Book reviews: Bibliomaniac, by Robin Ince | Once Upon A Tome, by Oliver Darkshire | Eliot’s Book Of Bookish Lists, by Henry Eliot | Remainders Of The Day, by Shaun Bythell

From a “book of bookish lists” to a tour of over 100 independent bookshops, here are four recent releases to delight bibliophiles, writes Stuart Kelly

Bookseller and author Shaun Bythell outside The Bookshop in Wigtown PIC: Ben Please
Bookseller and author Shaun Bythell outside The Bookshop in Wigtown PIC: Ben Please

It will not come as a great surprise that I have a fondness for books about books. I treasure my copies of Nicholas Parsons’ The Book Of Literary Lists, Edward Brooke-Hitching’s The Madman’s Library, Arthur der Weduwen and Andrew Pettegree’s The Library: A Fragile History, Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History Of The and many others. It has therefore been a delight to be in the company of these gentlemen, sometimes in person.

Robin Ince begins his tour of over a hundred independent bookshops, Bibliomaniac, with a confession. An expert in neurodivergence said that his online activity showed clear indicators of ADHD. His book is subtly melancholy – nights in anonymous chain hotels, public transport, waves of anxiety and ecstasy, the voraciousness of the collector. Ince has a love of cheap, gory, paperback fiction as well as esoteric science, genuine science, prize winning writing and forgotten writing. The memoir is an oblique snapshot: “the independent bookshop and the ambition of those in them is of an Englishness that I wish to believe in, although maybe it is just bookishness”. It is a book with a remarkable amount of cake in it, and I chalked up a few “must gets”.

The geekishness chimes easily with Once Upon A Tome, Oliver Darkshire’s account on working in the rare books and prints shop Sotheran’s in London. The opening chapters channel a kind of Dungeons and Dragons feel as a parade of Smaugs, Draculas, the Spindleman, Cryptids and Suited Gentlemen pass through. Of all these books, Darkshire’s is most precise about the actual work of antiquarian and second-hand bookselling. If you are like me you know full well that “good copy” has a quite exact and unlikely meaning. What is more endearing is the care with which he pores over the copies, and the account of being truly mentored. Beneath the bemusement and occasionally explosive irritation, there is a very kindly book here, about unlikely friendships and little epiphanies. Rather sweetly, he describes the career of an antiquarian bookseller as being one where “you probably have to have a gambler’s spirit, but I think I’d rather be moderately successful than suffer the kind of scrutiny placed on the spectacular”.

I have a great deal of admiration for Henry Eliot, because his books on Penguin Classics and Penguin Modern Classics are fine and dangerous works. Ince describes the gazelle moment of bagging a trophy, and I know that all too well: Eliot’s books have been my equivalent of big game almanacs. This book is half a delight and half a gauntlet. It is, I think, fair to say that a book with “bookish” in the title might be intended for the bookish sort of person. In which case, roll up your sleeves, Mr Eliot, and we’ll see the kind of mettle of which you’re made. There is fun to be had on a list of birds mentioned by Shakespeare or of author’s dogs; a list of the Odes of Keats or the names of the Nine Muses or the Three Musketeers seems like small fry. It’s cute enough to see a spiral diagram of the liaisons in Schniztler’s La Ronde, but I would raise you Gael Turnbull’s poem written on a Möbius Strip. The list of Dickensian villains is fine enough, but no Silas Wegg or Grandfather Smallweed or John Jasper? I would have thought one from each book would have been a better flourish. That said, I learned things, laughed at things and noted a few more titles to acquire.

By one of the literary world’s strange associations, Oliver Darkshire’s book is blurbed “Think The Diary of a Bookseller but with quite a lot more Bernard Black…” and the author of The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell, has a third volume of his diaries out. Again, it ventriloquises being a curmudgeon rather well. But I must – either from a journalistic obligation of protecting one’s sources or a theological observance of the seal of the confessional – refrain from saying much about it; particularly as, yet again, I appear in it. Why I am “Stuart Kelly” but others are graced pseudonyms I do not know. Nevertheless, I can invoke the Moliere’s Maid strategy: I gave it to my Mum and asked what she thought of it. She thinks it is an entertaining and easy read, and can’t believe how he puts up with his customers. She is glad that he enjoyed the Scotch broth she once cooked for him, and even more glad that the person he describes as exceptionally rude now sings with the choir eternal. She can’t shift the notion he is a bit of a scamp, but she can’t help but like him. If he does a fourth volume, and I am sure he will, I might release an almost antiquarian tome entitled A True and Sincere Series of Refutations, Revisions, Corrections and Castigations on Mr Bythell’s Memory.

Loving books is a mostly harmless pastime. All four of these remind me that I am not an aberration for being more interested in a complete Zola than whoever is on Strictly Come Dancing.

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Bibliomaniac, by Robin Ince, Atlantic Books, £16.99; Once Upon A Tome, by Oliver Darkshire, Bantam Press, £14.99; Eliot’s Book Of Bookish Lists, by Henry Eliot, Particular Books, £12.99; Remainders Of The Day, by Shaun Bythell, Profile, £16.99. Shaun Bythell is appearing at the Wigtown Book Festival on 25 September, www.wigtownbookfestival.com