What can be found in the Vatican’s Secret Archive? How many books did Charles Darwin’s library aboard the Beagle hold? Which library is home to a colony of bats?
Bursting with potted histories, quirky facts and enlightening lists, this book explores every aspect of the library, celebrating not only these remarkable institutions but also the individuals behind their awe-inspiring collections.
From the ancient library at Alexandria to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, A Library Miscellany explores institutions both old and new, from the university library to that of the humble village. It opens the door to unusual collections such as herbaria, art libraries, magic libraries and even the library of smells, and charts the difficulties of cataloguing subversive, heretical, libellous or obscene books.
Packed with unusual facts and statistics, this is the perfect volume for library enthusiasts, bibliophiles and readers everywhere.
A Library Miscellany will be published in February 2018 by the wonderful Bodleian Library Publishing. Please pre-order your copy here.
Ever since I could coordinate my hands enough to clutch a book, my nose has been buried inside one. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of the long summer holidays when my sister and I were let loose in the children’s section of the library at the college where my father worked. I remember spending hours, sprawled on beanbags, poring over picture books, letting my imagination roam freely.
As I got older I ventured into chapter books but found my first true love in the form of the French comic books featuring Asterix and Tintin. I loved the humour of the Asterix books and was sucked in by the fantastic plots of Tintin’s many adventures. Throughout my childhood I returned to my Tintin collection over and over, I must have read each book hundreds of times, never tiring of the detail, the excitement or the intrigue. It gladdens my heart that my children are now enjoying the now rather dog-eared remnants of my Tintin library.
Sharing books I loved as a child with my own children has become such a pleasure. First the classic picture books, such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Meg & Mog and The Very Hungry Caterpillar – the words and illustrations so familiar, transporting me back to my five-year-old self. Then moving on to more complex reads as the children get older, enjoying the suspense and excitement of good children’s literature all over again.
My nine-year-old is a chip off the old block when it comes to books, never happier than when lying on his bed enjoying a good read. It has been such a joy to share more of my childhood books with him as he gets older and also to discover new books together. I have especially enjoyed reading him my copy of Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke – a wonderful Victorian-set mystery – which has allowed me to experience these books in a new light, seeing them through my son’s eyes.
The teenage years
As I moved into teenagerdom I was nothing if not an eclectic reader, enjoying both the literary delights of Victorian Gothic and the more earthy delights of Jilly Cooper’s Riders. Every birthday and Christmas I requested book tokens, which I would amass with glee and set off for Blackwell’s, Oxford’s most famous bookshop, where I would take my time selecting books for my ever-growing ‘To Be Read’ pile.
One of my seminal teenage texts was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. The book transported me from my rather staid Oxford middle-class life into the American world of greasers and socs. The characters of Pony-Boy, Soda-pop and Johnny so vividly drawn I almost felt I knew them myself, although in truth they were characters far removed from my actual peers. I remember fighting to read the words through my tears when Johnny exhorts Pony-boy to ‘Stay gold’.
My teenage years also saw the start of my obsession with the Brontës. I devoured their collective works and then further stoked my admiration for them by reading Lyn Reid Banks’ wonderful fictionalised account of their lives, The Dark Quartet. The escapism I found in their novels, with their strongly drawn female characters, helped me muddle through my teenage years and cemented the role of books in my life as a respite from reality.
Into my adult life books have remained central to my life – when I first met my future husband I gave him a fairly hefty reading list as I was so keen to share my favourite books with my now favourite person (and full credit to him, he happily read every book I slung his way and twenty years later remains my most frequent book-share buddy).
Books have a way of associating themselves with a certain time in my life. My carefree twenties working in London was a golden time for reading as I had an epic hour and a half commute from my home in south London to my job in north London. The perils of riding the underground while reading a good book are legion. It was during this time I first discovered the joys of John Irving and the perils of trying to suppress my guffaws while on public transport (tip: always have a tissue handy when reading John Irving, you will invariably need it to either dry some tears or pantomime blowing your nose as you try and disguise the snort of laughter with a faux coughing fit). I also associate this period with reading James Ellroy – getting so drawn into the intrigue of American Tabloid that I forgot to get off the tube at my stop and I actually gasped aloud when the twist of LA Confidential was revealed, much to the bafflement of my fellow passengers.
Reading associations are not always happy. I read a lot less during my early thirties as I was in the thick of child-rearing. My one reading opportunity was as I struggled to get my limpet-like daughter to detach from me and go to sleep. I sat for hours in a dim room, straining my eyes as I ploughed through John Galsworthy’s The Forsyth Saga, hoping my daughter would fall into a deep enough sleep to allow me to peel her from me and escape. I’m not sure if the frustration of this period has coloured my perception but that book became more of a chore than a pleasure.
Books = work and pleasure
For the past decade or more books have been not just my chief pleasure but also my job. Although I dream of one day writing a novel, non-fiction is my genre and I love nothing more than spending hours in the library researching my next book. In my writing career my magpie-like nature and eye for a quirky story has served me well and I am constantly reading everything from the news, blogs, literature, history books, opinion pieces – searching out curious tales, interesting histories or amusing lists to use in a book or article.
It was this miscellaneous skill which collided with my love of books to produce The Book Lovers’ Miscellany. Here I was able to put my love of books to work creating a
smorgasbord of bibliophilic delights – writing potted histories on ink, paper, book binding, comics and quills. Curating lists of best-selling books, writers who were rejected multiple times, the most prolific writers, the oldest writers to be published first time and the most influential books of all time. And telling the stories behind Penguin paperbacks, dust jackets, Mills & Boon and the Detection Club.
Writing and researching The Book Lovers’ Miscellany was like writing a love letter to books, writers, writing and reading. It is a celebration and a culmination of all the many hours I have had my nose buried in a book and I really hope it will delight my fellow bookworms, reminding us all how much pleasure we can take from a humble book.
When meeting new people there is always a question I dread. The most innocuous of polite questions: ‘What do you do?’ The reason I dread it? The reasons are legion.
1) I am not a fiction writer
When I say I am a writer some people get quite excited. However, when I explain I write non-fiction the conversation falters, their face visibly falling as they realise I am not J. K. Rowling. Fiction has a gloss that non-fiction does not, people aspire to write fiction, people understand fiction, people want to meet glossy, aspirational fiction writers. Alas, that is not me. So when I ruin the tone by mentioning the ‘non’ word, the conversation generally returns to the weather.
2) Non-fiction is so hard to define
I really struggle to sum up my niche. Non-fiction is such a huge genre, ranging from academic textbooks, through self-help bibles and narrative non-fiction, to biography. If I wrote in a neat sub-genre it might be easier, but explaining my books in one easy sentence is no mean feat. I usually resort to describing them as ‘gift books’ or worse, books you read on the loo (which when I’m feeling crass I might call ‘shiterature’). But really that doesn’t characterise what I do, it makes it sound too easy, like I just pluck any old thing off the internet, when in fact most of my books are the result of hours of research in the library. I think the problem is I always try and sum up my diverse body of work in a tidy blurb, which inevitably fails. I think from now on I am just going to describe the book I am currently working on, instead of trying to squash my work into a genre which doesn’t exist.
3) People are really patronising
I often find myself on the receiving end of some extremely patronising comments, usually from men or older people. Just this weekend I was chatting to a friend’s mum who I had not seen for a number of years. She said she’d heard I wrote books and summed it up with: ‘So you just collect together some trivia and then publish it’ and then added ‘It’s lucky your husband has a proper job so you can pay the bills’. I didn’t have the energy to explain the planning, research, thought and hard work that goes into every book. The pitches to publishers, the rejections, the revisions, the edits on the long road to publication.
4) I am not a man
Sometimes I think if I were a man and I said I was a writer it would be different. People would perhaps instantly picture someone of substance, writing a serious book. I accept that some of the problem lies with myself, I am naturally self-depreciating and as I mentioned in point 2, I do struggle to describe what I do in a short sentence. However, there are many occasions where I feel like people react to me differently because I am a woman, especially a woman with three children. It’s as if the fact that I have kids instantly makes any endeavour a sideline to my actual real job of ‘being a parent’. That writing is just something I do with my spare time while waiting for my children to get home from school, not a real job at all.
5) Everyone is an expert
I write quite a lot of articles for Mental Floss, often fun lists such as 6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones or 5 of the Shortest Reigns in History. Readers often track me down on Twitter to berate me for my ignorance. Irate reader: ‘You didn’t include the mystic stone of Slough [not an actual stone] in your list of mysterious stones!’ Me: ‘That is because I only had room to do six, the article is not called ‘The Definitive List of All Mysterious Standing Stones Ever’ but ‘6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones’. Reader: ‘Yes, but the mystic stone of Slough is clearly the most important mystic stone ever! You don’t know anything, the whole article is now null and void.’ Me: block.
It’s like this at parties. I might say I am writing a book about the Golden Age of the Garden and the person I am speaking to will then talk to me at length about that time they went to Chatsworth and fell in the fountain. Or I might say I am writing about the history of the Bodleian Library and I’ll get an anecdote about their time as a student at Oxford. Obviously it’s lovely to hear people’s personal stories but sometimes it feel like people don’t expect me to actually know anything about my subject.
7) It’s not a real job
If I were an accountant or a doctor or a hairdresser people would instantly have a picture in their mind of what my job entails. Say writer and people imagine a fiction writer. Say non-fiction writer and the frame of reference is lost.
Saying all this I have recently discovered that being a writer is actually a real job. A friend asked me to sign the back of her photos for her passport. I expressed doubts that I was eligible, after all I think you have to be a professional to qualify. My friend threw caution to the wind and got me to do it anyway, and in the space where I had to put profession, I wrote ‘writer’. Two weeks later she got her new passport and with that I realised at least someone, somewhere thought I had a real job.
In an effort to broaden my reading, two years ago my husband bought me a bunch of books for Christmas as a surprise. I blogged about reading these books blind (by blind I mean not reading the reviews or blurbs, so in effect knowing nothing about the books except its cover, title and author).
It was such a fun experiment that I asked him to choose me five more books for this Christmas, and as I have just finished reading the last one I thought I would blog here about this year’s reading blind journey.
The five books were: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson; H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald; How to be Both by Ali Smith; The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and The Dog by Joseph O’Neil.
I started with The Hundred-Year-Old Man because it sounded kind of jaunty and fun, and it was, up to a point. The story concerns an old man who escapes from his nursing home and gets involved with criminals so goes on the run with a motley crew of fellow misfits. This story in the present is then punctuated with flashbacks which tell the rather eventful life story of the main character Allan Karlsson.
It was a really nice idea, but I just found it a bit too ‘Sweden’s answer to Forrest Gump’ for my liking. Allan Karlsson was not an especially sympathetic character and kept making rather dubious moral decisions as he bumbled through life. In sum it was an enjoyable book but it was a bit too much of a ‘caper’ for my tastes.
Next I read H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald which is a wonderful non-fiction account of training a goshawk as the author recovers from the death of her father. This is intermingled with a biography of the author T. H. White, who also trained a goshawk, but with rather different results.
The beauty of MacDonald’s prose as she describes the challenge of training a hawk and the complicated emotions it awoke within in her was such a pleasure to read. The simple, yet soaring descriptions of the natural world and MacDonald’s thoughts and feelings were so insightful.
This book was one of those rare books which you never want to end, I was so caught up in the story and really felt a connection with MacDonald’s relationship with the nature (it helped that she is describing the Cambridge countryside where I live). This is certainly non-fiction at its finest.
My next book was also coincidentally partially set in Cambridge, How to be Both by Ali Smith. I really enjoyed this book, although at times I have to admit I wondered if I really understood exactly what was going on!
The book is about a young girl who is struggling with the death of her mother. It is in part inspired by a photograph and a fresco and through these two starting-points mediums the story unfolds.
Smith has crafted an exceptionally well-written book, using details of punctuation to capture the thoughts and style of her characters. There is a lovely balance between the realism of the main character and the more ethereal character of the fresco painter.
It is the kind of book it would be great to read as part of a book group as I felt like I wanted to discuss the characters and what was happening with someone else to see if they were interpreting it in the same way as me.
I am quite the David Mitchell fan so I was really excited to read The Bone Clocks. I was not disappointed but I did have a wobble near the beginning of the book when I realised this was probably Mitchell’s most sci-fi inspired novel yet.
Mitchell sticks to the familiar theme of reincarnation and the sense of self. The story follows Holly as we journey with her through her life, starting the narrative from her perspective but then switching to other important people in her life as time moves forwards.
What I really admire about Mitchell is his ability to craft believable characters. He switches easily between the differing narratives, building the story as he goes. The Bone Clocks is not as good as Cloud Atlas (but that is a supremely high bar!) but it is still a really great book and wonderful escapism.
The last book of my five was The Dog by Joseph O’Neil. I had no idea what to expect from this book as I had not heard of the author and the jacket gave little away. It is essentially a book about a city boy who works for a very rich family in Dubai and explores the life of an ex-pat. There was certainly something Patrick Bateman-ish about him, which I think didn’t work in the book’s favour as that is a tough act to follow!
Ultimately I felt like the book would be really funny and insightful if I were a city lawyer or a Dubai ex-pat. As I am neither I found it really hard to care about the main character or find much to relate to in his observations about ex-pat living.
In conclusion, I really loved three of the books I read blind this year and was not so keen on the other two, so not a bad result for my husband. I really enjoy reading books that someone else has chosen for me as it forces me to read outside my comfort zone so I will definitely be continuing this Christmas tradition. I might ask for more of a mix of fiction and non-fiction next time though as I like to mix things up a bit.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? Please leave a comment!
N.B. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed I have only got three of the books in the photo, that is because I have already charity shopped The Hundred Year Old Man because I won’t read it again, and have lent H is for Hawk to my mum, because I hope she will love it as much as I did!
Last Christmas when my husband asked me what I wanted as a gift my reply was simple: ‘books’. ‘Will you give me a list?’ he asked.
I thought about this for a second then realised that actually what I wanted was to widen my reading.
I generally go into a bookshop and gravitate towards certain genres of books and certain authors. I needed to break this habit so I thought of an experiment. What if I ask my husband to choose five books for me?
So that is what we did and on Christmas morning I excitedly unwrapped five parcels and started a new reading journey.
Now at this point I should also mention I have a bit of a strange way of approaching books. I never (or nearly never) read the blurb. I really hate the way some books (I’m looking at you here A Prayer for Owen Meany) give away a vital plot device in the blurb.
My position was further reinforced when I recently bought my friend a copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a book I had really enjoyed and wanted to share with my friend. The shop assistant said she too had loved the book and was so glad the publishers had re-written the blurb on the back because the original blurb had put her off reading the book. Case closed.
These are the books my husband chose for me: The Beast Within by Emile Zola; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr; Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris and Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser.
He said he was trying to pick a broad range of books, ones that would challenge me, ones that were outside my comfort zone and some he knew I’d like – just in case!
I read The Beast Within first. It just seemed like the kind of book I would never have chosen for myself, so I thought if I was going to push my reading habits I should start with this.
I would like to say it opened up a whole new world for me and changed my reading habits forever, but that would be a lie. I certainly appreciated the book and the skill in crafting such a story exploring the intense themes of what lies beneath the surface of ordinary people.
But the characters were all so horrible I struggled to relate to any of them or really care about what happened to them. Plus the extended train metaphor was really laid on with a shovel. So in short, I was left feeling a bit disappointed with this first foray.
I moved onto Flashman thinking it would be a bit of light relief after The Beast Within. Here I think my expectations tripped me up. Looking at the cover art it looked like a pastiche of Victorian adventure novels so I was expecting to have a bit of a laugh.
However on reading it the lines began to blur and I began to question whether the book took the joke just a bit too far. I wasn’t really comfortable laughing at the endless sexism, racism and unnecessary violence.
I felt I was maybe being a bit po-faced about the whole thing so ploughed on to the end and did find some enjoyment in the book. But ultimately I felt like the Flashman character was not enough of a caricature to be wholly enjoyable.
Next I dived into The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I really enjoyed this book and boy was my husband glad to hear it! He had been getting more and more downhearted about his poor choice of books and was so relieved that I had discovered a book I could relate to and enjoy.
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris didn’t quite fit the brief, as I have to admit I read an extract in the Guardian about a year before publication and howled with laughter. My husband noting my gleeful reaction resolved to buy the book for me when it finally came out. It was therefore unsurprising that I really enjoyed this book.
The anecdotal style of writing and the lovely mix of memoir and short story really appealed. I will certainly be reading more David Sedaris.
The final book in my pile was Last Exit to Brooklyn. I tried starting it, but reading as I do just before bed means my level of concentration is not always that great. As I attempted the first page I felt no connection to the book whatsoever and put it to one side.
I do intend to read it but my husband got there first and he admitted it was pretty dark. I am not against dark, in fact I am a big James Ellroy fan, but sometimes you want books that bring some joy into your life and with the world being quite a bleak place at the moment I thought I’d leave this book on the side just a bit longer.
So what did I learn from this experiment? Well, I learned to go outside my comfort zone with reading and though you may not always love the book you read you will certainly gain something from having read it.
It was definitely worth it, so much so that when my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year I gave him the same answer as last year.
This year I got How to Be Both by Ali Smith, The Dog by Joseph O’Neil, H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. I will report back when I have read them all!