Romancing the novel

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane
Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane

When, in the early 70s, I spent a year or so as a library assistant (not ‘assistant librarian’, as I was firmly told) life seems in retrospect to have been a lot simpler. Information technology was in its infancy, microfiche was cutting edge for library users, and fiction was arranged on library shelves according to a simple fourfold system: Fiction (by author, in alphabetical order), Detective, Western … and Romance. (Teenage reading, what we might now call Young Adult, was still shelved under Children, hived off in its own ghetto and marked Juvenile. How fashions change.)

‘Fiction’ — that is, the works shelved by author surname from A to Z — is such a broad canvas: I’ve seen it referred to as mainstream (that is, ‘popular’), literary (niche, that is, not so popular), commercial (makes piles of money, usually in inverse proportion to its literary worth) and contemporary (probably published in the last year or so, certainly excluding classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austen). In truth these are categories with very fluid boundaries, often overlapping.

(To my mind there are in reality only two types of fiction, fiction you like and fiction you don’t, but you can’t plan a public library based on personal preferences.)

Where, then, does the Romantic Novel — the last genre we looked at in the creative writing class — sit?

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Literary bookshelves

Lamb House bookshelves

You may remember among the photos I included in a piece about Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, the picture of some bookshelves as Henry James might have seen them (sadly the books pictured are not James’ originals).

I thought I might also share with you some images of other bookshelves I saw on a recent visit to places in East Sussex and Kent, shelves associated with a couple of other literary figures. You may care to imagine, as I did, the authors in these places scribbling away or reading the latest publication sent their way.

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Pre-owned, pre-loved

Display in The Rye Bookshop, East Sussex

Inverted Commas 4: Used Books

I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?

Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.

The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.

For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.

The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.

I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.

I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.

Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”

Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?

Another book display, The Rye Bookshop

We Heart Libraries … or whatever

We ♥ Libraries: one of many visual library memes available online

People who love books love libraries.

That’s a sort of given, isn’t it? Those of a certain age usually see it as a place of hushed reverence, a temple of learning where obeisance is paid to the written word, from where you might even extract some small portion of the hallowed manna to enjoy privately for an extended period of time.

But if, traditionally, the library has been viewed as a “repository of resources” then today that paradigm has changed, evolved, morphed into the concept of the building as a place to support the entire community. The library is no more: the buzz phrase now is community hub. This is a place for the community to link to a global community via Wi-Fi; a venue for groups to meet, socialise or conduct business; a centre for education and training; a site for additional services and other agencies to share. This rebranding foresees a near future when all libraries are to be regarded as facilitators instead of deliverers.

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Do you love libraries?


“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

I’m sure you’ve seen this quote all over social media, supposedly by the classical writer Cicero. However, I’d never seen the source given, leading me to suppose that this was one of those fake quotations that the internet is awash with, aimed at those who would be in sympathy with the views expressed.

Nevertheless, searching for the Latin translation seemed to offer some sort of resolution, and so it proved. The sentence is from a letter Cicero wrote to his friend Terence (found in Epistulae ad familiares Book IX, Epistle 4):

si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.

The literal translation is something like “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will be amiss.” The implication being that if you create a kind of bibliophile’s paradise — an oasis of calm perhaps — in your private library, where you can meet and discuss matters with your friends, all will be fine. You can see that the slightly inaccurate ‘quote’ usually given resonates rather more with modern feelings about public (as opposed to private) libraries.

I don’t need to tell you that in these straitened times — when we’re all told to tighten our belts even more, when all the fat has been sliced off public purses until the bone is reached — much of local government in the UK is trying their best to circumvent the admirable provisions of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 in an attempt to fit in with government austerity diktats. And, equally, some of the public is trying to say “hands off” in every which way it can.

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The Quest for Books


I was interested in the results of a Goodreads online poll listing responses to the question “Where do you usually buy books?” — interested for two main reasons. First, for the fact that physical books were clearly still very much popular; and secondly because a good third still rely on their local bookshop for their purchases.

True, internet giant Amazon accounts for a hefty quarter of the total, though since many other online booksellers do some business through Amazon that seeming exclusivity may be mitigated to some extent. The category “online, elsewhere” is clearly a catch-all though: does ‘elsewhere’ include charity shops, shoplifting, housebreaking, book piracy, secret presses and so on?

Local bookstore 31,674 (32.3%)
Amazon 26,230 (26.7%)
Online, elsewhere 21,583 (22.0%)
I don’t. I have a library card and friends who like to share 17,903 (18.2%)
Direct from the publisher 732 (0.7%)
As of 3rd January 2016 98,122 total votes


A total of nearly a hundred thousand responses is not to be sneezed at, and I’m guessing fairly representative of English-speaking book buyers. I’m also heartened by the numbers of those who borrow or share books, especially where public libraries are concerned. As I’ve recently noted, over the last year a quarter of books I’ve read have come from the library. Over the same period I’ve only acquired four books online, not tackled yet because only purchased just before Christmas with Amazon gift vouchers; it’s actually exceedingly rare for me to order anything over the internet.

The rest of 2015’s reading comes from a total mix of sources — borrowed from friends or family, bought from charity shops or genuine book outlets, and rereads from my own bookshelves. Years ago I used to get review copies direct from a British publisher of scholarly Arthurian titles, but that fount has long since run dry; this year I’m aiming to include a handful of independent titles sent to me for review.

Every reader is different, of course we are. But though I’d like to think that many, perhaps most, of the followers of this blog would plump for buying their books at their local bookshop (if such a one indeed exists for them) I suspect the results may yet surprise me. Feel free to input your response here — but don’t delay, the poll closes in a week!

Borrower or lender?


I’m a great believer in libraries, as you may have noticed. Not just the idea, you understand — though I know many people do love the idea of a place where books are on tap, just because it’s a Good Thing. (Have you noticed, by the way, that whenever there’s a threat to a library locals get aerated about it? Even though it’s often the case that it’s been years since they last entered one?)

No, I’m a great believer in libraries, and not just as places where I can get free wifi, or shelter from the rain, or get my food recycling bags but as somewhere I can actually borrow books. Funded by council tax (what some still quaintly call ‘rates’) libraries are a wonderful resource for accessing fiction and non-fiction, and taking it away with you. And reading it in your own time. Or not, as the case may be.

However, there are times when I think borrowing books is a Bad Thing.
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Philistines at the gates

<div xmlns:cc="" xmlns:dct="" about=""><span property="dct:title">Crickhowell public library</span> (<a rel="cc:attributionURL" property="cc:attributionName" href="">Jaggery</a>) / <a rel="license" href="">CC BY-SA 2.0</a></div>
Crickhowell Public Library by Jagger, licensed under Creative Commons licence

To my mind the litmus test of a civilised community is the presence of either a bookshop or a library, preferably both. Whenever I visit a new town or city I can’t help but keep an eye out for a bookshop or, failing that, a local library, because that suggests that the locals value the life of the mind at least as much as branded clothing, a sofa outlet or a supermarket chain.

So I was horrified at rumours that the small town we’ve just moved to, which boasts a small but lively bookshop as well as a branch library, was in danger of losing the latter. “337 libraries have closed in the United Kingdom in the last 5 years,” I read. The county council, needing to make cuts in what continues to be the deepest, longest period of austerity in peace time, eventually opted to cut all branch library times (and therefore staff salaries) by 20%, safeguarding this branch library.

Long term, however, the future is not good: Continue reading “Philistines at the gates”