Eighteen months ago, I arrived for my first day of working in a bookshop in Cambridge. The phrase ‘avid reader’ employs such a generic epithet that it has become meaningless but I suppose that is how I could have been described growing up. ‘Obsessive’ could work too. Something about the later teenage years and a less than enjoyable time at university cooled this obsession to a more tepid one and I read rather less for pleasure and remained in the comfort of well-known friends when I did read; Brideshead Revisited, Catch-22, Wuthering Heights and Tom Stoppard’s plays The Invention of Love and Arcadia were my safe retreats.
Yet I continued to have this image that one day I would own and run a successful bookshop. Like everyone else who has seen Black Books and enjoys a bottle of wine of an evening, I had images of a romantically run down, tiny shop with customers tripping over piles of books in the dingy light and me looking angry that they dare even enter the shop and disturb my reading Anthony Powell.
I still have some idea that this will happen one day with the infuriating alteration that I will be almost unfailingly polite, even in the face of customers who are enraged by such things as a five pence bag charge or the concept of Sunday trading hours. Somewhere in growing up, it turns out that I did develop an absolute inability to reply in kind to strangers who are astonishingly forward when they speak to ‘shop girls’ (something I might well come back to in the future but let me just say here that even when it is clear that you are the manager of a shop and you are in your late twenties, you are absolutely a ‘shop girl’ to the majority of the public).
For anyone who thinks that when a bookshop is quiet, those who work there curl up with a cup of tea and a book, well… obviously that doesn’t happen. Working to keep the book trade going, to beat the dreaded Amazon and to show people how wonderful it can be to speak to well read, enthusiastic booksellers or simply to find a hidden gem because one of us has thought to display it somewhere it will be spotted is a rather intense job. And pretty fantastic too, at times.
While the image of booksellers seizing a few minutes in a cupboard to dig into the latest Ali Smith just isn’t a viable option if you want to actually sell books, there is no doubt that you have to read voraciously every other minute of the day when you aren’t working – if you don’t want to, you’re probably in the wrong profession. Shelving books is a very humbling pastime, you hold so much in your hands and you rifle through sections, deciding which books deserve to be faced out, recommended, put on tables… and you’ve read, what?, 3% of them. I showed up thinking that I had pretty sound book knowledge. Within the first two hours of working with an absolutely inspirational bookseller and fellow Classicist, I was disabused of that notion.
So my obsession returned, with healthy vengeance. In the first month of working there, I read nine books, at least three of which I don’t think I would have found otherwise. I began to think: I might start writing reviews. I’m not really sure for whom yet but I kept track of everything that I was reading and tried to write down thoughts, things that stayed with me, noting page numbers on which I knew I would want to look back. I still have a photo on my phone of an incredible section in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I only have to think about to feel utterly overwhelmed with emotion.
After a rather gruelling time, in which I feel I essentially moved into the shop and gave everything to it as if it were some charitable cause, I have taken some time out to… I believe one says ‘explore other options’. I’ll admit that, whilst knowing I’m never going to be Siri Hustvedt, I’m going to have a good go at becoming a novelist and essayist. I’m going to start the project I only timidly half thought of last year, writing reviews of everything from new works to those that I have the good sense to admit embarrassment about not reading years ago, when instead I was indulging in endless repeats of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (not entirely a pastime to be sniffed at).
I have come to terms with the fact that I won’t be writing a review any time soon of Infinite Jest, which it was my New Year’s resolution to read in 2017 and I have not yet even opened but, looking back at my meticulously kept notes, I did read some seventy-eight books in 2017 and I did claim several of those to be the ‘best book I’ve read this year’. Most of them taught me something and sparked excellent conversations whilst there are just a couple that I could advise you needn’t take up your time. Though I read a great deal, I do not read to ‘get through’ a book nor do I read quickly. Writers spend their lives crafting their works for readers to give their undivided attention to untangling and delving into them, rather than to say ‘I’ve read that, done’. Often I read paragraphs or whole pages over again. Often I read passages aloud to friends. A good book is a tapestry that one wants to unravel to see how it works whilst also gazing at it in pristine condition to achieve knowledge of each thread. Here goes.