Unable to browse actual bookstore shelves during this time of lockdown, I’ve done what most of us now do — gone online. In the evenings I check out the latest offerings from local booksellers John W. Knott Jr. and Lorne Bair, visit the web sites of Bartleby’s Books and Quill & Brush, or call up the exceptionally entertaining blog written by Chuck Roberts, owner of Wonder Book and Video. Still, I miss being able to stop by, among others, the Kensington Row Bookshop, Second Story Books and Capitol Hill Books. So, to help pass this time of bookstore withdrawal, I’ve been enjoying some terrific “books about books.”
In 2017, a 30-ish young man named Shaun Bythell published a chronicle of his day-to-day life running a secondhand book shop in Wigtown, Scotland, his country’s National Book Town. “The Diary of a Bookseller” proved immensely popular — it’s been translated into 23 languages — largely because of its author’s wry, irascible personality, which is again on vivid display in this spring’s sequel, “Confessions of a Bookseller.”
Something of Bythell’s curmudgeonly charm — think Doc Martin — may be glimpsed in the slogan he scribbles on his shop’s blackboard: “Avoid social interaction: always carry a book.” In general, Bythell’s customers either amuse him or drive him crazy. Here’s a typical anecdote. A foreign couple comes up to the front counter and the woman asks, ‘So, this is a library?’ ” The conversation then continues:
Me: ‘No, it’s a bookshop.’
Woman: ‘So does that mean people can just borrow the books?’
Me: ‘No, the books are for sale.’
Woman: ‘Do you buy the books? Can people just come with a book and give it to you and take another one away?’
[will to live seeping away rapidly]
Woman: ‘Do you sell these old ones over here, or are they just for display?’
To keep afloat, Bythell lists some of his stock online because of diary entries like that for Tuesday, Dec. 8: “Only one customer through the door all day.” While browsers usually seek out Scottish history, railroadiana, touristy nonfiction and the like, Bythell’s own taste runs to Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” and James Hogg’s “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.” He’s obviously a man of fine literary discernment since these are two of my own favorite novels.
Back in 1985 — my, where does the time go? — I reviewed “Benchmarks,” a collection of Algis Budrys’s lively columns from the science fiction magazine Galaxy. Budrys, who died in 2008, once neatly characterized H.P. Lovecraft’s narrative style as First Person Delirious. Since 2012, David Langford has edited four additional volumes of Budrys’s criticism, the most recent being “Beyond the Outposts: Essays on SF and Fantasy 1955-1996.” I’ve only just begun to dip into this huge book, but I can say one thing with firm conviction: Anyone even faintly interested in the development of science fiction since the 1960s will find “Beyond the Outposts,” and its predecessors, to be indispensable — and lots of fun.
One could make a similar claim for Terry Zobeck’s compulsively readable “A Trawl Among the Shelves: Lawrence Block Bibliography, 1958-2020.” Among the grandest and most masterly of the Mystery Writers of America’s Grandmasters, Block is best known for his Matt Scudder novels, about a recovering alcoholic ex-cop turned private investigator, and for the Bernie Rhodenbarr capers, featuring a bookseller who is actually a professional burglar. Yet those series are only a small number of the writer’s 200 or so books.
Over a 60-year career, Block has basically done it all, from soft-core erotica as Sheldon Lord to nonfiction about coin and stamp collecting to several chatty but valuable how-to manuals for would-be writers. He’s also assembled imaginative original anthologies, most recently “From Sea to Stormy Sea: 17 Stories Inspired by Great American Paintings.” To round out Zobeck’s bibliographic labor of love, Block himself contributes a characteristically genial afterword, “The Man Who Wrote Too Much.”
Allow me to make a, so to speak, true confession: For my 12th-grade honors English paper I analyzed a dozen stories from 1960s romance magazines. Hence, my interest in Laurie Powers’s “Queen of the Pulps: The Reign of Daisy Bacon and Love Story Magazine.” Bacon ran Love Story from 1928 to 1947, which means that this biography provides some welcome balance to the numerous studies of the era’s high-testosterone adventure pulps such as Doc Savage and The Shadow — both of which Bacon briefly edited. As Love Story aimed to show, women can do it all.
Vincent van Gogh’s letters are almost as wonderful as his paintings and in one of them he writes, “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books.” Mariella Guzzoni traces that passion in the beautifully designed “Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him.” If you need a gift for a book or art lover, this is it.
Van Gogh eagerly devoured anything he could find by Balzac, Dickens, Zola and other favorite authors. He admired “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” so much that he read it twice. Book and periodical art even influenced his own work. Van Gogh’s famous picture of his rustic wooden chair recalls Luke Fildes’s memorial image of the dead Dickens’s empty chair.
To close, let me recommend an audiobook: William Butcher’s “Jules Verne: The Biography,” read by Simon Vance. It’s a “voyage extraordinaire” through the bittersweet life and encyclopedic imagination of one of the most popular writers of all time. Happy listening!
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
ESSAY: BOOKS ON BOOKS