Monday, 11 April 2011
The Great Book Buying Expedition
Yesterday, however, I needed to browse and I also felt well enough to get as far as Oxford and that is a combination which means just one thing - a day in Blackwells.
Some people, I know, find a bookshop that size intimidating and I can understand that. How can you hope to find something that is just right amongst all those books? How do you ever narrow down your choice? Panic ye not! I have the perfect answer - tea and buns. The tea and bun break is an essential part of any Great Book Buying Expedition. Actually, if you're going to be pedantic about things, several tea and bun breaks. Blackwells acknowledges this fact by having a cafe inside the shop, although normally there are so many people having tea and bun breaks that it is hard to find a seat. But don't let that worry you, there are plenty of other appropriate places where you can indulge within very easy walking distance.
So, your plan of campaign should go something like this. Arrive at your destination. First tea and bun break while you decide which sections of the bookshop you are going to prowl round and in what order. For me, yesterday, this was the literary criticism section, the fiction in translation and the history department.
Having made your initial selection you then go back to the shop and carry out a preliminary sweep, logging possible choices as you go. Note book and pencil is essential at this stage, although you will need to be prepared to defend yourself if challenged by concerned booksellers who think you are just noting down titles that you then intend to buy at half the price from the Internet. (You wouldn't do that, would you?) This reconnaissance can take anything from half an hour to half the day depended on the size of the bookshop and how many categories of book you are interested in. However long it takes, by the time you get to the end of it you will definitely need another tea and bun break. You might even need two buns if your exertions have left you really exhausted.
Over your second bun you then peruse and narrow down your lists and decide which books are going to be deemed to be serious contenders. Over your first bun you may have got the list down to a couple of dozen but it's over that second one that you do the really hard work and cull for all you are worth. They will want to close the bookshop at some point that evening.
Back to the book face then, this time for some serious browsing. I hope you haven't come in your best clothes, because this part of the proceedings inevitably means that you will end up sitting on the floor pouring over tables of contents, reading first chapters or chasing through indexes to see if your favourite writer is mentioned or if that essential piece of information is covered. This is hard work. When you have browsed your way through your short list you will justifiably be tired. You will need more tea and buns.
I recommend a real good strong Assam tea for this deliberation because this is where you have to make the final selection and your resolve will need fortifying. However much you want that book on Crime Fiction that's only available in hardback at £125 (I kid you not!) you can't have it, at least not if you have my bank manager, you can't. You have to be realistic and make decisions. You may even find you need a full cream tea to get you through this difficult and heartbreaking part of the operation.
Finally, at a point where the staff of both tea and book shops are ready to have you removed for loitering with intent, you pull out your purse (or in my case, book tokens) and you buy your books. These may or may not be the ones you decided on over your full cream tea. It's not unknown for all this hard work to be in vain and for me, at least, to completely change my mind the moment I get back inside the shop and buy something that just happens to cross my line of vision as I go through the door for that last momentous visit. But what does that matter? I've had the fun, I've had the tea and buns and I've finally got the books. What better way of spending a day?
What's that? I haven't said which books I actually bought? Sometimes I think that is the least important part of the whole expedition, but if you really want to know.
I rejected the fiction in translation because I've had so many bad experiences recently with poor transitions and I didn't have anyone with me who could vouch for the quality of what I was looking at. The history section was always little more than a preliminary scan for when I move on to study medieval literature next year and want some social and political context. The serious buying in that area won't happen until Autumn at the earliest. So, that left literary criticism and within that I found myself drawn back again and again to the essay section. I looked long and hard at the latest volume of Virginia Woolf's collected essays, but it was very expensive, and I also hankered after the new Zadie Smith collection, but that is coming out in paperback later this month and I am prepared to wait a little longer. So, what I finally came home with was a volume of Michael Chabon's essays in praise of reading and writing, Maps and Legends, and a collection edited by Susan Hill, The Best of Books and Company, which comprises a selection of the essays that originally appeared in the magazine of that name. I love nothing better than reading about other people's bookish loves. Both of them will give me hours of pleasure, accompanied, of course, by more tea and buns.