I seem to have spent quite a lot of time in March with Golden Age crime, spying and the like; so I thought for contrast I would turn to a couple of comfort reads Mr. Kaggsy gave me for Christmas! The books in question are both about books and reading, although they’re surprisingly different – one takes a fairly wide view about the history of our relationship with reading and why it’s so important to humans, and the other is more of a personal memoir of how books have helped her get through her life. They are “The Bookseller’s Tale” by Martin Latham, and “Dear Reader” by Cathy Rentzenbrink – and both were fascinating!

First up, “The Bookseller’s Tale”. Latham has been a bookseller for 35 years, currently I believe in charge of Waterstones in Canterbury; and before that he taught and he’s also the author of other books. He draws on his experience to explore the relationships we strange human creatures have with books. From comfort reading and what books bring us in times of adversity, through the history of Medieval Marginalia, to whether you write on your books or not, the perils of being a book reader in the Ancien Regime of France, collecting, libraries, travelling book peddlers – well, you name it, and Latham seems to cover it! The breadth of his knowledge about books and their history is impressive, but as well as covering all manner of obscure angles, he also brings the personal touch to “Bookseller…” During his time working in bookshops he’s encountered all manner of people from strange types lurking in the erotica section to highly-strung authors and he has some fascinating stories to tell!

Girls and women have faced specific challenges to reading: imposed concepts of womanhood, censorship, husbands, clergy, housework and more. Men have been terrified – not too strong a word – of their being sexually gratified by books, or politically or spiritually spiritually liberated by books. Probably the biggest threat though was if they got themselves educated by reading. The reasoning is clear: more reading = less housework, and less devotion to the husband as a source of wisdom and gratification.

“Bookseller…” is absolutely stuffed to the gills with history and information, and really does make fascinating reading. There are occasions when there will just be a number of paragraphs one after the other with snippets of facts, and it risks slipping slightly into what Mr. Kaggsy would call a ‘list book’. But this is a minor criticism; there was so much to enjoy about the book, and as well as doing nothing to help my obsessive need for books, it’s added terribly to the wishlist….

In contrast, “Dear Reader” by Cathy Rentzenbrink, which is subtitled “The Comfort and Joy of Books’, takes a far more personal look at things. Rentzenbrink also has had a career in bookselling, and this informs the book; however, she’s also the author of The Last Act of Love and A Manual for Heartache, works which both deal with the devastating loss of her brother at a young age, and her ways of dealing with the grief. That loss also informs “Dear Reader”, and in it the author explores the support she gained over the years from reading.

When the bite of real life is too brutal, I retreat into made-up worlds and tread well-worn paths. I don’t crave the new when I feel like this, but look for solace in the familiar.

That support is something which which I can really identify, as books have always been my coping mechanism; so I really empathised with Rentzenbrink as she related the events of her life, how books helped her, and which particular works of specific types she recommended. The book was a quick read, but very moving in places and I felt for her when she reached for old favourites as an antidote for a particularly bad point in her life. What worked less well for me, if I’m honest, were the sections with the lists of titles – these were quite short, and I had heard of and read the majority of the books, but perhaps these were aimed at a less experienced reader than me! However, the book really captured the different decades Rentzenbrink lived through, the changing fashions and mores and ways of behaving – and of course the trends in books and bookselling, which was another fascinating element.

… the act of reading itself… became a life raft, allowing me to stay afloat and keep my head above the water. Often people can be a bit snooty at the idea of books as a form of escapism, but I believe this is one of the great powers of literature: to comfort, to console, to allow a tiny oasis of – not exactly pleasure, but perhaps we could think of it as respite, when we feel we might otherwise drown in in a sea of pain.

So these two books were the perfect distraction from modern nasty real life, and perhaps a good reminder of how books can be a real lifeline when you need them most. Our relationship with books has always been a very intense one, and I still find it hard to articulate quite why the written word is so important to me. But they are – as someone I don’t care to name any more once said, “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more.” I often feel like this, and I’m happy to add these two lovely volumes to my shelf of books-about-books – you do all have one of those, don’t you???? ;D