It’s that time of year again -the 18th to 25th of June is Indie Booksellers Week (IBW) here in the UK and it’s a week for celebrating all the great things about being independent – as a bookshop, that is….
In 2012 Jonathan Cape produced the first little booklet essay to be published in Independent Booksellers Week and sold exclusively in independent bookshops. This first one was A Life with Books by Julian Barnes and was followed in 2013 by Ann Patchett’s The Bookshop Strikes Back (Icon Books), 2014’s The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted by Mark Forsyth (Icon Books) and this year’s The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane.
These little essays each epitomise what’s best about books, book buying and the giving and reading of books for pleasure.
In A Life with Books Julian Barnes, at a time when we were all a little bit nervous about the future of the printed book vs the e-book, made a strong case for the supremacy of the printed book over its electronic counterpart. Like many writers he has had a deep love of books from a young age and this love of books stems not just from the words themselves but from the handling of the books, the turning of the pages, the touch and the sight of them on the bookshelves (your own or in the library). To quote from the beginning of his essay:
I have lived in books, for books, by and with books; in recent years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to live from books. It was through books that I first realized there were other worlds beyond my own; first imagined what it might be like to be another person; first encountered that deeply intimate bond made when a writer’s voice gets inside a reader’s head…
Later in his essay he goes on to say:
I have no Luddite prejudice against new technology; it’s just that books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information.
And a little earlier in his essay, I love this snippet as it rings so true with me:
…how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life.
The year after Julian Barnes’s essay, Ann Patchett gave us a heartwarming and optimistic read with The Bookshop Strikes Back. In 2011 Ann Patchett bucked the trend and opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee. Disappointed to wake up one morning and find that her city no longer had a bookshop – not a chain, nothing – Ann slowly came around to the idea of doing something about it. Parnassus books is now a roaring success and it’s on my ‘must see if I ever take a world tour of fabulous bookshops’ list.
If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read the book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.
Jump forward to 2014 and Mark Forsyth’s essay for IBW. Mark has a delightful way with words and his essay is witty and succinct, though much more philosopohical than the previous two. How can you know what you want if you don’t know it exists, or in other words how can you know what books you want unless you browse a bookshop and discover them?
The internet is a splendid invention, and it won’t go away. If you know you want something, the internet can get it for you. My point, and the whole point of this essay, is that it’s not enough to get what you already know you wanted. The best things are the things you never knew you wanted until you got them… The internet is, ultimately, a huge army of machines. And machines do not allow in the element of chance. They do exactly what you tell them to do. So the internet means that, though you get what you already knew you wanted, you’ll never get anything more.
And then there’s bibliomancy – there’s a word I learned from Mark Forsyth – bibliomancy: the art of foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen passage from a book, especially the Bible. He applies this to bookshop browsing as well, ‘Yes. This is what I’m going to read next.’ Forsyth believes that in a good bookshop you should be able to go into the shop ‘blindfolded, reach out your hand at random and find something wonderful.’
This year we have an essay from Robert Macfarlane about the pleasures of giving and receiving books as gifts, The Gifts of Reading. Macfarlane reflects on how such gifts have affected and, in some ways, shaped his life so far. He particularly mentions Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, a book that was given to him when he was studying for his PhD.
If you have never read ‘A Time of Gifts’, may I urgently suggest that you buy a copy as soon as possible, or better still ask someone to give you one as a present?
He goes on to say:
When I first read ‘A Time of Gifts’ I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It make me want to stand up and march out – to walk into adventure.
And walk he did and has now walked many miles under the influence of Leigh Fermor; all from the the simple influence of a book received as a gift. It’s a delightful addition to the IBW essays about books and will hopefully inspire the gifting of many more books.
IBW is a celebration of bookselling on the High Street, a celebration of independence (something I’m pretty passionate about), a celebration of readers and browsing, of authors and writing, a celebration of the serendipity of discovering books you never knew you needed, a celebration of giving and receiving books and watching the joy on a child’s face when they describe to you a book that they’ve really enjoyed reading, or when they discover on the bookshelves a new book by a favourite author. Above all, it’s a celebration of booksellers, without whom there would only be algorithms to help us discover the books we want to buy and it’s a celebration of the printed BOOK.
Where to Buy
The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin Books and has an RRP £2.50. It is only available to purchase from independent bookshops, so get yourself to an indie bookshop near you very soon as stocks will be limited. Essays from previous years are out-of-print but if you’re very lucky you may be able to find a few copies in independent bookshops as well. Just remember, every little purchase (however small) helps to keep an independent bookshop alive and on your High Street – Thank You!