Once Upon a Tome by Oliver Darkshire – The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller

Once Upon a Tome, published in 2022, is the memoir of rare bookseller, Oliver Darkshire, telling the story of his apprenticeship at Sotheran’s antiquarian bookshop in Sackville Street, London.

This is a charming and funny book, with a quick, unexpected stab of extremely moving right at the end. There are plenty of colourful characters encountered in the surprisingly varied life of a bookseller. If you think it’s just about working in an old shop you’d be wrong. There are adventurous journeys to libraries in crumbling mansions, book conferences in York, storage cellars in Kings Cross, as well as trips to other rare bookshops to return borrowed hat stands.

Once Upon a Tome has a lot to say about all kinds of things, the enigma of value, health and safety in the ancient work place, the ironies of ownership, guords. There’s rare book jargon, and assessment of various species of collector – the omnivorous Smaugs and the focused Draculas. Out of this witty, wry, droll collection of observations, one in particular really said something to me about books. I don’t mean books that cost thousands of pounds, which are way beyond my budget – I mean all books, including the books I borrow from Kent eLibrary, a type of book that has no physical existence at all, and can never find a place on Sotheran’s shelves. This observation involved Oliver’s cautious reveal to his new colleagues that he was gay.

“If a place is aesthetically stuck in the 1800s the people who work there might be too.”

But when Oliver drops a gendered pronoun regarding his partner into conversation, he gets no reaction. There’s nothing, no drama. The only difference is that bookseller James seems to put more authors like Oscar Wilde and Christopher Isherwood in Oliver’s cataloguing, as if making a point about the book world. Wide reading tends to promote tolerance and acceptance, opening a reader to different points of view and experience. A book shop as old at Sotheran’s may be a bit backward looking, suspicious of computers, dusty, prone to mould, but it is a naturally tolerant environment. Of course there have been intolerant books, dark books, books that are now an embarrassment. An antiquarian bookshop could well have examples of those. But Oliver suggests we can learn from any book. A nazi might burn books, but Sotheran’s would not burn a copy of Mein Kampf. The shop would seek to place it, say, with an institutional buyer interested in the context of such a work. And none of this means that the shop would fail to show the door to any aggressive bigot who goose steps over the threshold. You see the difference? Book burners don’t usually read widely. People who read don’t often burn books.

As someone who loves books, this was one of my favourite observations in a book of excellent book-centric observations.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Nothing Ever Ends and Everything is Already Over

Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969, is Kurt Vonnegut’s partially autobiographical novel about an American soldier who, as a prisoner of war, witnesses the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. The experience is so traumatic that he becomes untethered to normal life. He drifts about in time and space, to the extent of occasionally finding himself on the alien planet of Tralfamadore, where he is an exhibit in a zoo. The Tralfamadorians have no concept of linear time, which means our soldier fits in quite well on their planet. I suppose in some ways you could view all this as a depiction of post traumatic stress. And of course from the point of view of fancy physics, time is a relative rather than an absolute thing going predictably in one direction. So maybe the soldier’s delusions have a truth in them.

In many ways this is a harsh book about the most extreme and horrific of experiences. I wondered how I was going to do anything as mundane as review it. But it’s also a book about ordinary experience, optometrists’ conferences in the 1960s for example. The extreme and the mundane, as seemingly different as past and future, float around together. Unbelievably it’s also funny at times, which adds another contrast to the free-floating mix.

Reading Slaughterhouse Five caused me to recall a time in early 1990 when I had to have a fairly major operation. The aftermath was initially incredibly painful, followed by a longer period of grinding discomfort as the nurses slowly hauled me back to health. The initial diagnosis – later modified – was not good and I was labouring under the shock of that news. There was one moment which is vivid in my memory. I was in bed connected up to lines, attached to bruised little points in the back of my hands and abdomen, restrained it seemed by delicate chains which I had to be careful not to break. I felt weak and ill and wondered if I would ever get better. At that moment there was a sudden realisation that this time was already over, and I was looking back at it from another situation, and another place. In the blink of an eye, I would be somewhere else.

I recalled that moment very powerfully reading Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe in its own small way, my moment in hospital was impactful enough to shake me out of things.

Bizarre as Slaughterhouse Five seems to be, it did make sense to me. It was reassuring in a way. I really enjoyed it.

Super-Infinite, The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell

Super-Infinite is Katherine Rundell’s biography of the poet John Donne, published in 2022. Unexpectedly, for the biography of a late sixteenth, early seventeenth century poet, the book became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller.

I first read John Donne at school. Apparently, he was a ‘metaphysical poet’. I didn’t really know what metaphysical meant – guessing it was something about being above and beyond the boring physical realm in which my classroom was situated.

Reading Super-Infinite I got a better sense of why a poet in Donne’s lifetime would want to be metaphysical – it might have something to do with the fact that his physical world was so relentlessly horrible. An arbitrary, ferociously cruel justice system, no antibiotics, no contraception, no dentistry. Alongside endless physical pain came constant mental torment resulting from the frequent death of children. If I lived in that world, I too would aspire to the metaphysical.

However, mercifully distant though Donne’s life might seem, part of the book’s interest for me lay in its description of changes that formed the foundations of the world we live in today. For example, prior to the sixteenth century, people did not tend to identify themselves in terms of their nationality, but in terms of locality, dynasty or, most importantly, religion. Then, in the 1530s, Henry the Eighth broke free from the Catholic Church, to create the Church of England. Nationality was beginning to muscle in on religious identity. Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Lord Burghley commissioned the first reliable maps of the British Isles, the Saxton Atlas of 1579, when Donne was a child. Now there was a picture of a country, with which proud citizens could more easily associate themselves. After living most of his life as a Catholic, seeing his identity in religious terms, Donne converted to Protestantism and spent his last years as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, a zealous representative of a national church.

Super-Infinite sometimes has an overblown tone, with odd turns of phrase. Donne’s poetry is described as offering a joy so violent that it ‘kicks the metal out of your knees’ for example. But the style is accessible, brings Donne’s frequently appalling world to life, and offers some insights into the poems. As I say, the thing I found most interesting was the way the book revealed the foundations of our present situation. Maybe that is why a book about a sixteenth/seventeenth century poet has been a surprise hit. I have to admit that Donne is still not my favourite poet. All his heated religious imagery doesn’t suit me. I prefer his contemporary – the cooler, more secular Shakespeare. Nevertheless, I feel that after reading this book, Donne’s work makes more sense than it did in a dingy classroom at school

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carsen McCullers – Least Said Soonest Mended

I will get to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in a moment. By way of introduction, I’ll return to one of my most vivid memories of university – my Shakespeare tutor telling me that the great man wasn’t actually saying anything. There was no point, no position, no argument, that didn’t have its black and white expertly shaded away to grey. At the time, of course, there were many who saw life in more straightforward terms. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, busy pouring scorn on compromise and consensus. At the other end of the scale, there was the student who knocked on my door one evening, inviting me to stand up to Thatcher by joining the miners on frankly hazardous 1980s picket lines. I might have annoyed my caller by pointing out possible pernickety complications. On the one hand you had all those people losing their jobs, their lives upended, wider ripples devastating whole communities that relied indirectly on the mines for their livelihood. On the other hand, there was the beginning of a shift away from coal, Michael Heseltine appearing on the news to describe his efforts to find new markets for British coal, running up against the fact that those markets were shrinking. Anyway, not knowing what the answer was, it seemed unlikely that I would have been much good to the miners, especially in the police baton charges.

I might have had David Bowie playing in my room as I worked on essays, maybe listening to All the Young Dudes, where the singer gives up on that ‘revolution stuff’ because it has too many snags.

These memories of studying English at Warwick University in the 1980s, came back to me whilst reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The debut novel of Carsen McCullers, set in the American south, was a huge success when it first appeared in 1940, and has remained highly regarded ever since. The central character is a deaf-mute called Singer, a calm, generous man, who after losing a long term deaf-mute friend to mental illness, becomes a confidante of a number of people who live in his small town. The kindly owner of an all-night cafe, an embittered labour agitator, an adolescent girl with a talent for music but no money to develop it, and a doctor, with a burning sense of injustice at the treatment of black people – they all come to Mr Singer and unburden themselves. This group are on the receiving end of an iniquitous society. They are poor, suffer cruel discrimination, or both. They make efforts to improve their situation, and in some cases argue bitterly about how this should be done. There are snags at every turn.

Mr Singer, as a mute, becomes a kind of blank canvas on which frustrated people paint any picture they like. He seems to agree with those who want social change achieved gradually. He appears to support those who argue for much more direct action. He is understanding of those who are more interested in music than saving society. He is sympathetic towards the desire to direct kindness in a small, but real way to people who come into a late-night cafe. All the while, Singer remains a silent friend to everyone. In this sense, Singer actually reminded me of the Shakespeare I read at Warwick.

Maybe Singer says nothing, but his name suggests that he not only has a voice, he has a melodious voice, maybe even capable of singing a massive, crossover hit, enjoyed by dudes young, old, radical, easy going and anything in-between. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a fascinating, funny, moving, sometimes shocking book, exploring writing and its relationship with people’s endless struggle to improve their lives. You might say it belongs to that category of a book which offers friendship to any reader.

Herzog by Saul Bellow – An Excellent Bad Book

Herzog by Saul Bellow, published in 1964, tells the story of an academic enduring a mid-life crisis. Moses Herzog has just gone through his second divorce, and is having a lot of trouble – poor chap – with his latest book on romanticism. We follow him for five days as he tries to go on holiday, has a date with a very pleasant woman called Ramona, worries about how wife number two, Madeline, is looking after their daughter, crashes his car, gets into trouble with the Chicago police, and visits his run down house in rural Massachusetts. Through all of this he reflects on his life, while exploring his concerns via imaginary letters written to many different people – friends past and present, or famous figures both living and dead.

This is not a book driven by plot. It can be quite tricky to follow, with past and present floating in and out, and abrupt changes between first and third person. It’s a book where the real interest lies in the ideas.

You will have to be the sort of reader who enjoys ideas if you are to enjoy Herzog. The same, I fear is true of reviews of the book. Fair warning if you are to read on.

Assuming you’re still with me, if Herzog is a book of ideas, a central one involves the way a situation of similarity can also show dramatic differences. For example, Herzog, who spends his days thinking fancy thoughts about Kierkegaard and Hegel, is also the same man who has to deal with house maintenance, bodily functions, and matrimonial strife. Herzog plays a game with his daughter, June, where they imagine an odd association for people who are the most of anything – the weakest strong man, and the strongest weak man, the stupidest wiseman, and the wisest blockhead. In his letters, Herzog mentions, amongst other things, Schrödinger’s thoughts on life’s struggle to maintain a fragile identity in the face of entropy, which always tends to decay into a uniform ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’. The book spends a lot of time describing a kind of thermodynamic equilibrium where friends can be enemies, clever people can be idiots, and good ideas can be pretentious nonsense. At the end of the book Herzog rediscovers his own equilibrium, pottering around his dilapidated house. But remembering Schrödinger, individual identity remains a basically unstable thing. Meanwhile, equilibrium also remains an unstable thing, because life is always trying to get away from it and maintain a separate, unequal, identity.

Herzog is an intellectual book, which is also earthy and emotional. It suggests the promise of underlying unity in a divided world, while also portraying divisions as a defining aspect of life. The achievement of the novel lies in the way it is big enough to encompass so many opposites, leaving their identities alone, while still bringing them together into a whole. The book could even include an accommodation of those who write admiring reviews, and others who might issue one star.