Check My Shelf is a fun idea: a brand-new blog devoted solely to bookshelves. Intriguing for all those who like me, believe that there’s nothing that says more about a person than their book collection. Submit pictures of your shelves or have a peep at other people’s here.
One dark and stormy night this week, I ventured through the rainy streets of Shoreditch to the opening of a pop-up shop with a difference: the mysterious Black Dog Books.
Black Dog Books, which describes itself as “London’s most unusual bookshop” is the brainchild of East End gallery Black Rat Projects: a pop-up antiquarian bookshop, built inside their railway arch gallery. This beautifully-realised installation perfectly recreates the atmosphere of a tiny, creaky old-fashioned bookshop, complete with vintage fittings, an antique till and even a welcome mat. You can browse (and buy) a selection of books ranging from Where the Wild Things Are and The Gruffalo through pleasingly shabby paperback poetry books, through to a range of new artist books, exhibition catalogues, monographs and quirky artist-made fanzines.
But watch out for surprises: Black Dog Books is rumoured to be haunted. According to Black Rat Projects: “The idea of creating the bookshop came when the Black Rat owners slept in the gallery one evening and were woken by the toilet flushing and books falling from the office bookshelves. Thinking they were being burgled, they turned the lights on only to find the gallery empty. Asking around, a local landlord mentioned that the gallery had been used to store the stock of legendary Victorian book dealer F.J. Williams, who disappeared in 1903 and is rumoured to haunt various pubs and houses around the East End.”
Black Rat Projects continue: “Reports have already been received of eerie incidents and strange happenings, with books magically flying off shelves, and lights switching themselves on and off. Halloween may have been and gone but the real ghosts and ghouls work all year round.”
Designed by Will Randall and Giles Walker, and supported by publishers including Tate and Thames and Hudson, Black Dog Books certainly makes the most of this supernatural history. I’m afraid I can’t promise a genuine encounter with the ghosts of East End London, but there are some enjoyable uncanny touches here, not least the presence of a strange figure guarding the bookshop entrance…
Black Dog Books can be found at the Black Rat Projects gallery, through the Cargo garden, Arch 461, Kingsland Viaduct, 83 Rivington St, London.
I’m spending a lot of time in libraries recently: from the amazing British Library where I’m spending most of my weekends, working on The Dreaded Dissertation, to the wonderful Barbican library, which keeps me in books to while away my daily commute.
Browsing the library shelves recently, I came upon an old favourite – an essay by the theorist Walter Benjamin entitled “Unpacking My Library”. This essay is Benjamin’s hymn to his book collection, which for him becomes a “dwelling… with books as the building stones”: a home within a home into which he can disappear.
I too am a book collector. I haven’t got many books here in London, but it’s nice to know that back in Lancaster, they are all there waiting for me: my foundation stones, the books that built me up brick by brick. There are the vintage hardbacks with their faded paper jackets, their nostalgic endpapers, the titles arching across their spines in romantically twirled letters – Dimsie Moves Up, Dancer’s Luck, Cherry Tree Perch – or dashing capitals – Underwater Adventure, Smuggler’s Cove, The Secret of Grey Walls. There are the 1970s library cast-offs with their laminated pastel covers, still shedding loose pages, tattooed with the marks of someone else’s felt-tip pen. There is that familiar rainbow of well-worn Armada paperbacks, unravelling my own past along their ragged spines: dog-eared Famous Fives and Chalet Schools interleaved with Nancy Drew adventures, priced in shillings and pence. A whole flock of Puffins: Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons jostling alongside Nesbit’s Treasure Seekers; Anne of Green Gables beside Stig of The Dump. They have a musty, archaic smell that for me will always evoke a long-lost world of bicycles and picnics and seaside adventures and plucky heroes and heroines, into which I too can disappear.
Assembled they are a cheerful, dog-eared muddle far removed from the elegant, clean-lined Parisian edifice I somehow associate with Benjamin’s book collection. This construction is infinitely more chaotic: a tiny crooked Nara-esque wendy house built out of disintegrating paperbacks, jumbled with childhood souvenirs, glinting with tarnished treasures that I can only peep at through miniature postage-stamp windows, stooping to catch distant, mysterious underwater sounds. This is my dwelling: a little house (with or without prairie), a secret garden, an enchanted wood.
Perhaps all this sounds a little too nostalgic, excessively dewy-eyed. Some years ago, I remember reading something Julie Burchill wrote in her column for The Guardian, where she derided people like me, the people who grew up secretly aspiring to “a childhood spent talking to the animals on Sunnybrook Farm perhaps, before going to board (sharing a room with Pollyanna) at Mallory Towers and then leaving with straight As to work in Narnia as Aslan’s personal assistant.” The piece was not in fact about children’s books at all, but something else entirely, yet this sentence stood out to me as if it had been highlighted, underlined in bright red pen. Burchill was doing her utmost to make the people she was describing sound ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised this didn’t sound ridiculous at all to me. I couldn’t imagine joining Burchill in co-conspiratorial scorn at these deluded dreamers: in fact, if anything, I couldn’t help wondering how any self-respecting child raised on a diet of Blyton and C.S. Lewis could be reasonably expected to hope for anything else?
Today, “escapism” is so often dismissed with derision by writers and cultural critics: the recent tentative suggestion of children’s book author Anne Fine that maybe books don’t always need to be about realism, but instead could be the preserve of hope resulted in a barrage of criticism and condemnation. Yet from the vantage point of my paperback house, it seems to clear to me that sometimes we need to creep under the ivy, through a secret door in a garden wall, or embark on a riverside picnic with Ratty and Mole. We need to retain these happy endings, the loyal dogs and picnic baskets, the mysterious land at the back of the wardrobe. In a world where, as Thomas Wolfe once put it, “you can’t go home again,” maybe we all need a place to escape to, a “dwelling… with books as the building stones” into which we can retreat.
As for me, like Benjamin himself, I’m happiest “among… piles of volumes.” Right now, I have to admit that I really don’t mind spending my Saturday morning in the British Library. In fact, I’m happy to be there, because wherever I go, I know that between bookshelves I’ll always find a home from home.
As fellow procrastination expert The Plashing Vole wisely points out in his comment here, there are few better ways to avoid doing the reading you’re supposed to be doing (say for a certain dissertation) than by spending your time reading something else instead.
As part of my procrastinatory activities, I’ve recently been enjoying the first issue of Corridor 8 magazine, Curtis Sittenfeld’s brilliant American Wife, and two new books I’ve recently reviewed for Bookmunch: The Bride’s Farewell, the latest from Meg Rosoff; and Small Wars, Sadie Jones’s follow-up to her phenomenally successful debut The Outcast.
I’ve also been reading a selection of really excellent young adult novels: Judy Blundell’s engrossing What I Saw and How I Lied, a 1950s-set thriller with a hint of Rumer Godden’s The Greengage Summer; Jenny Valentine’s pleasingly kooky Finding Violet Park; and the completely gripping The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first part of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy. Ness is also currently online writer in residence at Booktrust: his blog and straight-talking tips for writers are well worth checking out. I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous of today’s teenagers: the wealth of excellent young adult writing out there at the moment makes a marked contrast with the dreary selection of Judy Blumes, Point Horrors and Sweet Valley Highs on offer in the teenage section of my local library, back in the darkest 1990s.
In addition, I’ve been browsing a couple of entertaining cookbooks: Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays, re-published by the wonderful Persephone Books – a witty 1920s guide to cooking and entertaining, with chapters entitled ‘For the Punctual and the Unpunctual’ and ‘A Motor Excursion Luncheon’ amongst others; and Joanna Weinberg’s distinctly 21st century equivalent, How to Feed Your Friends with Relish, described as “not exactly a cookbook… nor a domestic manual [but] a book about food and friendship and cooking and love.” There’s something very pleasing about reading recipes: as Weinberg herself points out in the introduction to her book “they tell stories of happy endings, perfect-length fairytales to read at bedtime.”
And finally, I’ve also been re-visiting a few old favourites to help with a contribution I’ve recently put together for Untitled Books. If you’ve never visited Untitled Books, I urge you to check it out: as well as excellent book reviews, news and features, this literary website and online magazine is currently host to an interview with Helen Oyeyemi, brand new fiction from the likes of Evie Wyld and even a literary lonely hearts column. My contribution will be coming soon…
Basically, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “you can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me”… especially when there’s something else more productive I’m really supposed to be doing. Now, I’m off to put the kettle on… what shall I read next?
[These lovely bookcovers come via the book cover archive, alteration and the always-inspirational daydream lily]
I’ve just got back from a brief but action packed trip to Edinburgh for the Book Festival. Some quick highlights: watching wide-eyed children play drawing games with Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne; eating local Scottish scallops; spotting a little old lady dancing all by herself to funky street music; beautiful views over the city from the top floor of the Chamber Street museum; people-watching, coffee-drinking and bookshop-browsing at the festival site at Charlotte Square Gardens; checking out Greenaway prize-winner Catherine Rayner’s beautiful illustrations (including a giant moose!); Eva Hesse’s delicate cheesecloth and papier mache studio works at The Fruitmarket Gallery; and spotting a super-cool China Mieville hanging out at the Author’s Yurt.
However I have to admit that my favourite moment of the whole weekend was probably watching three Grey seals catching up on a little peaceful sunbathing in Dunbar harbour on Sunday morning.
Now back to London again…