Bookshop spot: seaside shopping

As I sit here in my flat, typing away with rain pouring down the window, it’s hard to believe that only a few hours ago I was in blazing sunshine a short drive away down the coast in the gorgeous seaside town of Hastings.  The British summer may have ended before it’s begun, but I’ve brought a little bit of cheer back home with me in the shape of a beautiful second-hand book I found while rummaging in the old town quarter earlier today.

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Many old hardbacks have quite plain fabric covers, so this one jumped out at me straight away.  I love the 1920s and 30s illustration style and to find it adorning the jacket of a classic like this was a bonus indeed!  Inside the front cover there’s a book plate that tells me a little of the book’s history (which I always love finding); it was presented to a Newcastle schoolgirl called Ada Simpson in 1932 for “attendance, progress and conduct” – amazing to think that more than 80 years ago, someone was holding this very book in their hands with probably as much delight as I do today.  And it gets even better – there are beautiful colour plates throughout the book, each with a brief caption in the form of a quote from the novel.

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I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work; how this has happened I’m not quite sure!  Both my mum and sister are huge fans, yet somehow, when I was embarking on my literary educating by raiding the family bookshelves in my adolescence she was an author I must have passed over for some reason.  I haven’t read any classics in a while as I’ve been going through more of a contemporary fiction phase, but now I’m the proud owner of this lovely edition this surely has to be next on my reading list.

I’d love to hear about any gems you’ve uncovered while book-shopping, so do share your finds and pics!

Bookshop spot – May bank holiday!

This week’s bookshop spot is a pretty stupendous one if I do say so myself!  You probably wouldn’t associate chain bookshops with antiquarian titles, but this bookcase of joy has just appeared in one such store in my nearby city of Canterbury.

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I sometimes wonder why, in this age where vintage pretty much everything has become fashionable and desirable, old things are so often considered to be inherently superior to new.  I have a perfectly serviceable edition of “Pride and Prejudice” on my shelf at home, so why should I feel the need to purchase another copy to go alongside it simply by virtue of the fact that it’s seventy years older?  Maybe it’s as straightforward as nostalgia; anything that leads us to reflect on a vanished era – even if it predates our own memories – can bring about a sense of wistful peace.  Having a book in your hands provides an instant escape route into the world of imagination, a mental space that widens exponentially when you’re holding something a multitude of hands have held before you over the decades.  I often think about who might have owned the book originally and how it’s come to be where it is now; there’s something particularly poignant about finding dedications written in archaic hand on the frontspiece.

Whatever the reason, our love affair with the past will probably exist as long as humans continue to live and breathe.  My own love affair with this particular second hand book section will no doubt be fuelled by a series of more-frequent-than-is-sensible breathless encounters, as I struggle between the desire for book-buying gratification and the need to eat.  I was incredibly restrained today and limited myself to one book: a relatively plain but undeniably elegant slipcase edition of Hardy’s “Wessex Tales”.  Having got home with it and started wondering how it fitted in with my bookcase aesthetic I’m now sorely tempted to begin building my own antiquarian collection.  Watch this space.

Happy Birthday Will!

It’d be wrong to let the birthday of our nation’s greatest playwright pass by without comment, so here’s my little nod to the great man.  My edition of Shakespeare’s complete works is the oldest book I own, and by far the most precious, and I wanted to share it with you today.

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It looks, feels and smells exactly how you’d wish an old book to look, feel and smell; every physical book evokes some kind of emotional response but to hold this is to feel as if you’re in contact with another era.  I’ve scoured the pages and can find no publication date printed anywhere, which is a bit of a shame as I’d love to know, but it goes back without a doubt to at least the first half of last century as it was given to my maternal grandmother by my great-grandmother on her 21st birthday.  It’s that family connection that gives it a value unlike any other book I own.  The idea of a precious book being passed down through generations of women in my family makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside – I hope one day I’ll be able to pass it on again in turn.

And if you were to envisage the quintessential complete Shakespeare in your head, I’m pretty sure it would look something like this.  From the leather cover to the gilt-edged pages, to the wonderful, magical photographs of bygone actors and actresses in their Shakespearean garb, it’s absolute book-perfection.

Happy birthday Mr. Shakespeare!

Maps – a little love story

I refuse to buy a satnav.  Despite the wrong turns, dead ends and panic-stricken moments down narrow country lanes I’m not giving in.  Firstly I resent the idea of turning on a machine and simultaneously turning off my brain (you could say this about numerous types of technology I know but there’s something undeniable triumphal about getting yourself from lost to found through a bit of map-reading and navigational know-how), and secondly, maps are beautiful things and I worry that with our ever increasing ability to use technology to find our way around we’re going to lose both the objects themselves and the skills to read them.  It was one of my favourite things I ever learned in school: assessing the gradient of a hill from contour lines, deciphering the myriad of symbols used to signify churches, bridges and windmills…. maps are the world around us depicted in the most elegant and fascinating visual code, and they enthral me still.

I remember in my early bookselling days many years ago we’d be asked for world atlases on a pretty regular basis, and we’d always have a varied supply showcasing a range of sizes and designs.  People would spend a long time comparing them and considering which scale, colour scheme and layout they preferred, but over the years sales dwindled; after all, why would you want an enormous atlas taking up valuable space when a few taps on an ipad will tell you everything you need to know?  Just as I’m stubborn over the satnav, however, I’m also stubborn in hanging on to my enormous and very much loved atlas.  It’s a hefty bit of book and weighs a ton, but how amazing is it to have the entire world laid out in glorious large scale detail on your living room floor?  No image on a computer screen or tablet can replicate that.

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I have an inkling though that, like vinyl and Phil Collins, maps are starting to make something of a comeback.  I may not sell many atlases any more but I have come across a number of gorgeous books on the subject of maps themselves.  “The Phantom Atlas” by Edward Brooke-Hitching is one of my personal favourites, a compendium of myths, mistakes and sometimes downright lies that have made their way onto various maps over the centuries.  Who’d have thought a non-existent island could have appeared on official maritime navigational charts for 136 years until someone realised (as recently as 2012!) it wasn’t actually there?  Then of course there are the partly imagined maps of the Middle Ages and earlier, which fill their spaces with all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures drawn from legend or awestruck eyewitness accounts.  These are not merely guides to the world but to the minds of the people who were attempting to reach beyond their own borders for the first time, and could in many ways be considered works of art.  I’d also recommend “On the Map”, a fun and very readable homage to the map in all its forms written by Simon Garfield who, I strongly suspect, loves all things cartographic as much as I do.

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Maybe the hypnotic voice telling us gently but firmly to turn right in 483 yards has its place; after all, if I wasn’t so resolute in my shunning of technological help it would never have taken me over three hours to get from Lewes to Folkestone (if you live anywhere in the South East of England you’ll know just how ridiculous that is), but I hope – and believe – there are enough of us out there to keep the magic of the map alive for generations to come.

Wooden Books – a bookshop discovery

Not long ago I was in a lovely little bookshop on the south coast and I stumbled across one of these gorgeous books.

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Looking inside I saw a list of other intriguing titles in the same series: weird and wonderful little studies of some of the more obscure and enigmatic elements of art, folklore, history and more.  From crop circles to Celtic patterns, mazes to mind tricks – these minute editions instantly seemed to me to be a spark of mystery in a sometimes pedestrian world.  I immediately ordered four that particularly caught my interest, but I suspect I will be adding more to the collection before too long.  “Symmetry” is about the remarkably ordered patterns we find in nature and how those patterns have subconsciously passed into human art and culture.  “Sacred Geometry” explores the concept that certain shapes and proportions have a symbolic value and meaning that influences music, architecture and many other aspects of human design.  “Mazes and Labyrinths” I just couldn’t resist (do you know the difference between the two?  I didn’t) – it may not sound like the most riveting subject but I was fascinated to read about the different types of design and why they work.  Lastly “Islamic Design”, which I picked quite simply because it’s a thing of beauty, explains how the earliest Islamic artists founded the tradition of incorporating Arabic script with ornamental patterns that is so recognisable the world over.

I love an unexpected bookshop find and I’m so chuffed with these.  From the diminutive size to the striking cover design, everything about them is appealing.  The publisher is Wooden Books; I’d thoroughly recommend looking them up and discovering these miniature gems for yourself.

 

Bizarre Books

A bit of bibliophilic fun on the blog for you today!  I found this book in a second-hand bookshop years ago; it’s a glorious collection of weird and wonderful publications from across the centuries, featuring authors with unfortunate names, unwitting double entendres and titles so ridiculously niche you can’t help but wonder how they came to be published at all.  So to bring you some Friday cheer, here are a few of my favourite entries in this entertaining compendium, “Bizarre Books” – all completely genuine!

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Books by authors who, well, couldn’t have written anything else…

“Death in Early America” by Margaret Coffin

“Motorcycling for Beginners” by Geoff Carless

“Round the Bend in the Stream” by Wilmot Hudson Fysh

“Metabolic Changes Induced by Alcohol” by G.A. Martini

Books whose sphere of interest is limited to say the least…

“Wall Paintings by Snake-charmers in Tanganyika” by Hans Cory

“Canadian National Egg-Laying Contests” by F.C. Elford and A.G. Taylor

“Manhole Covers of Los Angeles” by Robert and Mimi Melnick

“The Effect of Relative Humidity on an Oak-tanned Leather Belt” by W.W. Bird

If you’re at a loose end this weekend here are a few suggestions as to how you could spend your time…

“Collect Fungi on Stamps” by D.J. Aggersberg

“Master Pieces: making furniture from paintings” by Richard Ball and Peter Campbell

“Macramé Gnomes” by Dona Z. Meilach

“Build your own Hindenburg” by Alan Rose

Or, if none of the above appeal, you could always settle down with one of these riveting titles…

“Practical Candle Burning” by Raymond Buckland

“Fishes I have known” by Arthur A. Henry Beavan

“The History and Social Influence of the Potato” by Radcliffe Nathan Salaman

“The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Metal Lunch Boxes” by Allen Woodall and Sean Brickell

Authors Russell Ash and Brian Lake have garnered these gems and hundreds more from years of working in the book trade – as an industry employee myself I can attest to some of the weird and wonderful things that get requested every now and again!  If there are any bizarre books you’ve come across, I’d love to hear about them…

Books about Books: “The Literary Detective”

You know you’re a true bibliophile when your love affair with books extends beyond merely reading them to embrace the whole world that’s built around them.  I love a cracking novel, but I’m also endlessly fascinated by our literary history, the place of the book in our cultural landscape, book art and design…. you name it – if it’s in any way related to reading, I’m going to want to discover more about it.  So it’s for people like me that I’m embarking on a new series of articles for my blog, simply entitled “Books about Books”.  Over the coming months I’ll be highlighting some recommended reads for everyone who delights in bookish facts, trivia and history; first up is “The Literary Detective” by John Sutherland.

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The author originally wrote a series of books in which he attempted to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of classic novels, and this is a compilation of all of them in one volume.  What I love is that fact that the enigmas he explores are ones you may well have missed on reading the novels in question, and it’s only when he draws attention to them that you suddenly start to think about their significance to the story.  More often than not, there’s a real element of fun to his contemplations (“Why is the Monster Yellow” in Frankenstein and “How do the Cratchits cook Scrooge’s turkey” in A Christmas Carol) yet he always manages to blend wit and entertainment with genuinely enlightening vignettes of literary criticism.  In his essay on Dracula entitled “Why isn’t everyone a Vampire” he does some deft and amusing (but undeniably correct) mathematical calculations to prove that, by Bram Stoker’s own theory of vampirism, as outlined by the voice of exposition, Van Helsing, the entire world population should have been turned into a vampire within about 15 years of the first person becoming infected.  Once we’ve laughed at the gaping plot hole and the author’s unsatisfactory attempts to get round it, though, Sutherland leads us on to a really interesting parallel between the Dracula story and the Victorian struggle to understand disease and how epidemics flourish and then die out.  Entertainment, but with a fascinating splash of literary and social theory thrown in.

The author delves into the detail of all the great classic novelists, from Austen to Hardy, Woolf to Dickens; but even if you haven’t read all the books in question it doesn’t matter, as Sutherland is careful to make his essays accessible to everyone.  If you’re at all interested in classic literature, there are hours of fun to be had here, and because the essays are all fairly short you can dip in for ten minutes here and there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post – there are definitely more books for book lovers out there that I’d love to share with you, so do come back to Girl, Reading soon.