The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham – a very readable history of books and those who appreciate them

The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

This book fits in well to my current obsession with books about books. Although the framework may be the author’s personal experience of several decades of bookselling, it is in fact a history of the nature of books and those who love them – finding comfort in their presence, writing in them, buying and collecting them, and just reading them. It deals with those who risked everything to read, possess and distribute them in difficult times, such as in France’s Ancien Regime, but also those for whom they were a vital escape, such as Welsh miners for whom Robin Hood was a popular subject. It deals with those for whom access to books was difficult for economic reasons, who had to depend on “chap books” and those cheap editions and previously owned volumes from irregular booksellers. From his own perspective he laments how people feel obliged to read books of literary merit, the Booker winners and challenging reads, when really they want to read books they actually enjoy, despite the labels of “beach reads”. Over the thirteen chapters there are the characters, the collectors, the authors, the obsessives, but also the people who simply love books in whatever situation they are in.

There is humour, there is joy to be found in this friendly and well written book. It diverts into unexpected ways – the section on libraries will explain how collections of books are full of possibilities; the chapter is less a list of libraries through history than the ways that libraries affect people, and how librarians, those charged with their order, have been perceived and behaved. This book is a diverse collection of information, and reflection on what books as objects have meant to people, as well as the way people have reacted to books through the centuries and cultures. It is not an academic book in that there are no pages of notes or indexes, but “A Note on Sources” for each chapter. These notes are personal comments on the inspiration for the chapter, or where further information may be found. The first two chapters – “Comfort Books” and “Reading in Adversity” are seen as a “study in people reading” and that this is a good description of those two discursive chapters. Some are more specific, such as a one dedicated to “Life on the Edge: The Mysteries of Medieval Marginalia”. This somewhat obscure chapter leads into a far more general “Signs of Use”, which revolves around the far more contentious question of how we treat books. Do we regard them as sacrosanct, never thinking of writing in them, barely leaving a trace of handling and reading? Or do we thoroughly engage with them, dog earing to find our place, writing our views in the margins, using the endpapers for lists? There is a whole range of behaviours and justifications for them – some feeling that reading without a pencil in hand to scribble comments is not truly reading a book, others regarding the book as an object separate from such abuse and writing notes in a separate book. Latham points out that historically amending books was an almost expected thing, that many writers and historical figures left their tracks in books which actually added to their interest and even value. I found this chapter particularly interesting owing in part to its free associations.

This is a  book which I greatly enjoyed and found immensely readable. Not an academic tome, but a great read for anyone fascinated by books as objects, as influencing lives, as something which mirrors historical characters. I recommend this as a book of great general appeal, and especially to the book addict in all forms.