white – the goodies and the baddies – and the reader fiercely empathises with the main character, who goes on the quest to make sure that goodness prevails. Like Will in The Dark is Rising, or Ged (aka Sparrowhawk) in Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

I read a lot of books when I was a child. And I loved all those questy fantasy adventures. And spending so much time with my head in between the pages, I emerged believing that I too had a Quest. Of course, I soon realised that I couldn’t do actual magic. But for a long time I thought I was psychic.

I used to play a game with my mother in which I’d tell her to think very very strongly of a particular letter. Then I’d sit down next to her – sometimes I’d have to place a hand on her forehead – and I’d imagine brightly-coloured letters of the alphabet jumping over a fence. There would always be one particular letter which wouldn’t make it over the fence and that was the one.

‘It’s P, isn’t it?’ I’d declare, confident of my psychic prowess.

‘No, darling, it’s not.’

‘Then you’re not thinking of it strongly enough. Let’s try again.’

The process would be repeated.

‘I’ve got it, is it R?’

‘No, darling. Getting warmer though.’

‘Hmm… oh, is it T?’

‘Um, yes, that’s right.’

I don’t think she ever let me guess too many times – it can’t have been the funnest game for a grown-up, after all. And sometimes, quite understandably, she said yes straightaway. Because I was psychic.

I really truly believed that I had these special psychic powers. It was a bit confusing when I didn’t have the same hit rate practising on my friends. But I assumed that either they didn’t have sufficient concentration for the letter to be communicated, or that perhaps it was a special psychic bond between my mother and me. I think it wasn’t until I was seventeen or so that it occurred to me she might not have been telling the truth.

My psychic powers would be key to saving the world in the battle of Good versus Evil. I was genuinely very worried about the fact that I couldn’t ride a horse properly (unlike my cousins), because I would probably need to for the adventures that were going to come my way. But at least I was good at reading signs.

I remember sitting by a tree in our garden and suddenly being absolutely certain that I had to cut off a twig of that tree and keep it somewhere safe (in a shoebox) because when the whole world was blown up, it would be the only surviving piece of nature and I’d have to plant it somewhere in order for life to continue on our planet.

I just knew.

I also knew that I was incredibly special and gifted and important, and one day I would have to save the world. Perhaps it was because, as my brothers are so much older, attention was lavished upon me as though I were an only child.

I remember telling my mother one night before I went to sleep:

‘Mum, I know this sounds funny, but I think I’m a prophet.’

‘Now darling why do you think that?’

‘Because I feel I’m going to do really important things.’

‘Well darling, I’m sure you will do really important things.’

‘I know I will.’

‘Perhaps when you’re older you might be Prime Minister like Margaret Thatcher.’

‘No, I don’t want to be Prime Minister, I’m going to be a prophet.’

In my eleven-plus interview for a rather precocious North London school, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up:

‘I think I’m going to be a bit like the Pope.’

The lady tried to smother a laugh. ‘The Pope? Now, why do you want to be like the Pope?’

‘I think he leads a very peaceful and important life. Isn’t he on some island at the moment?’

I’m not sure why they offered me a place. I didn’t even say I wanted to be a Rabbi. Mind you, when one of my brothers was trying to get into Eton, he  said he wanted to be a professional snooker player when he grew up. He ended up going to Harrow instead.

I did eventually realise that I wasn’t going to be a prophet. I thought for a while about being a poet – it was another way of channelling these very important thoughts that occurred to me into words for the masses. And, as I entered teenagerhood, I gave more thought to being Prime Minister. The problem was, try as I might, I couldn’t find politics all that interesting. The highlight of History GCSE was learning the exotic words Perestroika and Glasnost.

It must have been when it came to choosing A-levels that my belief that I was going to save the world really began to waver. It was suddenly clear that the four subjects I had to pick were going to define not just what I would learn for the next two years, but also at university and then my job and then the rest of my life. Suddenly Good versus Evil and exciting Quests to Save the World were completely out of the picture.

And I was reading books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, which don’t particularly inspire one on to epic adventures.

As I grew older still, horizons got narrower and less and less intrepid. Even becoming Prime Minister became out of the question, as I never went to debates, or bothered with the hacks at the Oxford Union.

It was after my first year at Oxford that I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. This was after a year of reading Dickens and Eliot and Joyce and trying to think very seriously about what these important pieces of literature meant. So it was extraordinary to read these books that reminded me of being a child. The books are partly set in Oxford and yet it’s not really Oxford at all. In Oxford nobody has adventures and goes on quests; they’re too busy thinking about poststructuralism and having essay crises, or dressing up in black tie so they can vomit their way through an induction to some society or rugby team.

I cried at the end of those books. It was in part due to the ending, but it was also because they plucked at a delicate strand of nostalgia. I remembered the little girl who was determined to save the world, who had been buried under years of sobering, boring real life.

When I gave up my office job in publishing in order to write, that little girl was peeping out again, telling me ‘Yes, it is fun helping to make books, but you never wanted to grow up just to sit at a desk in a sterile office all day in which your main form of communication is email (which isn’t psychic at all).’

It can make me feel sad when I look at what some people do for a living. Did anyone really say, aged seven, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a banker’? There are exceptions, of course. There was one girl at school, who said from the age of eleven that she wanted to be a media lawyer; of course she became one. And I doubt she read particularly imaginative books.

But where are all the astronauts and the firemen? Where are the adventurers and the polar explorers? Some people do it. Some become doctors, having felt the calling as nine-year-olds, some become journalists and directors and other things that they’ve always dreamt of. My brother may not have become a professional snooker player, but he has become a concert pianist, which was his other dream.

And no I’m not a prophet, I’m not off on a Quest, and I’m not even Prime Minister. Perhaps it was because I never properly learnt to ride a horse. Like everyone else, I have to live in a real world filled with boring bureaucratic hassles of paying council tax and registering with a local GP. I’m not a writer whose books have been translated into several different languages, who gives talks to packed auditoriums, who anyone’s even remotely heard of. But I haven’t yet given up on the hope that while my writing might not save the world, one day it might make its own little impact.

Would you like a T-shirt, poster, toy, mug or malaria pill with that?

June 4, 2010

I was talking to someone the other day who used to work at a very large, very beautiful, very well-respected independent bookshop, which was taken over in the not-so-distant-past by a rather well-known chain. He quit a couple of weeks ago.

‘Why did you leave?’ I asked, risking a question that I always hate being asked about my old job in publishing.

He explained that when the chain took over it became increasingly hard for their shop to have any say about which books were ordered in. And when one can’t get a book that one wants to sell into the shop then one begins to feel somewhat worthless as a bookseller.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘But that all happened a couple of years ago. What finally made you crack? What was the last straw?’

His voice dropped to somewhere just above a whisper. ‘Merchandising. They wanted to sell book-related products, not just books.’

Every other bookseller who I’ve mentioned this too has had exactly the same reaction as me.

<Gasp> ‘No. Merchandising? For books?’ <Gasp, again> ‘No. That’s just not right.’

Why do we all feel so strongly about it? What’s wrong with merchandising?

I actually feel rather positive about film merchandising. I used to decorate my bedroom walls with film posters. It was the perfect teenage way to convey to parents that, ‘It’s not fair and you don’t understand me and I like watching films in French not the middle-class rubbish on the telly that you watch.’

But books … it just feels wrong. They seem too old-fashioned to be commercially exploited like that.

I think good book merchandising works precisely because it chimes with that old-fashioned, rather insular image that goes with books. Who can possibly not feel fond of the Penguin Classics mugs? Perfect for making a cup of tea … to enjoy whilst reading one’s book. And the other items that come trussed up in Penguin Classic livery are just as appropriate: tea towels, deckchairs, pencils, bookbags, espresso cups.

With the exception of the espresso cups (and I bet those haven’t been as successful as the others), these are all perfect classic English accessories. ‘I shall just set a deckchair out on the lawn to read on, with a splendid cup of tea.’ I’m sure that Wodehouse has written something similar. Note that they do pencils, not biros; bookbags, not ipod/ebook covers; tea towels not dishwasher tablets. It’s all very quaint, very old-fashioned. It hardly feels as vulgar as merchandising.

I suppose the most obvious place for book merchandising is in the children’s section. The child likes the Gruffalo, so why not get him the soft toy? Because soft toys are invariably not as beautiful, subtle, lifelike as the character on the page. Compare the two:

Or what about Beatrix Potter?

Frankly if I had a child, I’d rather it just read the books. Books are beautiful objects. They’re not just vehicles for information, packaging for stories. Children’s books in particular are a pleasure to look at, to pick out the details, to note the expressions of a favourite character. A talented illustrator should not be equated with a gauche grinning thing sowed together in a sweatshop in China.

And then there are the more grown-up books. I suppose a poster of a beautiful old iconic book cover wouldn’t be such a bad thing. This one of Mrs Dalloway, for instance, is quite smart.

Merchandising for commercial fiction is just about conceivable, although rather vile. Perhaps they could sell Carrie necklaces or clutch bags alongside The Carrie Diaries – the new book from Candace Bushnell, who invented Sex and the City. I’m sure that a table of chocolate treats next to a table of chick lit – perhaps the wrappers could mimic the book covers – would do well. But really, it’s a bookshop, not a newsagent. And when one can buy books in places like Tesco’s and HMV, surely it’s doubly important to have places that resist this supermarketing homogenisation, shops that are just for books.

And then merchandising swiftly reaches the realm of the ridiculous. Imagine trying to do it for travel books. Would you sell malaria pills and mosquito nets? Torches and penknifes? What about passport covers and moneybelts?

For history books, you could have fake swords, paste jewellery, tins of spam … for gardening, trowels and pots and bags of seeds … photography, well why not sell cameras?

Soon a once-glorious bookshop would be reduced to some kind of kooky department store. It would be hard to find the books amongst all the other paraphernalia.

So perhaps that’s the fear. Books cover such an incredibly wide range of subjects that if you were to open the Pandora’s merchandising box, a swarm of monsters much larger, uglier and more various than you could possibly have imagined would jump out. So please, let’s stick to books in bookshops. And perhaps the occasional bookish mug.