Tag Archives: books

2015 in books

This has become something of an annual habit. You can see my reviews of the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. I began by polishing off a couple of books I started at the tail end of 2014.

The christianity books have been more numerous than any other. The reason for this is that I had simply acquired more books in this category than any other. I tried to roughly alternate between general theology, something specifically related to Jesus and testimony.

My science reading has pottered on. I made no particular choice to pursue certain topics. Though it remains slightly depressing that if you browse the science shelves of the average bookshops that you will find quite a gender imbalance, so the fact that my science reading is almost exclusively male is more reflective of the publishing industry than it is of a conscious choice on my part to avoid women writers.

In fiction, I continue to try to mix up classics with lesser known works. This year saw the publication of Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill A Mockingbird. The publication was announced at the start of the year, with Go Set A Watchman hitting the bookshops in the summer.

The other non fiction has attempted to plug some serious gaps in my understanding of philosophy, with some pepperings of history and economics. Yet just when I thought I was getting somewhere in patching up these holes, I ended the year by reading Slavoj Zizek, which rather exposed just how ignorant I am.

At the start of the year I gave myself a challenge to read some things that would counter my own worldview. It is of little use merely reading books that I think I will agree with. It’s good to look at things afresh. If we all only ever sought out views that accord with we what we believe already then no one will ever learn anything. I also asked for recommendations of books that would challenge me or otherwise be off my beaten track. Specifically, these books were:

Cover Her Face – P.D. James (to challenge my dislike for crime fiction)
Taking God at his Word – Kevin DeYoung (to challenge my liberal objections to biblical inerrancy)
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori (which wasn’t really to challenge me, I think the person who recommended it to me is a friend of the author and recommended it to me as a way of helping them out)
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek (to challenge my left-wing economic views)

Christianity (18)

The History of the Church – Eusebius
Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
Simply Good News – Tom Wright
How God Became Jesus – various authors
Taking God at His Word – Kevin DeYoung
Theology of Hope – Jurgen Moltmann
Hebrews For Everyone – Tom Wright
Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches (review pending)
The Quest of the Historical Jesus – Albert Schweitzer (review pending)
Gravity and Grace – Simone Weil
Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr (review pending)
Mark for Everyone – Tom Wright (review pending)
Quaker Writings – various authors (review pending)
Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn (review pending)

Science (8)

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik
50 Ways The World Could End – Alok Jha
Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science – Jim Al-Khalili
The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
The Spark of Life – Frances Ashcroft
The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver (review pending)
The Descent of Man – Charles Darwin (review pending)
Alex Through the Looking Glass – Alex Bellos (review pending)

Fiction (11)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cover Her Face – P.D. James
Good Evening, Mrs Craven – Mollie Panter-Downes
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
Dear Life – Alice Munro
Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee
Thank You, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (review pending)
The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier (review pending)

Other non-fiction (14)

Watching the English – Kate Fox (already started)
Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne (already started)
The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction – Martin Loughlin
The Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
The Koran: A Very Short Introduction – Michael Cook
Before I Say Goodbye – Ruth Picardie
Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction – Nicholas Vincent
Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction – Cynthia Freeland
The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Russeau
The Early History of Rome – Livy
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek
Hegel: A Very Short Introduction – Peter Singer
Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
On Belief – Slavoj Zizek (review pending)

Total (51)

Started but not finished (1)

The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch

So of these, which were the best and which were the worst?

Let’s start with the negative first. In fiction, there were no real stinkers, though Miriam Drori’s overly-explanatory style and simplistic writing stood out as being rather more amateur than the other books in that category. In science, again there were no particularly bad books, though Charles Darwin’s ‘The Descent of Man’ stood out merely for its dullness. Not a dullness of wit or intellect, but rather that it made for an uninteresting read, particularly in comparison to the expectations that I had for the book. The subject has been covered by others since Darwin and has been done a lot better. Other non-fiction didn’t fare so well. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’ is very outdated now and speaks to a different world to the one in which we live, so I cannot find myself recommending it. Onto more 20th century politics, Friedrich Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is more relevant, but his whole premise and conclusions are topsy-turvey to reason and good sense. The year finished with my introduction to Slavoj Zizek who had moments of sparkle, but where the whole work was so far up its own arse it rendered it incomprehensible. Within the writings on christianity, I had some issues about James Dunn’s ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ though that was more with the presentation of the book than its contents. Much worse in terms of the writing was Simone Weil’s ‘Gravity and Grace’ which had its moments, but read like a disparate string of half-formed thoughts. But taking the biscuit was the worst of the lot, not because of a lack of clarity but because of how wayward and misleading the content was. So my award for the worst book of the year goes to Kevin De Young’s ‘Taking God at His Word’.

With the less pleasant reading done with, let’s look at the sunnier side of things. Staying with christianity, the year began well with Rachel Mann’s ‘Dazzling Darkness’, which was a very creditable effort and which I’d recommend to pretty much anyone. Any work by Tom Wright is always worth checking out and this year saw me finish three such works, two of which were part of his ‘For Everyone’ commentary series; though his work, ‘Simply Good News’ was a great work, which did a lot to summarise his magnum opus on Paul: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. But my best christian book of the year goes to one that dates from the mid 20th century, as a gracious, yet firm, take on christian life. I’m referring, of course, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’. Moving onto the fiction works, I rather enjoyed Jessie Burton’s debut offering, ‘The Miniaturist’, even though it was for reasons quite different from what I was expecting. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was always going to be a book that would anger some, given the high regard for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, yet I found it a worthy companion piece that posed some very awkward questions of the reader. Though science was the most neglected of the 4 categories I use, there were some great works within it. None managed to top the book that I started the year with, Mark Miodownik’s ‘Stuff Matters’ which was a superb example of enthusiasm married to expertise. In other non-fiction, I was very pleased with Peter Singer’s Very Short Introduction to Hegel, but this was eclipsed by one of the most spectacular set of essays I’d come across about walking. So taking my recommendation to you as the best book of the year is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust.

How to read 5 books at once (and not get them muddled)

1. The Main Book

As the title implies, this is what I regard as the book I’m focusing on. It’s what I read when I commute or if I get an odd spare half an hour (and I have it on me). It travels around and I get through it relatively quickly. I’ll typically average about 20-25 pages a day.

Past examples: The Wasp Factory, Dazzling Darkness, Watching the English

Current example: Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann

2. The bedside book

The bedside book is a long book  that is read slowly. Typically only 5-8 pages are managed per night. Sometimes, it does come on the commute and makes for a break on a Friday from reading the main book.

Past examples: Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Histories, Philosophical Investigations

Current example: The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin

3. The coffee table book

This is a book made of multiple short ‘bits’ that only take a few minutes to read. The Very Short Introductions are very good for this.

Past examples: Boffinology, Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, 50 Ways the World Could End.

Current example: Hebrews for Everyone by Tom Wright

4. The lunchtime book

Very similar to the coffee table book, this is a shortish work that props up my keyboard at the office. I get to read for about 20 minutes at lunchtime, so it has to be something that can be picked up and put down with ease. This is only something I’ve started doing recently.

Recent examples: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction, The Social Contract

Current example: Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

5. The Sunday afternoon book

To make a break from the rest of the week’s reading, Sunday afternoons need something a bit different. It needs to be something that doesn’t need to be read continuously, so it can’t be a constructed argument for anything. Rather, each part needs to be self-contained and preferably not too short so that you can get stuck into it for an hour or two each week. For this, short stories are ideal or a collection of essays. Again, this is only something I’ve started doing recently, and any work I do read this way will be one I take my time over.

Recent example: Dear Life

Current example: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit


So how do these not get muddled up in my head? Well, I try not to read too many of the same genre. If I do, they tend to be at opposite ends of the genre. For example, it is very rare that I read two fiction books at once. If I were to do so, one would have to be a classical work (such a Thomas Hardy novel) and something science fiction-based (like a work by Philip K Dick).

Similarly, if I were to be reading two science books at once, then I might opt for one on biology and one on maths.

You get some interesting confluences between books sometimes. For example, I was recently reading Livy’s Early History of Rome, which was being referred to by Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract, which I was also reading. Then Rousseau was referred to by Rebecca Solnit in her book on walking, Wanderlust. Given the possible permutations of books being read simultaneously, I wonder if I was the first person ever to come across that particular linkage.

One of the other methods I used to use (when I spent longer commuting) was to have one book for the morning route and one for the evening.

What about you?

Do you read lots of books at once or do you prefer to focus on one at a time?

Why read?

As the number of book reviews on this blog approaches 200, there’s never been an explanation here of why I read quite so much.

I haven’t always been a bookworm. I really only started to read more extensively and intensively since I finished all forms of examinations when I qualified as a chartered accountant. Through my higher and postgraduate education, I was far more focused on my studies that I barely had time to read. What little I did was often of a low quality. For example, most of the 4 years of my degree were supplemented by Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. While the first instalment, The Gunslinger, was very good and the follow up was OK, but the rest was an awful drag and I’ve been put off fantasy ever since. This is why, despite numerous recommendations, I have never read any of the volumes of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This might seem out of character, as in my youth I loved Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I read the whole lot between my GCSE mock exams and the finals, subsequently dropping a grade in nearly every subject.

It was around that formative time that I learned to hate Jane Austen. We studied Pride and Prejudice to death, sucking out any joy that might have been there. I’m still no fan of hers and have no desire to pick up Northanger Abbey any time within the next few decades.

I suppose the main reason I started to read a lot was because of my commuting. At the time I worked as an auditor so rarely worked in the same place for more than a week at a time. I tended to either be in central or south London, Kent or various industrial estates around Sussex. Spending upwards of 3 hours a day on various trains can be rather boring, even if some of the countryside around the South Downs is rather picturesque.

Perhaps it was this rural world that I would pass through on my way to a factory floor that drew me to Thomas Hardy. Though not all have been reviewed here, I’ve read most of Hardy’s work. The only extant published novels of his which I haven’t yet read are: A Laodicean, Two on a Tower and The Hand of Ethelberta. As I saw dwellings other than those of a city or a large town, I could imagine the characters making their way in life in the very locations that I passed, separated only by time.

But fiction is not my only passion. My primary passion in reading has been science. It’s a peculiar consequence of when I set up this blog that there aren’t more science books listed. The fact is, I had increased my level of reading before I started reviewing. So it may be a case that if I run out of good science books to review that I’ve found in a shop recently, then I may re-read some of the great works that don’t currently have a review on this website. For example, if you look at the index by author, you may get the impression that I haven’t read much Richard Feynman. That is a false impression; I simply read most of his more popular works before I started this blog.

This is all before I get to the category that forms the majority of my reading: christianity. I think the reason why I have read so much more on christianity in recent years than any other subject is because I’m catching up. I used to pretty much study the bible either by myself or in church and had quite a small selection of study guides. It wasn’t really until I started to read around a little more widely that I began to get a glimpse of how much more I didn’t know or didn’t understand. So I began to consume theology and apologetics quite voraciously.

This then gets to the heart of my current reason for why I read so much these days. It is to try to fill the gaps in my understanding in order that I may hold informed opinions and make informed decisions. To be somewhat self critical, this is because of an awareness that others are almost invariably better informed than I on matters about which we converse. It is rather a treadmill where nomatter how much you learn, there is always someone who can simply stroll past you. So I admit to a kind of envy of the learning of others. I see myself as a child with short legs who has to put in a lot of effort to run, just to keep up with the long-legged stroll of their parents.

This way of thinking about reading has then extended into the other non fiction. This used to be a casual break from the more serious reading that I did, but of late it has extended into more learning, particularly about history, philosophy and economics. There is no real end goal to this. I am not aiming to get a point where I could claim “I know it all” or to be more informed than anyone else. Others might consider me well read or reasonably well informed, but many of those same people have read plenty that I haven’t, know things which I don’t or have life experience that I will never have.

Yet at the same time, it would be unreasonable to play myself down too much, that would be false modesty. I am reasonably well informed on the subjects in which I am interested, for someone who has had the opportunities in life that have been afforded to me. My point is that this cannot be grounds for complacency or to arrogantly think that I know more than any person I may pass on the street. I’m just trying to keep up, and books are the easiest means available to me.

Contrast this with travel. I am very poorly travelled compared to many people. Having only been on overseas holidays twice in the last 15 years, there are many who have had great wealth that have allowed them gap years, annual holidays or the like in which they have gained far more life experience than I have. My exposure to other cultures comes through words, translated into English, that have come mostly from single sources. I have never laid eyes on many of the great sights that the world has to offer and probably never will. While such travel is limited to the very privileged, reading is far more democratic.

That’s my motivation for reading. What’s yours?

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 8 of 8)

Link to part 1 – intro
Link to part 2
Link to part 3
Link to part 4
Link to part 5 – interlude
Link to part 6
Link to part 7


  1. John Sandoe Books Ltd

Continuing my adventure in Chelsea, I made my way to John Sandoe. Pretty much in the heart of Chelsea, it’s housed in what appears a slightly wonky building; one where the beams are visible but where no two of them are quite parallel with one another and where any single beam is not truly straight.

As you walk in, you find the floor is also a bit higgledy piggledy. There’s no obvious place to go so I just headed for the nearest shelf and had a look at what was in front of my face. There was no clear order to the books on display. They weren’t grouped by fiction/non-fiction or any subcategory thereof. They were just there. So you had to look quite carefully to see what might take your fancy. As I explored a bit I did eventually discern that there were patches around the shop where the books were grouped by publisher. So I found a whole load of Persephone books (see earlier), a wonderful array of Very Short Introductions and a bunch of P.G. Wodehouse stories.

It all had a delightful charm to it. It wasn’t shambolic in its organisation as I had found with Bookmongers and Skoob, but neither was it so neatly laid out that you could find what you are looking for with minimal thought; the opportunity for adventure and accidental discovery is a permanent presence at John Sandoe.

I didn’t think the shop was terribly large, though I had been intrigued by a few very narrow staircases, yet they seemed so narrow as to be slightly foreboding. I hadn’t seen anyone go up or down them so I thought it might lead to an office or a personal dwelling. It wasn’t until someone came in, asked for the children’s section and were directed downstairs that I realised that there was more to the shop. So I ventured upstairs and found a great wealth of books which I could spend many an hour perusing. But I have to tell you about the genius shelving. While there were fixed shelves, they had an attachment to the front that allowed for sliding panels, each panel being a shelf in itself, so they were able to stack books three level deep, but you could just slide one panel out of the way to get to the one behind, so it was non-obstructive and an utter delight. While up here I found was may have passed for the religion section, though it had plenty of other bits mixed in. I was very tempted by Strange Glory, the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh. Though it just didn’t quite seem right for this bookshop. Being in Chelsea, I wanted to get something that had a certain air of poshness to it. So I had a quick look on Wikipedia to see a list of stories by an author I have long been implored to read and see what was the first full novel in their most famous series.

Book purchased: Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

  1. Any Amount of Books

Returning to the Charing Cross Road, I wanted to see a couple more of the one-off shops that I didn’t get a chance to go into before. Walking into Any Amount of Books, I was immediately caught by the Hardy novels that were just at eye level on the right hand side as I walked in. I think they had just about every published work there, including the few that I haven’t read. These were sat amongst some very good value 2nd hand books, reasonably well laid out. For a very small inside shop area, there were quite a few people there when I visited. So there was a bit of jostling about to get position to look at the shelf you wanted; it’s a game I wasn’t too good at and had to pretend to look at some shelves when I wasn’t interested in them, just while I waited for someone to move.

The christianity books were listed under “Myths/Legends” which didn’t impress me much. Though it may have appealed to one other shopper who came in asking about books on angels. Eavesdropping the conversation with the staff a little, I gathered that such books are quite popular, though it was not specified what religion, tradition or philosophy was being sought.

There was another sign in the shop that irked me rather. It was I’d seen before, when I was in Judd Books. It was the sign that said no bags were allowed downstairs. So I was quarantined on the ground floor again. But I couldn’t get Jim Crace’s Quarantine for a second time, could I? No. I was torn. There were some great 2nd hand books on offer here, many of which I’d heard of but hadn’t seen on sale before. So in that respect I loved it. But banning people from going downstairs with bags is stupid and unwelcoming. So in that respect I hated it.

What book had I seen that could encapsulate feelings that mix both warmth and coldness in my attitude to the shop. Well, there was one, though the biblical reference may have been lost on the shopkeeper.

Book purchased: Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean

  1. Henry Pordes Books

There was one more bookshop on Charing Cross Road I felt I had to visit. Henry Pordes has a slightly odd look from the front. It’s not particularly neat but neither is it so higgledy piggledy that it acquires charm. It just looks a bit unloved.

As you walk in, it’s a bit TARDIS like. You might get the impression from the outside that it’s the same size as Any Amount of Books, but in fact it’s quite a bit larger, as the shop goes back more than 10 feet. It’s not clear what the ordering was supposed to be. A fairly big alcove to the right contained a lot of oversized hardbacks, mostly on fairly run-of-the-mill history, quite a bit of which was military. This is really not my area of interest so I searched for some time for anything that could be a contender for a book to buy.

One of the interesting features was the height of the shelves, as some were unreasonably tall and you need a ladder just to read the spines. The staff were all rather sour-faced and when I did eventually make my purchase the chap on the till gave a rather disdainful look for a reason that I have yet to fathom.

I did evetually find a section of the shop that took my fancy, as it had some more ancient history as well as science here. I didn’t find any sign of a religion section in the shop, which was rather disappointing. For those books that weren’t signed first editions, they were reasonably priced, often about 2/3rds of the RRP that is printed on the cover. Having not picked up too many science books on my travels thus far, I concentrated in this area. The one that jumped out as me was a book by an author I have yet to read, though his reputation in physics is mighty indeed and who I think bears more than a passing resemblence to Dominic West.

Book purchased: From Quantum to Cosmos by Neil Turok

  1. Review

So I come to my final bookshop of my pilgrimage. I knew this one was in Peckham, but it was a part of Peckham I’d not been to before. I am used to the main road, which is always dirty, with rubbish strewn everywhere. Review is just 100 yards or so from here, yet it is almost half a world away in a much more gentrified part of Peckham.

It has the nice touch of being one of those shops with a bell that rings as you enter. Plushly carpeted, it’s one of the nicest underfoot of all the bookshops I visited. The place has clearly been done up fairly recently, though the ceiling still betrays the slightly more shabby start in life that the shop must have had.

There is a fairly open part of the shop with a few displays before you get to the back where most of their books are kept more densely. One of the charms of the shop was the idiosyncratic labels that were used to describe the various sections. Unfortunately, the non-fiction offerings were a bit scant, especially in science and religion. So it felt most appropriate to go for a fiction work. Of these, there was a reasonable collection, though there was little here that jumped out at me. The ones that did, other than the one I chose, were Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Book purchsed: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini


With that, I end my tour. There are many more bookshops around London that haven’t even got a look in here. I f you want some sort of conclusion, it will have to be that it was great fun doing the exploration and partially made up for my bank screwing me around, denying me my first overseas holiday in 5 years.

There are some lovely places and some absolute stars. So if you’re in the capital my “must visit” bookshops are (in alphabetical order, no ranking here):

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 7 of 8)

Link to part 1 – intro
Link to part 2
Link to part 3
Link to part 4
Link to part 5 – interlude
Link to part 6


  1. Brick Lane Books

I hadn’t yet gone over to what is sometimes referred to as the East End, though in reality this is north-east London, not far from Liverpool Street station. I approached Brick Lane from its south end, which is a little awkward as the first 20 yards or so go by a different name, so if you are looking for a sign that says “Brick Lane” you will get hopelessly lost. As it is reputed, the place is full of character and curry houses. The book shop is quite some way up the road, maybe a good 10 minutes’ walk or so, on your right hand side and you head north.

At the time I got there, the place was fairly bustling which, given it’s not the largest of shops, made it quite hard to move around. We had to squeeze past one another and a couple of nattering schoolchildren made part of the shop inaccessible for some time. Almost opposite the till, just off to one side, was a fantastic wall full of Wordworth Classics and works of Shakespeare.

They also had a fairly solid collection of modern and children’s fiction. I must say I was a bit disappointed at first by their non-fiction offerings, as this seemed to be limited to just a single bookcase that was not organised by any discernible categories. However, it was somewhat redeemed by a wealth of offerings on local history. That is, local to north-east London.

So I was torn about how to sum up the shop in terms of my purchase. On the one hand, it would be quite reasonable to go for a Wordsworth Classic, but on the other, I had the chance for an insight into a locality I might not get elsewhere. I think I made the right choice.

Book purchased: East London Suffragettes by Sarah Jackson and Rosemary Taylor

  1. Freedom

Billed as London’s largest anarchist bookshop, one could be forgiven for missing it. As far as the ‘alternative politics’ bookshops (c.f. Housmans and Bookmarks above) this is certainly far more anarchist in feel and less communist. The address gives the impression that is on the high street but it is in fact down an alleyway which is next to an outlet of KFC.

As with Bookmongers, this is a shop that comes with its own dog. This time, it was (I think) an English bull terrier. Small, white and basically a ball of muscle, it was very pleased to see me, but wasn’t in any way obtrusive. The woman who was running the shop was just putting a small bookshelf outside (as it was a sunny day) and said that I was the first customer of the day, in spite of the fact that it was gone 11 o’clock. I had a good mosey round. One shelf that caught my eye was the fiction and I noted that there were a few works there by Ursula Le Guin. Now I’ve had her on my radar for a little while now but haven’t got round to either reading or buying anything by her, so I was very tempted by a copy of The Dispossessed. However, Freedom is not just a bookshop. It is also a publisher in its own right, so in trying to buy a book that summed up the place, it seemed more appropriate to pick something from the in-house publishing label.

The works on offer here are nothing like what you would expect to find in a Waterstones. So it took some time to flick through the titles, which only served to highlight how uneducated I am in matters relating to the anarchist movement. There were strong critiques and polemics here against not only Conservatives, but also plenty of ire directed towards Labour. The one thing that put me off somewhat was the alignment with libertarians, as my experience of those who describe themselves as such are mere Conservatives whose love of liberty extends only so far as advocacy of their ability to economically oppress others. As a prime example, I might cite the arch-irrationalist Christopher Snowdon.

Nevertheless, even if I disagree with a position, I must learn from it. So I look forward to learning more about the school of thought which gives rise to such a place as this. The floor may be bare, hard and cold, but the welcome was warm and open. As I walked out, it was pointed out to me that there was a box of old magazines on a table and that they were being given away free. So I picked up on my way out as a bit of a bonus. It’s called Lobster magazine.

Book purchased: A Short History of Anarchism by Max Nettlau

  1. Whitechapel Gallery bookshop

I had no intention to visit the Whitechapel Gallery but I noticed it had a bookshop which was just a few feet from Freedom (above) so I popped in for a bit. Interestingly, the price tag on the book I stated that this was an outlet of Koenig Books, which I know as a specialist art shop on the Charing Cross Road; a shop I hadn’t planned on visiting in my travels.

Being an art bookshop, there were plenty of oversized picture books that pretentious people like to think are higher form of culture than those they enjoyed when they were four years old, but which are ultimately just oversized picture books. These hold no interest for me whatsoever, so I was rather restricted in what I might choose.

One of the other noticeable features of the bookshop was that while in most, you would have people observing the unwritten rules of allowing other people past, the Whitechapel Gallery shop was seemingly populated by scarecrows. The clientele tended to pick their spot and stay rooted there, oblivious to anyone else and not moving, even to the extent of ignoring others when asked to shuffle just a few inches.

So when I spied a shelf that held some interest, I was obstructed by one chap who seemed to think it was a strange library where you had to stand rigidly in front of the books and read pages and pages of a single work. This made it rather difficult to get to so I had to be patient, circling back every now and then to see if he had picked up my hints that I wanted him to stop obstructing the interesting-looking shelves. It would only have required him to take a single step backwards, but the white-trousered man remained.

It took a good 10 minutes before he finally shuffled his feet slightly and allowed me to reach around him and pick up a couple of books of interest. One was seemingly a work of sociology or politics asking why we need to grow up (hence my comments about the juvenile appeal to picture books above) and one was a Very Short Introducton to Art Theory. Since this was an art gallery bookshop, the choice was obvious, wasn’t it?

Book purchased: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

  1. Belgravia Books

Leaving the East End, I jumped on the District Line and a couple of miles over to Belgravia/Chelsea to explore a couple of shops down that way. Belgravia Books was one that had been highly recommended to me and so I approached it with some level of anticipation. It was another shop that was said to host a canine friend, though none was visible at the time I visited. In fact, there was very little going on when I visited as I was the only customer in the shop for most of the time, apart from when one chap came in asking where there was a nearby French restaurant as he’d arranged to meet someone there but hadn’t had the foresight to note down the name.

When it comes to considering bookshops on a scale of neat & tidy to messy & characterful this one definitely ticks the neat box. It’s very professionally laid out for a relatively small space. There was a generally good selection of both fiction and non-fiction, though I would say that the religion section was rather lacking. However, I was very tempted by a couple of maths books they had which I hadn’t seen anywhere else.

But they had something here I had seen surprisingly infrequently in other bookshops: a recommended list. They had selected some titles and laid these out especially. As my aim was to buy a book that typified a bookshop, it seemed only reasonable to opt for something the staff here had recommended to their customers over and above all the other titles they had in stock. Some I had read, some I own but have yet to read. But there was one that grabbed my attention, not as a “you must buy me” but as a “you need to take a closer look at me, for I intrigue you”.

Book purchased: Shady Characters by Keith Houston

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 6 of 8)

Link to part 1
Link to part 2
Link to part 3
Link to part 4
Link to part 5 – interlude


 

  1. Persephone

I first noted Persephone around Christmas when I was with family, having planned a day at the British Museum, they got bored within an hour and wanted to spend half the day in Argos. But the route took us down a pedestrianised street where Persephone books is situated. I wasn’t able to go in then, so it wasn’t until my “holiday” in late February that I was able to get past the front door. It was a door with an old fashioned bell attached to it, making sure that everyone inside knew that you had arrived.

Persephone is a publishing label which mostly operates by mail order; this is, to the best of my knowledge, their only store. As soon as you walk in, you get the impression this isn’t a regular bookshop. There were very few books on the shelf and they were all in the Persephone design, which is a fairly plain (some might say dull) grey cover with a single white box containing the title and the name of the author, with a small black company logo near the bottom of the cover. What is different about each one is the design inside the cover, which are all rather exuberant but charming.

The other main feature of the very small shop area was the boxes containing lots more books that weren’t on display. I couldn’t call it ramshackle, because what was displayed was very well done. It’s just that there was plenty of other things going on at the same time. For example, as I picked the volume that looked perfect for me, the phone rang and I heard one side of all too familiar conversation – that between a cold caller (NPower, if I recall correctly) and someone who couldn’t wait for the conversation to end, but who ran down a couple of dead ends before being able to end it.

I must say that the staff here were amazingly friendly and so it’s worth visiting just for their brief company. I did sketch my reasons for being there, as they handed me a catalogue, though one of the staff, while expressing delight at the prospect of visiting bookshops in your time off, thought there was such a thing as “too many books”. I had to voice my disagreement as I left there, having paid, with one more.

Book purchased: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

  1. The London Review Bookshop

It took a little while, but I finally made it to one of the most highly recommended bookshops of the lot. On walking in, I was greeted to a gentle but bustiling noise of a cafe that adjoined the bookshop. I didn’t make it as far as the cafe which I slightly regret. Instead, I headed straight for the shelves which were very well stocked and laid out, with all sorts of fiction upstairs. There were some on tables in displays that reminded me of the more professional bookshops like Waterstones or Foyles. Somehow this idea was reinforced by the particularly posh accent of the shopkeeper.

Heading downstairs where they kept their poetry, plays and non-fiction, I sort of felt I was intruding. The area was not huge, but it was sort of a pit with a table in the middle and a few chairs around it. Only when I was there, there was some kind of planning meeting going on so while I edged around trying to look at books, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the rather entertaining conversation that was going on. It would be wrong to divulge the contents here as I didn’t get consent, but if anyone from the shop recongises this scenario and remember a chap in a black denim jacket trying to move around without getting in the way, then that was me.

The religion section wasn’t well stocked, which was a bit disappointing. If it had been as strong as their philosophy section, then I would have been a bit happier. However, I was drawn to the science and nature section, where these two were merged and no great subject divisions were clear. Having been confined to the city where I live (but am still none too fond of) I must admit that I was aching rather to get outside to the country where there is freedom to roam and one can breathe fresh air. Being in this cauldron of a basement only exacerbated that feeling, so I felt I had to opt for a book that encapsulated the desire to, as Freddie Mercury might put it, break free.

Book purchased: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

  1. The Bookseller Crow

In an effort to sample the bookshops of London, I couldn’t just stay in the centre. So it was that I headed off to Gipsy Hill, the area of south London that is host to The Bookseller Crow. It’s not easy to get to, particularly from my home in East Dulwich. I had to get a bus down to Crystal Palace (about 20-25 mins) and then walk from there (about another 20-25 mins).

While it’s not a huge effort compared to many journeys, it probably embodied the idea of pilgrimage better than any other journey I made. It is for this reason that I was so disappointed at what a let down the bookshop was. It reminded me somewhat of Dulwich Books (see interlude). The fiction was, as expected, the dominant force at play, with a fair selection of children’s books on offer. Yet the science section was paltry and what passed as “spirituality” consisted of one shelf of Neale Donald Walsh and, for reasons unfathomable, Bradshaw’s Guide.

The main redeeming feature was that it seemed to host some worthwhile events. I noticed that fairly soon they were going to have an evening with Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, which I had bought at Primrose Hill. Having puffed my lungs a bit walking up some small hills, indicative of my current lack of fitness, I thought that it would be good to try to get a book that had some sense of a journey about, particularly one on foot.

Book purchased: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

  1. Church House Bookshop

After leaving the Bookseller Crow, I had a couple of disappointments (see the interlude) so I tried to make up for it by going over to Westminster and visiting what will be my new local bookshop once my office moves in a few months’ time. The Church House Bookshop is just a few yards from Westminster Abbey, in what is something of a different world from that which most people in the country live in for most of the time. As I got there, I passed tourists who were trying to get a glimpse of Big Ben and various (presumably) civil servants carrying small folders of paper around and scurrying with a Kafka-esque sense of urgency to get somewhere to do something that no one understands and which seemingly makes little difference to 99% of the population.

To step into the bookshop, then, it is to take a step back from this madness and gather some moments of peace. I had not been here before, though they did do a pop-up shop at Greenbelt [include link] which I greatly enjoyed. I was greeted with a hushed “hello” as I walked in, instantly getting the impression that this had quite a library-like atmosphere (is librarial a word? If not, it should be). With hard floors and no background noise or music, one feels as though one must tiptoe around so as to not make a sound.

It is certainly professionally laid out, with different topics clearly marked and with some nice displays on the tables. For what is ostensibly an Anglican bookshop, I was not surprised at a dirth of nonconformist writings, though I wasn’t expecting quite so much here that was pro catholic and eastern orthodox.

I had a good mosey round the place, finding all sorts of wonderful books thinking “I must read that sometime” at least twice on every shelf I passed. So it was something of a struggle to choose the one book that I thought would epitomise this place. In the end, I made a conscious decision to opt for an element of tokenism, as I’m aware that the vast majority of my books on christianity are by men. I need to try to even things up a bit. Well, that cut down my selection somewhat, but I still need further direction. Much of what I have in my “to read” pile is either testimonial in nature of historical. So it would be good to get something that spoke to the here and now, to the humdrum, to the boring people like me who just try to get on with life, living as a christian in a country whose multifaceted identity can at one moment seem to have a rich christian heritage, but in the next can seem a world apart from many an expression of faith.

Book purchased: Everyday God by Paula Gooder

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 5 of 8) – interlude

Link to part 1
Link to part 2
Link to part 3
Link to part 4


The no-shows

The Southbank Centre Book Market

This was one of the first places I tried to visit. It’s located underneath Waterloo Bridge on the south side of the river. Or rather, it’s supposed to be. The only evidence of it was a lonely blue sign stuck to some railings. The website said that it happened every day come rain or shine, but it seems that this was out of date and that the book market is no more.

Bookhaus

Situated at the end of a posh row of houses in Chelsea, Bookhaus was a strange one. There was a clear sign that said “Open” on the door and I could see someone inside. Yet the door was locked (note, this was around 2pm). Having a locked door and being open for business are mutually incompatible. I could have stayed and knocked on the window, but if they don’t have the good sense to be accessible then they don’t deserve to have any customers.

56a Infoshop

If a tourist were to ever stumble across 56a Infoshop by accident then they would be very very lost indeed. I had the independent bookshop map in my hand and still wasn’t able to find it after I aimed for it after leaving the Kennington Bookshop. I had to go back another day with an A-Z in hand in order to head down the back streets of Elephant & Castle.

When I did eventually find it, it was boarded up. There was some writing on the outside that mentioned the opening times of an organic food shop, but no sign of a bookshop.

Tabernacle Bookshop

Moving on from the radical, liberal 56a, one may find the Tabernacle Bookshop barely a quarter of a mile away as the crow flies. This is attached to the hugely impressive building that hosts the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the same church and building where Charles Spurgeon preached. Some months ago, I visited an FIEC church where an old friend of mine used to preach, though he and his family had since moved on. While there, I spoke to a chap about the same age as me who had been to the Tabernacle bookshop, describing it as behind a thick curtain, such that the pulling aside of it made one feel as though you were being let into an inner sanctum.

To get to the bookshop, there’s a little alleyway down the side of the church and you end up in a sort of side carpark. As soon as you go down there you get the impression that you should’t be here; almost as though its an industrial estate, private property. I passed a parking spot that had a little sign above it saying it was reserved for the minister.

Passing this, one gets to a sign marked “Tabernacle bookshop” which leads up to some steps to a plain door which was locked. There was a series of buzzers to the left hand side of the door, one of which was marked “bookshop” but as with BookHaus (c.f. above), if the door is locked, then the shop is not truly open for business. I was tempted to press the buzzer, if only to satisfy a sense of curiosity, but principles are principles and so I turned around and headed off.

The too expensive

One of the places I wanted to make sure I went to was Cecil Row, something of a Diagon Alley. It’s a short, pedestrianised road, just south of the Wyndham Theatre. There are a whole series of tiny places down here, most of which aren’t big enough to swing a cat in. The only one that is is a specialist in the occult, which I am happy to give a miss. I popped into one (I forget its name) of the other shops and had a look around. Many of the volumes were unknown to me, so I had a rather good time exploring the possibilities. That said, most of them held very little interest for me. Trying to find a point of reference, I picked up a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. I’ve not read any of her works yet, though I do  have a copy of The Black Knight in one of my ‘to read’ piles. Aware that The Sea, The Sea is one of her most famous works, I considered buying it. Only then I checked the price. This shop wanted £275 for it.

I was rather gobsmacked. I put it back on the shelf and tried a few random books. The cheapest I could find was £50. It seems that this was not so much a bookshop full of books that were meant to be read, but rather of books that were meant to be owned. Specifically, signed first editions. Though familiar with the laws of supply and demand from my economics and accountancy qualifications, I remain sceptical about their absolute use in valuing scarcity. For while such books may be rare, the idea that having a signature in the front inherently adds value is a nonsensical idea. The work of labour to write just about any book would take months (there are exceptions, as I know Farenheit 451 was written in just a few days) yet the scribbling of an autograph takes only seconds.

I know that I could easily have walked a couple of hundred yards up the road to Foyles and got myself a copy of The Sea, The Sea for probably little more than £10. Can it really be that the addition of a squiggle of ink adds £265 to its intrinsic value? It offends me that I live in an economy where some would answer that question in the affirmative.

I had made it my aim to buy a book in each shop I visited, but here I realised that that aim could not reasonably be met. Though I buy books faster than I read them, I am not merely a hoarder. I live in a season when I am blessed with the ability to buy what I intend to read yet I don’t know how long this season will last. I’ve been made unemployed before and in today’s world there is no such thing as job security. So if I am ever made redundant or my circumstances otherwise change, I will have a ready supply of things to read while I continue to look for alternative jobs.

Notables not visited

Chener Books

This is my local bookshop. For some reason the London Bookshop Map has this marked as a 2nd hand bookshop, but this is misleading. It is almost entirely new books, but some of them may have been in the shop for a little while. It’s wonderfully disorganised with piles of books all over the place. The religion section is not as good as it used to be, possibly because I bought quite a chunk of it and they simply haven’t been replaced. The philosophy section is probably the best, and science is also very strong here. Don’t come if you are looking for a specific title, but do come to browse and find something delightful.

Rye Books

Not terribly far away is Rye Books. Named after the nearby Peckham Rye, this is a very small bookshop with not many books at all. They also run regular events within the shop so while there isn’t much to see upon browsing, it is often impossible to browse. The last time I went there to look around, they were doing a children’s reading party. This is very good for the children but it renders the shop unusable for everyone else. What is in their favour is that if you know precisely what book you want, you can order it and they have a next day delivery service.

Dulwich Books

This regularly gets listed as one of the best local bookshops in London. The name is slightly misleading as it’s actually closer to Norwood than Dulwich. And it remains a mystery to me as to why it is afforded such accolades. It is a moderate bookshop, but I’ve never experienced anything there that really wows me. It’s very similar to The Bookseller Crow, in that it has a reasonable selection of fiction, some regular in-shop events but is very weak on non-fiction.

Village Books

This is the sister shop to Dulwich books. Though unlike Dulwich Books, it’s actually in Dulwich. There are two floors to it, neither of which has a large range of books, but it has a certain charm to it. It’s another one that seems indicative of the mindset that “reading = fiction” so while it is good in one genre, it lacks the breadth that would make it a truly great bookshop.

Hatchards

This is the oldest bookshop in London and I have to say, one of my favourites. Situated on multiple floors, with some narrow corridors meaning you have to squeeze past the other shoppers, yet without it being so cramped that you can’t move, it has a layout akin to a rabbit warren. This is one of the finest bookshops of all, as you can come here either for something you’re looking for or just have a browse. The science section is downstairs and is very well stocked, as is the religion section at the end of the same quasi-corridor. The philosophy section in between the two is also loaded with many enticing volumes. I could spend all day there and not get a chance to go upstairs.

Waterstones (Piccadilly)

There are many Waterstones branches around the place, which are all much of a muchness. Their flagship store, though, remains the one Piccadilly, just a few doors down from Hatchards (which is now owned by Waterstones). The corporate professionalism that is evident to all is, to some, a means by which all character is drained. I would disagree with that. It may not have the quirky charm of the more ramshackle shops but it has an open, fresh feel that is most welcoming and one could spend many an hour here. In fact, I have on more than one occasion.

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 4 of 8)

Link to part 1
Link to part 2
Link to part 3


 

  1. Oxfam, Bloomsbury Street

This came as a recommendation to me from a friend. I hadn’t really considered a charity shop as one to visit, but having been to Bookmarks a few days earlier (see part 1) I knew exactly where it was. On walking in, one is struck by the slightly musty smell and the very hard floor which does rather put one off from spending too much time browsing.

The other offputting feature was one of the other people in the shop. He was a bizarrely dressed hipster who was seemingly trying to empty some of the shelves and put big a pile on top of one of the smaller bookcases. Every time he found something he wanted he would click his fingers, but he never looked remotely pleased. His offputting presence was only matched by the chap behind the till who, when I presented him with my purchase, seemed quite miffed that I had made him put his own book down.

As for the shop itself, it had an oppressively hard floor which rather put me off spending too much time there. However, it was very professionally laid out, with clear alphabetising of each section and with different topics clearly labelled. There were reasonable science and religion sections. I can’t say I fell in love with the place, even though they did have a section of reasonably priced rare books. If passing by, it’s worth popping in, but I wouldn’t say you need to go out of your way to visit.

Book purchased: The Poincare Conjecture by Donal O’Shea

  1. Skoob

Skoob is a real find. Not only in the metaphorical sense, but it also takes some searching to actually get to the front door. The address says it is in the Brunswick, a sort of shopping centre in Bloomsbury, flanked on either side by some gritty looking flats. As you come in, you can see a sign that clearly points towards Skoob. However, if you follow the arrow there is only a Waitrose. It puzzled me rather. I walked the pasta aisle and found a small back door to the supermarket. If you come out and turn left you can then see the entrance to Skoob. But that’s not all. Once you walk in the door, you immediately have to go down some steps and you are effectively in the basement of Waitrose.

There are warnings about low ceilings and in places the books are arranged so as to ensure that there is room for the pipes. Notably, the philosophy section had some kind of pipe immediately above it, though I couldn’t determine what flowed through the pipe. In fact, I’d rather not think about that too much.

What I do want to think about is the cave of wonders that is Skoob. The shelves are full to overflowing of a huge variety of books. As one might expect, there is plenty of regular fiction. There was also a large selection of science fiction. Yet this only accounts for maybe half of the stock, as there was a great selection of non-fiction. For some reason, there was a piano of the shop. Although there was no one playing it, it was a charming touch. Just beyond it was a shelf full of the Loeb Classical Library books which I haven’t got round to buying yet, but which, having flicked through, I am hugely impressed with.

Yet it was the religion section that I was largely drawn, with some intriguing works there, including one by Reinhold Niebuhr, another author who I have never read, but have read good things about (especially in the works of Stanley Hauerwas).

I’ll definitely come back here and if you need help in finding it, I’ll happily take you along.

Book purchased: Huldrych Zwingli: His Life and Work by Ulrich Gabler

  1. Judd Books

Judd was never on my radar to visit. I hadn’t seen it recommended nor was it on the map of independent bookshops. I only came across it by accident as I walked from Skoob (above) towards the Quaker Centre (below). Like many of the shops I had visited, it had a selection of books outside, underneath a canopy. I had a quick flick through, but nothing really grabbed me, so I headed inside.

Incidentally, roughly opposite (and a little bit south, down the road) I stumbled across an obelisk marking the final resting place of Charles Wesley.

As I entered, I immediately encountered a problem. The place was very poorly laid out, so even though there were only two other customers in a reasonably sized area, my way was blocked by both of them, so I had to negotiate my way round several tables in order to have a decent look around. The selection of fiction was comparatively small, but their range on literary criticism was as large as any I can recall seeing. So if that’s your thing, then this is your shop.

However, most of their non fiction seemed to be in a basement, which you could access via some stairs. At the top of the stairs one could see a most unfriendly sign telling people that all bags were banned from being taken downstairs. If you wanted to see what else the shop had to offer, you had to leave your bag with the front desk. There was no way I was going to consent to this, so the shop had an instant black mark in my book.

Being confined to the unnecessarily cramped space upstairs, I noticed that the prices were very good, so it’s not a bad place for a bargain. However, I tried to think what sort of book would help reflect what sort of shop would ban people from going downstairs if they already had an y shopping with them. As it happens, I did spot one book that had been on my wishlist for a few years. When I noted the title, it just seemed perfect to reflect a shop where there were areas customers were banned from going to.

Book purchased: Quarantine by Jim Crace

  1. The Quaker Centre

Situated just over the road from Euston station and one of my former offices (Grant Thornton house) is the HQ of Quakers in the UK. The bookshop is sort of scattered around within a communal area where you’ve got a cafe, some elderly folk asleep on some sofas and random study areas.

I had to browse around for a while as the till was unstaffed (in fairness, I was in there around lunchtime). The most offputting thing was there was a chap sat at a table who kept coughing quite markedly, as though he was trying to tell me something. I checked that my flies were done up correctly (which they were) and tried to check if anything else was out of order, but this chap wouldn’t make eye contact. He must just have a very unusual cough.

What’s there is both typically Quaker and so untypically anything else. There’s a wonderful mixture of books on ecology, pacifism, theology (christian and non-christian), some politics (mostly left-leaning) but also some quite anti-christian works. For example, I spotted a copy of a Sam Harris work which I thought stood out like an Alister McGrath work might in a humanist bookshop (if such a thing exists; I’ve not found one yet).

Given its location over the road from the station, if I’m stuck for a while at Euston, I’ll definitely come in again. After all, even for an introvert like me its good to be among Friends.

Book purchased: The War of the Lamb by John Howard Yoder.


Next time, I’ll have an interlude and look at the ones that got away.

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 3 of 8)

Link to part 1
Link to part 2


 

  1. The British Library bookshop

OK, this isn’t a normal bookshop in any sense of the term, but as the home of some of the greatest works of world literature, it seemed fitting that I pay a visit, particularly as I was in the area, aiming for Housmans (see below). I’d been to the odd exhibition here before but had never really explored the library. It’s quite an odd place, as it is full of student tapping away at laptops, sat at tables that dot the place. But you can’t simply walk up to the books. There are signs everywhere saying that you need some kind of pass to be granted access. So it is a public institution that is 90% closed to the public. The only area that was accessible was the “treasures” room where several of the highlights of the library’s collection are on permanent display.

Included here are pages from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook, Captain Scott’s diaries, handwritten lyrics by The Beatles and the piece that I consider to be one of the most important single volume works in the entire world: The Codex Sinaiticus.

I’ve seen it before, but I could never stop being enthralled by it. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale, though I couldn’t conceive of a price for such an important work in the history of humanity. So I made my way to the gift shop where one can buy the usual kind of nick-nacks from any museum or gallery, but I wanted to make sure that what I got reflected the location somewhat. There wasn’t a facsimile copy of the Codex Sinaiticus available and most of the books about books where large hardback picture books. However, there was one set of books on sale that were most apt. The British Library is currently putting together an exhibition that brings together the 4 remaining copies of the Magna Carta to mark its 800th anniversary.

Book purchased: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

  1. Housmans

Just around the corner from King’s Cross station, Housman’s is another of the left-wing bookshops I managed to visit. It had a very similar feel to Bookmarks that I had gone to a few days earlier. There were a few busts of Marx on sale, though not so many and there were also busts of Darwin and Einstein too. If anything, this felt less like an old shop and had a bit more of youthful feel to it. If Bookmarks was the home of the grumpy trade unionist, Housmans was the home of the angry anarchist. Indeed, there was quite an extensive set of writings on anarchism and much more on feminism too. If you were to bump into anyone here, I think it would be Laurie Pennie.

There was an interesting sign on the door that was addressed to any would-be shoplifters saying that the shop didn’t make much money and that anyone who did shoplift was robbing from staff who were already poorly paid.

The door to get it had the most marvelous little squeak to it. If you led someone there and just let them hear the sound then they should be able to tell you that they were in a bookshop. In addition to the new books, there was a small stack of second hand volumes as well as a host of pamphlets, obscure newspapers and banners. One that caught my eye was one calling for a British version of the Greek anti-austerity party, Syriza.

I could quite happily return here and would encourage you to visit if you’re ever stuck at King’s Cross or St Pancras with a bit of time to kill. You’re bound to get something far more thought-provoking than the banality that fills the bookshelves of the nearest WH Smith.

Book purchased: The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard

  1. Black Gull Books

Heading a short way up the Northern Line I ended up in Camden Town, an area of London I’ve never been to before. It was quite easy to find, but was a lot smaller than I had been expecting. In fact, it was about the same size as a small living room, with some small bookcases outside as overspill.

In spite of the small size, there was a reasonable selection here. The only criticism is that it wasn’t well laid out. For example, the book I eventually picked up was from a section entitled, “Physics, science and evolution” which is an utterly bizarre mixture of subtopics. Science would be sufficient, physics and biology as subsections thereof with evolution being a further subdivision of biology. So it was almost in defiance of that that I chose a maths book.

The other bizarre bit of labelling was when I was looking for the christianity books. They were labelled under “Self Improvement” which is a very poor description of the christian faith. That said, the selection was quite good and I was tempted by a copy of Augustine’s City of God. There was also quite a lot on jazz and blues, but that’s not a topic I’m particularly interested in reading about.

Book purchased: Further Mathematical Diversions by Martin Gardner

  1. Primrose Hill Books

After exploring the labyrinthine Camden market I found my way out and heading towards Primrose Hill. As the name suggests, it’s on a hill. There’s a sort of sub-park just to the north of Regent’s Park, the summit of which has quite a good view over the city, though on the day I visited, there was a bitingly cold wind in spite of it being rather sunny.

The bookshop is stocked almost entirely by new books and is very heavily biased towards the fiction end of the market. It is a rather small shop and I was the only person in there. One of the things that made it a bit awkward was that it was sort of elongated and the shopkeeper had a clear line of sight to the door. So unless you darted off to one side as soon as you walked in, you would be forced to walk straight towards them.

This evinced in me a fear of those dreaded words “Can I help you?” which usually suffice to send me straight out of any shop, never to return. So my tactic was to make sure I was out of sight for a bit, which got me browsing around the crime fiction section, which seemed to merge into a very generic non-fiction section. I couldn’t find anything specifically on religion and the science section was rather limited in its range.

The floor was nicely comforting. It was carpeted but charmingly wonky in places. So you could shuffle around for a while, but the size of the shop means that it’s probably best when there are no more than 3 or 4 people browsing.

So, what could I get that was a fiction work and had some sort of sense of smallness to it?

Book purchased: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton


 

Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at some of the shops around Blooomsbury and Euston.

 

Visiting the bookshops of London (part 2 of 8)

Link to part 1

  1. Beautiful Books

Not far from Book Mongers (see part 1), within the arches of the railway bridge is Beautiful Books, a christian bookshop that seems unusually tidy compared to the shanty food stalls and chaos of the market around it. It’s a christian bookshop of the classical twee kind with a few platitudinous posters on the walls and lots more for sale. It’s the kind that I recall we used to have in Dunstable, next to the more austere baptist church (ours was the more laid back of the two baptist churches in the town centre, but we didn’t have a bookshop).

The books were all along one wall and, at a rough count, seemed to be 1/4 bibles and 1/4 bible reading guides. There was also some apologetics, quite a few biographies of missionaries (though no doubt some of these might be referred to as hagiographies) and some odd bobbins. Being reasonably familiar with the world of christian writing, one can look out for various tell-tale signs to inform you as to the kind of thought that the owners might have by looking at the topics and the authors on display. There was quite a lot of T.D. Jakes and David Pawson on display, along with almost the entire set of C.S. Lewis’ theological writings (no science fiction or Narnia here). I couldn’t spot a single book by a female author and there was very little that was written more than 70 years ago. There was also half a shelf on “creation/evolution” which was sadly only populated with anti-science writings.

With that kind of selection, it was going to be hard to find something I was likely to enjoy, but I did find something that had been on my wishlist for sometime, so I picked it up and took it to the counter. The proprietor was busy shuffling papers at the other end of the shop and it took a bit of rather English faux coughing to attract her attention. I was fearful that I couldn’t see a card reader and that I hadn’t enough cash in my wallet, but it was a relief that I could pay by card and so did, walking out not only with my purchase but also a rather curious newsletter entitled “Christ is Victor” containing short articles with the titles of “The Goodness And Beauty Of Jesus”, “Oil In The Vessel Of Your Life” and “The Hot Water Bottle”.

Book purchased: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.

  1. Kennington Bookshop

Kennington Bookshop won’t be around for long. I had a nice chat with the owner while I was there and she told me that the fixed overheads were too high and that they wouldn’t be renewing the lease once it is up at the end of May.

One of the curious features about this place was that most of the books that were displayed on the tables (not including those on the shelves) had elastic bands around them. It seemed a little odd, as though they were intended to stop people from flicking through the books. It turns out this wasn’t the case as the owner simply had no faith in the quality of modern binding and felt that the elastic bands would preserve them. I’m not convinced of the efficacy of this, but it was a quirky touch that rather endeared the place to me.

As with several of the bookshops I’d already visited in the weekend, there was some music playing in the background; this time it was Classic FM which rather fitted the slightly posh setting of Kennington as well the owner’s accent which wouldn’t have been out of place in the BBC in the 1950s. The shop was split on two floors, but unfortunately much of the downstairs hadn’t been priced so was labelled as “not for sale” which was a real pity as there were some great looking volumes in there. I also spied volume 2 of Michael Foot’s biography of Nye Bevan which would have been much more appealing if volume 1 had also been present.

The upstairs stock consisted of a mixture of new and 2nd hand, but was well presented and offered a reasonable choice of fiction though not a great amount of non fiction.

Book purchased: Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie.

  1. Foyles

I hadn’t planned on going to Foyles as part of my tour. I was aiming for the Southbank Book Market which the website says happens every day, come rain or shine. Sadly, the only evidence of it was an old, lonely sign on some railings overlooking the mudflats of the Thames. It seems the market is no more. So I wandered down the south bank for a bit and stumbled across an outlet of Foyles.

It is slightly odd and it is a grey area as to whether it is truly an independent bookshop. It has all the corporate trappings of Waterstones with a very similar character which is markedly different from many an independent retailer. I wouldn’t say Waterstones and Foyles are characterless, but they are two peas in a pod. They are both excellent if you know what you want, they are well laid out and you can find what you’re after with very little effort. And if it’s not in stock, it can easily be ordered.

[Late edit: Foyles have stated “To clear up your grey area, we ARE an indie: we’re still family-owned. (Indie has nothing to do with no. of shops.)” – I would dispute the latter part. I know of other businesses that are owned either by members of a family or individuals, but where the epithet of ‘independent’ would be most misleading, since in business, the term has connotations of small, single (or few) places of business.]

This particular branch was quite small compared to the flagship store but still had plenty there. I loved the selection of Very Short Introductions and the Great Ideas next to each other and could quite happily have emptied the shelf. There was also on display a series of 80 booklets that Penguin published and were selling for 80p each. However, these just seemed to be extracts of books, rather than works in their own rights.

Having noted that the store is quite generic, it seemed fitting to go for a relatively generic publishing label, which led me to Vintage. However, I still wanted to pick a book that I actually wanted to read.

Book purchased: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

  1. Daunt Books

When I started to research where to go on this little pilgrimage there was one name that appeared at the top of various lists over and over again. This automatically creates the risk that my expectations would be too high. As I walked in I wasn’t bowled over, but neither was I disappointed. It was just nice. There were quite a few people around but it wasn’t overcrowded.

The big selling point of the shop is its travel literature. Yet while it was interesting to see a bookshop organised by country, it was more than just travel writing; it was the literature of that country (all English translations). So there wasn’t, for example, a poetry section. If you wanted Shakespeare you’d go upstairs to the Great Britain section, if you wanted Ovid you would stay on the ground floor and see the Greek section. I was very tempted by The Tale of Genji in the Japanese section but it was in rather poor condition.

While I was happy to browse around, it didn’t feel like the kind of place I could spend all day in. That said, the whole place was just nice. I saw examples of the staff being very helpful, though the chap that served me at the checkout was a little bit surly.

Given the way the shop is organised, it only seemed right to go either for a piece of travel writing or at least a piece about a land that is foreign to me, by an author from that land but who writes with an evocative sense of place. There was quite a lot to choose from, but I eventually opted for a piece set on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan – a place I doubt I will ever get to visit in my lifetime. One place I will probably go to again in my lifetime in Daunt Books.

Book purchased: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto


Tomorrow, we’ll head to The British Library, Housmans, Black Gull Books and Primrose Hill Books.