I have always enjoyed browsing the shelves of a library or a bookshop. I am quite covetous about the physicality of books, I eye them and think about them in the way that some people drool about sausages and steaks or cheeses and wines. Since I was a child I have held this acquisitive relationship with books. There are some bookshops that I cannot go to because the shop is too well judged as a honey trap for the materialist reader. John Sandoe is filled with examples of the cunning conceits of deceptive restraint employed by booksellers to engage the juices of my raw materialism. A quiet, naturally lit, dusty, wooden, cramped shop stacked high with £30 hard back books, some if not many of which are available for free on my Kindle and which are most difficult to resist.
Books are often judged by people’s reactions to them from the outside. If you want to know if you will like a book, it is perfectly natural to turn to a review of it to see how it has been received. The article will likely be a reflection of the reviewer’s own experience of reading the book, flecked through with anecdotes of childhood and personal interest and hopefully, if skillfully written, flecked through with the essence of the book itself. A good reviewer might lift the review into a piece of writing of itself, something to be enjoyed without recourse to the underlying text if needs be. But ultimately, as a reader looking for a book, you are looking for reflections of the book in the reactions of others. So it is with their covers.
That is why the cover is both the browsing reader’s friend and a mercurial and beguiling enemy. It is no surprise to me that I lusted after a copy of Death Comes to Pemberley when it was first released. The hardback edition of it was one of the most delightful books I have seen in a shop in years. I was on the cusp of buying it several times on the basis of the cover alone. When I finally read a review of it, I discovered that it was a murder mystery set in the D’Arcey household (of Pride and Prejudice). Even the beautiful yellow cover papers and the gentle, matt-touch of the dust jacket with its extravagant black script is not enough to lure me into a new circle of hell reserved in my mind for post-Austen crime novels. I thought I was in love, I was wrong.
The cover of my copy of the The Tin Drum on the other hand, once the horrible dust jacket has been removed, is one of the most delightful objects in my house. A thick rectangle with cream paper bound in red card with black writing stamped on the spine, it looks as edible as a thick slice of victoria sponge cake and its reading makes up in fibre and delight for all the empty calories its exterior, though edible, might suggest. The physical fact of The Tin Drum is only asserted by the copy on my shelf – a work of metaphysical genius, expressed physically to a passing viewer of my shelves as a work of physical beauty. The physical genius of Death Comes to Pemberley is that of a siren, calling me as a reader onto the rocks of its evil beauty.
It was my intention to use this article as a guide for readers looking for books in bookshops. I admit that it is not. “Look at the way the publisher has responded to the book in the choices it has made,” I wanted to say. Instead, I have ranged across just two of my little fictional, dalliances of the last two years. What I have discovered in my commercial promiscuity amongst the many booksellers of London, and can give to you for free, is what you the reader and I the writer already knew: there is no formula to follow in choosing books but to browse and browse and browse the shelves – you will soon come to recognise the books that were made for you, that call to you, that read the way that you wish them to be read but new books come to us by many means and not least of all among them, our curiosity.