Archive for the ‘Authors’ category

This House Takes Note of the Cultural, Civic and Educational Significance of Libraries, Bookshops and Booksellers in the UK

October 15th, 2016

Weddings are usually associated with speeches, alcohol, dancing and laughter . This Thursday I attend my first House of Lords Debate. What associations does it leave me with? Speeches, symptoms of dehydration , eye-watering discomfort and shuffling disappointment.

While angels grip heraldic shields and black microphones bear witness in grids above, Lord Bird, who was ennobled after having launched and established the Big Issue, that dignifies homeless people, gives the chamber 15 minutes of lively, off-script, impassioned, looping anecdote touching on literacy in his past life.

It is followed by the fully scripted , slightly self congratulatory, cliche stuffed, red leather button-backed, middle of the road oratory, topped off with broken folk-dance defensive whitewash from Lord Ashton of Clyde.

For the first ever time in the UK, young people are now less literate than pensioners. But, having established the  importance of the book and the vulnerability of bookshops and libraries, where are the specific , costed suggestions for protecting them? In the absence of plans to improve the situation, calls for action are hollow and simply ignored. Amazon is rightly slammed, but they still owe UK billions in unpaid taxes.

No doubt the Earl Kinnoull’s Trust of Culture in Perth & Kinross, and the Bishop of St. Alban’s Rural Coalition have merit. Books Beyond Words, Cityread, the British Library, Books Are My Bag and many others are hugely worthwhile. What we are facing,though, is decimation of bookshops and libraries in the UK at a scale never before encountered. Unimaginable only ten years ago. Unacceptable to any UK citizen today.

How about Business Rate Reductions for Bookshops Not Bookies, as an initiative? Reduce Business Rates for all bookshops and increase them for all Pay-Day Loan Companies and Betting shops. Sadiq Khan, Philip Glanville, this is definitely one for you two.
How about new charities to seed-fund opening of new bookshops in the UK? Lord Bird and Baroness Rebuck, this is clearly one for you.

Both these suggestions would be fiscally neutral, and both readily achievable. Both would represent long-term solutions for the future- not populist knee-jerk reactions- but non-partisan frameworks for the benefit of all UK book lovers.

The libraries are already protected by law in the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act. Funding needs ring-fencing- our taxes legally cover this. The government absolutely needs challenging for its inexcusable non-enforcement of the law of this land in respect of public libraries. Lord Collins of Hyde, this is your responsibility.

There are no illuminated green exit signs in the Lords Chamber. But bookshops, booksellers and libraries are being unceremoniously elbowed into obsolescence, unless all the people who could possibly do something to stop books facing a bitterly unfair and disastrously bleak future please step forward.

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In France the state helps indie bookshops. In the UK it helps them out of business.

July 23rd, 2014

In France new laws have been passed to materially support independent bookshops, because bookshops are considered in France to be of cultural importance.

My bookshop in Old Street station in London has been in business for thirty years. But TfL, a state enterprise, have defied my pleas and given a six month lease to Moleskine in a shop virtually facing my own. Moleskine sell blank books and our bookshop has built up a significant trade in Moleskine blank books.   In a typical month Moleskine sales represent about 17.5% of our turnover. So  UK state intervention is effectively threatening the survival of our bookshop.

TfL allegedly has plans to close down our Old Street Station ticket office and to lease the space out to a Click and Collect centre, which will further threaten the survival of our independent bookshop.

What do you think about TfL’s decisions in this case?

Is it right that TfL should conduct its affairs in such a bullying fashion?

Damned Cycle Accident Statistics

July 23rd, 2014

Cycle accident statistics only record incidents of death and of ” serious” accident; and “serious” accidents are only recorded if the victim stays in hospital overnight.

How many cyclists in London like me have been victims of serious accidents but have not stayed in hospital overnight?

I was knocked down on a cycle route by a driver hitting me off my bicycle eleven weeks ago. Since then I have made sixteen visits to hospital on separate occasions, I have had an operation under general anaesthetic, still have my left arm immobile in a sling (I have at least six more weeks more to go in a cast and I am left-handed)- how is such a disruptive accident caused by a driver who has subsequently been sent by the Police onto a course to improve their driving, not serious?

Do you think my accident should be re-classified as serious (at the moment it hasn’t been considered statistically whatsoever)?

Does ignoring the type of accident I had completely skew the picture of the safety of cycling in London?

Please tell me if you had a similar bike accident or know of one?

I think “serious” accidents should reflect people who cannot work properly after so many weeks and who have been left fearful of cycling to work in future.

I’d like to take this moment to thank all my friends and customers at my book shop who showed concern for my recovery and apologise for the length of time it is taking.

Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout Knocked Down

June 6th, 2014

A month ago a car from a side road smacked into my bicycle at 8am without looking and knocked me down. I didn’t open my bookshop. I couldn’t work at  my own business premises for the entire first week. The aftermath took hold.  Five hospital visits later, my situation remains unresolved.

At the time of impact, the right hand cycle handlebar gored me. My stomach muscles ripped aside and my liver and colon were bruised. A scan on the day showed spots on my liver and the pain was intense. 4 weeks later the pain remains but has diminished. I phoned my GP 3 days running but now have to anxiously sit out the weekend to wait for a comment on the latest CT triple scan.

A  hospital physio diagnosed my left wrist as possibly fractured.  I am left-handed. It’d been in severe pain for 3 weeks. Two visits later, my wrist was in plaster and my scaphoid can finally begin to heal over the forthcoming 6 weeks.

Exhaustion is usually a temporary state; but, since my road accident, it grips me from when I wake until I sleep at night. My sleep is fitful now whereas I was regularly the soundest sleeper you could imagine.

I cannot drive a car or ride a bike; can only write or perform any fine motor skills with my left hand with severe discomfort.  Lifting is painful for my wrist and my abdomen.  My social life revolved around sport- now my football, squash, badminton and tennis kit are unused.

The fact is that I am not a physical or emotional wreck, but I feel like one; other people’s worse circumstances & suffering  to one side, the aftermath of my bike accident has been profound for me. It does help for me to write feelings down when I feel particularly low.

I hope my conscientious, light-hearted,  relaxed, well-exercised,  old Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout returns in the next month or so.

Jason’s Road trip

May 12th, 2014

I am Jason and I run a bookshop. On Thursday 8-5-2014 at about 07:56 I was bicycling to work on a route I have taken for the last 12 years. I live in Stoke Newington. I was travelling south on Whitmore Road where it becomes Pitfield Street. The light was normal but there was a slight drizzle or very light rain. As I passed the junction with Hoxton Street on my left, I noticed a car proceeding towards me very quickly. I was wearing high visibility, cycling waterproof top , black waterproof bottoms with reflective strips and a cycling helmet. It was clearly my right of way. Before I registered any danger I felt myself flying and landing on the road in excruciating pain. I howled loudly. I was spread-eagled on my front. I do not recollect losing consciousness. Opening my eyes, I saw that I had landed on a part of the pedestrian zebra crossing. I summoned all my energy to crawl or slither off the road in case another car struck me. As I was curling into the recovery position I heard someone asking if I was alright. I said “no”. I heard a voice saying “Call an ambulance”. I repeated the words “Call an ambulance”. I heard someone else saying “I am so sorry. I was rushing to take my daughter to school”. My eyes were closed. I was in agony. Minutes later someone in a green uniform said they were a passing paramedic and instructed me not to move. They went through some questions to assess my condition, which I was able to answer. Following that, the ambulance personnel took over. There was a process of maybe 15 minutes whereby I was supported into an ambulance. That was followed by a lengthy delay where a policeman asked me questions and finally supplied me with a small blue book of information about the accident. I was admitted to the casualty department of the Homerton Hospital. I spent about six or so hours undergoing constant checks and tests. I received an ultra sound and a CT scan on my abdomen. I was administered painkillers. I was advised to remain in hospital under observation for a further period of about 5 hours. I discharged myself and was taken home. I have been in constant pain since then. 48 hours later I have taken photos of my injuries. I am still in a state of shock. I have been told by the hospital consultant that my stomach muscles have been severely torn. My internal organs have been bruised and apart from that, I have suffered several skin abrasions on my face legs and hands and also further bruising. I cannot sleep without waking with pain. My lower intestines contort me in pain. I am using a walking stick, a sling, ice packs and have had a session of cranial osteopathy.

But I am now on the mend & hope to be back at work soon.

Today, I visited the book shop for an hour. It has been as if I had stepped into an alternative reality for four days and I’m now being allowed brief visits back to my old life…

Some thoughts on the Novel

February 15th, 2014

A customer recently told me that he can’t stand to read novels anymore because spending so much time reading newspapers has meant he finds it difficult to read unbroken lines.

Which got me to thinking: what have us booksellers been belly-aching about Amazon for? We’ve misdirected our ire. I’ve identified the true villains, and I’ve come up with the solution. It’s simple; I’ll just set fire to the newsagents. Or if not the newsagents then perhaps Rebekah Brooks… Hugh Grant would cheer me on. We could shoot a grisly sequel to Notting Hill.

But putting threats of arson and witch-burnings aside, there certainly has been a crisis of confidence in the novel as a form in the last 10 years. Take Philip Roth. He said in 2009 that novels will become a ‘cultic’ minority enthusiasm within 25 years, and it’s ‘the print that’s the problem, it’s the book, the object itself’. But we can take with a pinch of salt. Or better sugar. After all, can anyone remember the last time Roth said something that wasn’t unpalatably bitter?

People have written a lot about declining attention spans in the digital age and how this has created an apathetic attitude towards long form fiction. But then a lot of people have also been writing very long books, and a lot of people have been reading them. We have also been handing out awards for them – the Booker Prize for Eleanor Catton’s 832-page clobbering wedge The Luminaries being one example.

So what are we to make of this then? On the one hand we are being told by the likes of Jonathan Franzen that we are all going to be transformed into drivelling dirges able only to conceptualise narratives in terms of trending hashtags, and on the other hand we are reading and slapping prizes on books that make Middlemarch seem mercifully short. It’s very confusing.

First off I think that our tendency towards these long novels goes some way to put paid to Roth’s criticism of the book as an object. The physical size of these books shows that we are not as concerned with their obtrusiveness as much as has been thought.

Secondly I think the way that our television viewing habits have changed provide an illuminating analogy when it comes to thinking about our attention spans. American drama series that focus on one continuous narrative, stretched over 5 or six series, each with at least 12 hour long episodes have become more and more popular. Not only that, but instead of being released serially, entertainment companies such as Netflix are releasing these shows to viewers all at once (the second series of House of Cards which was released yesterday being a fine example). These shows are far more like novels than films, in their structure and their scope. And our hunger for them shows that we haven’t lost interest in the big stories and big characters that only a novel can tell and bring to life.

The schizophrenic tendency that Franzen has identified certainly applies to the way that we communicate with one another, which is becoming more and more telegraphic. But it’s not the death knell for the novel. Something will get it in the end, but it’s not going to be twitter. There’s appetite for stories yet.

SF

The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

A Man With a Button

February 10th, 2014

The tall man’s goatee beard that was tied in knots reminding me of boyhood images of Blackbeard. He was in his later middle-age and wore a hipster tweed suit that struck me as somewhat incongruous. His softly spoken brogue and complimentary good manners together with his broad range of highly literate book purchases piqued my interest and respect.

When this customer gave me his cue, I was ready to engage with him. Though I really couldn’t have guessed where this was going…

He asked me to direct him to the nearby Google campus and I gave him directions; but I’d been slow to realize that he was teeing me up for a revelation.

“I am the inventor” of the button that will bring the smell of books to all future e-readers,  he explained; and,  when my mouth dropped open, he went on,  ”I am a perfumer”.

He proceeded to sing the praises of the smell of the books in Trinity College Library, Dublin; “an olfactory delight”, was his measured appraisal.

I was part spellbound by his enthusiasm, part amazed by his eccentricity, but wholly amazed that he truly foresaw a future for his book smell button.

It’s true that I had once come across an antiquarian bookseller who regularly put his beaky nose deep into the pages of any antiquarian book he was considering buying to inhale the book’s past and to inform his appraisal.

But I was finding it  almost impossible to separate the crazy notion of book sniffing from the real craze of sniffing glue, conflating  them in my mind into people buying e-readers for their addictive fix of the smell of old books.

On innumerable occasions customers have complimented me on the smell of the bookshop – it had somehow reinforced the authenticity of the place to them.  This man’s smell button was purporting to somehow reinforce the authenticity of an e-reader.

Whereas our bookshop smell genuinely arises from the mixture of new and antiquarian books, the book smell button is as artificial as is the quest to copy all the various aspects of the book using digital, electronic or mechanical means.

They are two separate artifacts. Is there any point conflating them?

The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

Inauguration Stations

February 5th, 2014

Hello Hello Hello! Hello. We are the Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout and we would like to welcome you to our new-look blog.

We’ve been selling books in Old Street Roundabout for thirteen years and we figured, with the arrival of this most auspicious of anniversaries, that it was time to create a place to talk about it. So here we have it: a soapbox for a material girl in a digital world.

At the beginning of last week the Standard broke the news that the area around Old Street Roundabout (or ‘Tech City’, as it is snazzily styled) has become the place for tech start-ups to locate themselves. One interviewee said: “There’s a great energy in London’s start-up scene. It’s still proving itself.”

I mean, isn’t this just a really astonishing piece of news? Tech companies in Silicon Roundabout? It’s dynamite!

This story could have been written on any year for the last decade so, apparently, nothing has changed. Old Street is still the up and coming place for the up and coming. But then, they do keep coming – and this high turnover of businesses and the people that work in them has put the shop in contact with an ever shifting population of workers. It’s given us a window onto these different people’s changing book-buying habits.

First off, we’ve seen the decline of technical books. Since the beginning it’s been our policy not to stock software how-to manuals and such the like as they grow obsolete so quickly, but we have always offered a service ordering specific books that our customers need. As the years have gone on the number of these requests has steadily declined, to the point that now we can go weeks on end without any enquires about technical books at all.

On the flip side of this decline, we have seen a steady increase in sales of science fiction. What is interesting is that our past experience has shown that technical books and science fiction have often gone together – customers with an interest in one would frequently have an interest in the other.

What this suggests to me is that, whilst our customers are looking less and less to print to learn how to do specific things, they are turning to books more often as a form of escape. Several customers who spend their workdays sat at computers have told me that when they get home they want a way to relax which doesn’t involve looking at a screen.

It has always been the job of speculative fiction to look forwards: to imagine, for better or for worse, what will come next. For most of us, the future will mean more time spent at a computer. And as the amount of time that we’re plugged-in steadily increases, the existence of books as a means of respite – as an access to the thrilling sensation of  complete immersion in one’s own imagination – will become more important than ever.

But then, we would say that.

What do you think?

SF

The Bookseller of Silicon Roundabout

Bokaflod

October 22nd, 2013

The first thing to say about self-published books is that there are an awful lot of them.

And they’re breeding. A report by Bowker has found that self-publishing has increased by 422 per cent since 2007. The year on year growth shows that self-publishing is a platform that is here to stay, but one question that hasn’t been settled is whether this is a positive development.

Publishers certainly don’t think so. They have, after-all, traditionally been the gatekeepers, separating the wheat from the chaff, and preventing those fools that dare to mix metaphors from ever seeing their names in print. They may have been feeling vindicated last week with the news that Amazon and other online retailers have been selling self-published books containing indecent material, including scenes of rape and the sexual abuse of children.

These retailers rushed to remove the offending titles from their stores, with the Kobo sites even closing down last week to ensure that all of this content had been taken down. However, these revelations have opened up the debate as to how self-published works can be effectively regulated without curbing freedom of speech.

The situation is entirely different in an independent bookshop. Just as with titles released by publishers, each self-published book will be individually considered by a buyer before being stocked. There is no danger that the offensive titles uncovered last week would ever find their way onto the shelves for this reason. The problem, therefore, is restricted to the digital medium, as booksellers are often able to take the quality controlling role that has been historically been fulfilled by publishers.

This is, of course, reductive. Publishers do a lot more than merely acting as moral guardians, and their declining influence has disadvantages for writers as well as readers. Many great books owe their greatness to their editors; you need only look at Ezra Pound’s annotated first edit of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to see the enormous impact that a bit of judicious excision can have.

Publishers also know how to create a product, one that communicates quickly to a prospective reader what kind of experience they will have if they take the book home. This is one area where self-publishing still lags behind. So many self-published books that arrive at the shop have covers that give no real clue as to what the book is about and are typeset poorly. Customers are often short of time and want to make decisions quickly. Elegant and coherent book design helps make this possible, and so without the resources to pay for design and marketing specialists, many self-published books leave these customers cold.

But whatever else it means, self-publishing means more books, and I would say that this can only be a good thing. The BBC recently reported on the ‘bokaflod’ in Iceland, where 1 in 10 people will publish a book in their lifetime. Kristin Vidarsdottir, manager of the Unesco City of Literature project, told the BBC that “Even now, when I go the hairdressers, they do not want celebrity gossip from me but recommendations for Christmas books.” The financial crisis fuelled a renewed interest in reading and writing. And whether they are good or bad, if more books mean more people reading, surely it cannot be such a terrible thing?

SF

(Please feel free to comment, we would welcome your opinion!)

Nobel Defeat

October 14th, 2013

Once again, American poet John Ashbery has missed out on the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It cannot be said that this has come as a complete surprise. On the morning of the announcment the Telegraph published a list of the top 10 ‘runners and riders’ which featured three Americans – none of whom were John Ashbery.

His name is, however, one that is bandied about every year in lists of possible recipients of the prize and he is the frequent recipient of epithets such as ‘most important living American poet’ and ‘best poet of the late 20th century’. All of which he has earned and deserves and so, to fly in the face of the Nobel committee, I would like to offer some reasons why we could all do with a little more Ashbery in our lives.

He is the antidote to the criticism, made in 2008 by the permanent secretary to the Nobel jury Horace Engdahl that American writers ‘don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature’. Though at times obtuse, Ashbery’s work is always inclusive, and it certainly never shies away from the big ideas. Take this opening sentence from ‘Spring Day’, a poem from Ashbery’s 1970 collection The Double Dream of Spring.

 

The immense hope, and forbearance
Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day
Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled
As night returns bringing doubts

That swarm around the sleeper’s head
But are fenced off with clubs and knives, so that morning
Installs again in cold hope
The air that was yesterday, is what you are,

In so many phases the head slips from the hand. […]

 

The first thing you notice is non-linearity; the sentence trails through two nights to end up at yesterday. But it is the combination of this dream-time with a poised uncertainty of address which is striking. An addressee seems to be located with ‘is what you are’, but when you read it back once more this addressee dissolves as you realise it was merely ‘the air that was yesterday’. Just as in a dream, as a reader of Ashbery you are not always sure where you are, who you are and how much time has passed. It is very liberating.

In an interview once Ashbery said that ‘you should try to make your poetry as representative as possible’ which suggests to me a drive towards democratic inclusiveness. This is borne out by the poem which, instead of describing one dream, gives us the experience of dreaming. It allows you as the reader to be the dreamer. This experience of dreaming was one that fascinated Freud, inspired Breton and the surrealists and continues to influence and inform important writers such as Murakami today. So if Ashbery isn’t ‘participating in the big dialogue of literature,’ then perhaps it’s time to change the conversation.

SF