When I have time to kill, I like to sacrifice it in a bookshop. I always rather thought that this was an active choice on my part: I’m a reader, and unexpectedly upturning a joyous title can make my day. One recent acquisition, Ben Macintyre’s Josiah the Great is just so promising that I dare not read it for fear of spoiling its current bookshelf perfection. I’ve come to believe, though, that killing time in the bookshop is not a simple desire: it’s a practical response to the problem that ten minutes in a bookshop is wasted time. It requires at least half an hour to puncture the gaudy surface of bestsellers and find the meats within.
In fact, I suspect that my bookshelves are just a bookshop manqué. I am more than happy to buy books in the knowledge that they will sit on the shelves for years before being read. I am frequently surprised to find books I’d forgotten I’d acquired on my shelves, providing that authentic moment of bookshop discovery right at home.
Conversely, like any book-lover, I can confidently put my hand on almost any book I know I possess, making redundant any need for a cataloguing system. Books are grouped possibly by size, cover or indeed colour, but rarely by any kind of librarian logic. Book lovers will recognise too the seamlessness with which an hour can slip past just browsing your own bookshelves. My eyes tickle over the spines of a hundred titles on my way to doing some petty, important task. I am constantly refamiliarising myself with them, opening them, tending them with my attention like a gardener stroking the leaves of his plants. No wonder I can find them all. They are, in the argot, part of an ongoing conversation in myself, as objective and sensible as friends in orienting the world around me.
There is also here, I suppose, the idea of reading by osmosis. There are books with which you settle onto a cushion of some type and read. Then there are titles that float around you for so long, fall under your fingers so many times, are browsed, ruffled, index raided, delved into, that they become effectively read. At that, they are read in a less trustworthy, more insinuating way; read without an opportunity ever to formally reject them. There is no putting these books down, because you are always putting them down, and picking them up. They are replaced in the bookshelves so many times that they will never be thrown into the corner of the room in digust, no matter how deserving.
Anyway, anyway. My bookshelves inform my feelings towards bookshops so deeply and perversely that I am foolishly disappointed when I spend time in a real bookshop. As I indicated before, ten minutes in a bookshop is wasted time, because there is barely time to browse past the rubbish and start seeing what is really there.
So, today, I had a thunderstruck few minutes when I entered the bookshop, comprehending just how much chaff has been created by Dan Brown’s bloody book. This takes the form of four types of book:
- The (unacknowledged) inspiration
- The laborious commentary
- deathly parody (and if it requires the subtitle “A Parody”, you know there’s trouble)
- Other books by the author that nobody bought the first time round
- Last, and certainly least, books with a similar cover
I ran, ran past the bestsellers and spent my time in the shop keeping out of beady eyeline of the pile-em-high tables at the front. This meant I was in the gloomy lowlands of the history, science and art sections, but I was happy enough.
Remind me, next time, to outline my theory that books can be chosen according to a careful analysis of their cover against strict criteria. It is a little like card-counting, but altogether less likely to get you kneecapped in Las Vegas.