Shelf Interest: Books About Books



‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ isn’t the only book about books around at this time of the year. I’ve picked up a few already and I’m sure there are more to come. Here’s what I’ve got so far…

Bookshops – they look like the cosiest places in the world to work, don’t they? Apparently not, according to Shaun Bythell’s ‘The Diary Of A Bookseller’. Shaun lives above the secondhand bookshop in Scotland and has kept a diary of his daily life, totalling the till receipts and describing his ongoing relationship with staff and customers. Everything passes through his hands, from a book signed by Sir Walter Scott to ‘The History of Orgies’, but what rankles most is the utter thoughtlessness of the browsers, who complain about cost (this is in Scotland, after all) and bash the rarities about when they’re not even buying them. It’s a charming, evocative read, perfect for a Christmas curl-up.

More customer horrors come from Jen Campbell and her two volumes of ‘Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops’, from the parent who says ‘My children are just climbing your bookshelves. That’s OK, isn’t it? They won’t topple over?’ to the little boy entering a bookshop for the first time who asks his mother ‘Have we gone back in time?’ Appalling and hilarious by turns, it’s the customer interface at its worst.

Then there’s ‘Britain By The Book’ by Oliver Tearle. This is a scattershot voyage around Britain with stops along the way to discuss books associated with the various areas mentioned. Although it’s a bit all over the place (understandably so, given the premise) it’s knowledgeable and interesting. I like the fact that John Osbourne wrote much of his epoch-defining play ‘Look Back In Anger’ over seventeen days in a deckchair on Morecambe pier. Amusing to think that the play which ended ‘end of the pier’ theatre was written on one.

‘Paperbacks From Hell’ by Grady Hendrix (he has to be American) is a trawl through the arse-end of the horror novel industry of the 1970s and 1980s, when illustration was king. One tends to forget how liberating artwork was for an author of the fantastic – you could depict anything, and so here we have demonic teddy bears, killer baboons, murderous babies, seductive satanists, rats, bats, cats and eyeballs on forks. Hendrix provides neat little summaries of the many volumes he covers.

On the same subject, ‘The Horror! The Horror!’ by RL Stine delivers a fantastic collection of utterly disreputable horror comics from the 1950s that proves there was more to the genre than just EC. Divided by subject (Skeletons! Gorgons! Brainwashing!) these non-EC titles may lack the eloquent artwork of the EC artists but they make up for it with sheer gusto. ‘I’m not blind!’ reveals one character, ‘I’m the seeing-eye man for a retired blind werewolf!’ Of course you are, dear. The book also comes with a nifty DVD.

Finally Robert Forsyth has completed his lexicon trilogy with ‘The Elements of Eloquence’, following on from ‘The Horologicon’ and the ‘Etymologicon’, volumes that explore language by tracing origins, digging up rare or lost phrases and explaining how to use linguistic tools. I liked the expression ‘A small go’ – a pleasant night out enjoyed by all without anyone getting too drunk.

5 comments on “Shelf Interest: Books About Books”

  1. SimonB says:

    Nice. I can feel my wallet shaking from here…

    I can also recommend Jen Campbell’s “The Bookshop Book” which delves into the past, present and future of selling them.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    Every time I read one of your entries about books, my bank manager gets a nasty letter ready. I did work in a bookshop, and enjoyed every minute of it. Highlights had to be a party of ecclesiastical gentlemen, including a couple of Monks in Habits, flicking through, laughing uproariously at, and buying my entire stock of the in places, breathtakingly rude Douglas Adams and John Lloyd masterpiece, ‘The Meaning Of Liff’; Sir Bernard Miles, of The Mermaid Theatre, complaining about the step in the floor, despite it being very well signposted, and then buying a huge pile of books, and saying to me, quite sadly, I thought,: “Most people only remember me from the cracker advertisements…” The crowd of cheery Geordies, all of whom bought books, were unfailingly polite, and who nominated one of them to translate. When I said that I read, and loved ‘Viz’, they cheered. And then there was the old boy who I named ‘The Eleven O’ Clock Man’. The bookshop was next door to a newsagent, run by Mr. & Mrs. Harrison. Every morning, no matter what the weather was, an elderly man, dressed in what I could only term ‘farming’ clothes, would cycle up from the direction of Ripon Cathedral, lean his bike against the wall of the tea-rooms opposite my shop, cross the road (Kirkgate), enter Harrison’s, then exit clutching his paper, and then, without fail, would tap gently on the shop window, and give me a cheery wave, before regaining his bike, and cycling off. I always meant to ask the Harrisons’ what his name was, and where he came from, but I never managed it. That simple wave just made life a bit better. That was thirty years ago. Tempus Fugit, indeed. It seems like yesterday.

  3. Debra Matheney says:

    What a lovely story, Ian. You made my day!

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Debra – you are more than welcome.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    “Weird Things…” is a great read, just the thing for a quiet day or night. I certainly laughed a lot while reading it.

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