One of the most personal gifts I ever received was chosen by a stranger. They knew exactly what I’d like. What happened was this: my sister walked into a bookstore and told the person behind the counter she was looking for a last-minute present, a gift for someone keen on poetry and Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasies, a lazy reader with little patience for long books.
An algorithm would have suggested a poetry anthology, or more Pratchett. But the human bookseller knew the right book would be Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. I read it straight through the day I was given it, wept, then read it straight through again.
Bookshops around Britain are opening their doors after almost three months of lockdown, and this kind of interaction will once again be possible. Bookselling is as much an art as a science: number-crunching can’t replace the personal touch. Good booksellers get to know their regular customers’ tastes and quirks in a way no internet monolith can. A few shops have been generously offering recommendations over the phone in recent weeks, but it’s not quite the same as in-person browsing.
A bricks-and-mortar bookshop is a temple to what the writer Mark Forsyth (to deliberately misquote Donald Rumsfeld) calls “the unknown unknown” – “the delight of not getting what you wanted”. Internet data will only point you towards what you’ve already searched for; a bookshop allows you to stumble across the strange and wonderful by sheer chance.
The basement of London’s marvellous LRB Bookshop is an Aladdin’s cave of mysteries. I once picked up a book of sonnets there called Sonnets – hand-stitched, no barcode, not even an author’s name – and I’ve been rereading it with pleasure for years. I’d never have found it anywhere else.
That bookshop is tentatively looking at a reopening this month, and many independent shops are proceeding with caution. At the time of writing, plenty of other independent booksellers are opening. Today doesn’t mark a full return to normal, but it’s a promising first step.
In the reopened shops, browsing won’t be the same as before. Foyles now boasts of its “quarantrolleys” for manhandled books. If you touch but don’t buy, the potentially tainted item will be quaran-trundled off to spend 72 hours in isolation, before being allowed to return to the shelves. It may take time to get used to all the new precautions – such as hand sanitiser on entry and exit – but many of us will still leap at the chance to step through the doors of a bookshop.
9 books to buy now
And for your next trip to your favourite bookstore, here’s an eclectic mix of books to add to your shelves.
1. Biography: Hollywood’s Eve by Lili Anolik
Eve Babitz is the ideal subject for a biography. The sharp-witted LA author knew everyone and did everything, while still somehow remaining under the radar. She ate muffins with Andy Warhol, drank chartreuse with Dali and played chess with Duchamp. She played a bit-part in The Godfather Part II. Anolik’s biography tells the remarkable story of this “louche, wayward, headlong, hidden genius of Los Angeles”.
2. Science: Humankind by Rutger Bregman
People are kind, and tough times bring out the best of us; that’s the thesis behind this uplifting and compulsively readable mash-up of science, history, psychology, anthropology and economics from the Dutch wunderkind behind Utopia for Realists. Bregman is a “six impossible things before breakfast” kind of writer. If you’re not convinced by one of his plans to change the world, it doesn’t matter: there’ll be another, equally fascinating idea on the very next page.
3. Fiction: Pew by Catherine Lacey
In this dark fable from the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing, a silent stranger is found sleeping in the church of a small American town. As the residents open up about their lives to this enigmatic newcomer, buried anxieties and fears are brought to the surface. Our fiction critic Cal Revely-Calder has singled out this “masterly” novel as the very best of the year so far.
4. Memoir: Thinking Again by Jan Morris
At 93, Morris still finds fresh things to surprise and delight her every day - whether it’s a performance of Rachmaninoff on the radio, an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys on TV, or a herd of pygmy goats at a local ranch. In this gentle diary of her day-to-day life, the Welsh travel writer covers some very serious subjects - in particular, her wife’s struggle with dementia - but the prevailing mood is one of joy in a life well lived.
5. Poetry: The Air Year by Caroline Bird
Nominated for a Forward Prize, Bird’s effortlessly enjoyable sixth collection is a book likely to win over readers who normally steer clear of poetry. She pulls off surreal flights of fancy while always staying endearingly down-to-earth, in love poems you’ll want to read aloud: one poem imagines the poet and her lover “locked/ in the amber of the and”.
6. Comics: Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg
The Brontes’ early stories of fantastical worlds - inspired by their toy soldiers, and handwritten in tiny books - have been inventively brought to life in this beautiful new graphic novel. There’s a poignant edge to the escapism: Glass Town begins with Charlotte Bronte alone in 1849, in mourning for her late siblings, until she’s whisked back into the imaginary world they once made together.
7. Food: How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher
Amid the grim rationing of the Forties, MFK Fisher defended the wild, sensuous pleasures of food. WH Auden once said of her, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose”. This reissue of an out-of-print classic has come not a moment too soon: it’s the perfect time to revisit Fisher’s advice on how “to live most agreeably in a world full of an increasing number of disagreeable surprises”.
8. Humour: Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
A memoir, cunningly disguised as a series of witty essays on everything from The Golden Girls to Gawain and the Green Knight, peppered with inventive and unashamedly clever spoofs (a Roman philosopher reimagined as a moody teenager, for instance). Somewhere among all this, Ortberg movingly opens up about his family life, his recent gender transition and his Christian faith. A wonderfully weird book from one of America’s most original young humorists.
9. Lit crit: Illness as Inspiration by Theodore Dalyrmple
Not quite a new book, but a newly timely one: overlooked on its publication last year, this eccentric and charmingly old-fashioned book by the prison doctor and Telegraph columnist is ideal bedtime reading for our plague year. In pithy, bite-sized chapters, Dalrymple casts a physician’s eye over poetry by great (and not-so-great) writers inspired by illness, from poet-doctors John Keats and William Carlos Williams to literary hypochondriacs.
The Daily Telegraph