Big Game Hunting in the Second Hand Bookshop

(This is a post from the literaturenetwork back in July 2009. The piece questions some of the things we have lost in the Internet age, a question that drives my PhD research. If I was to write this article today it would be aggressively political. Second hand bookshops are being driven out of business through the combined assault of Amazon and high-street charity shops. While this can easily be ascribed to the march of 'technological progress', the endangered status of the second hand bookshop touches on some very important political issues – for example, fair taxation, local shopping and the importance and financing of art. I've not written that article and probably won't so here's the original…)

The Internet is wonderful thing. So wonderful that it’s easy to forget how much fun buying books in the real world can be.

I love buying things on-line. No matter how strange or obscure the item I want, there always seems to be someone selling it. The most interesting thing I’ve bought recently is a mid-nineties guide to British second hand book shops. This book, by the mysterious Driffield, is long out of date: most of the shops listed that I remember from 15 years back are no more. The guide would likely be little use in navigating present-day second hand bookshops (although I sometimes day-dream about trying).

Instead it reads like a strange volume of speculative fiction, perhaps something Jeff Vandermeer might have devised – maybe drif’s guides are the first examples of paperpunk. Driffield himself has also appeared as a literary character, notably appearing and disappearing in Iain Sinclair’s books (for example, ‘White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings’ and City of Disappearances respectively). He was described by Iain Sinclair as “the punning diarist to a dying book trade”.

Driffield’s guides are full of acronyms (FARTS – Follows you around recommending the stock; GOB – Grand old bore ; KEENON – Keen on stocking if they could get it) and strange obsessions – the link between vegetarian restaurants and book shops, tales of skulduggery and multi-page rants about ‘British Fail’. One edition even claimed Guilford did not exist. Driffield’s frustrations are written up as epic adventure, with wonderful sketches of shops, such as the one where he “discovered how to cure thrush with carrots.”

Reading Drif’s guides and remembering long-lost bookshops brought back the fun I had trawling bookshops as a teenager. I’d sneak away from school and search through basements and shops for treasures, maybe a Michael Moorcock book I’d not seen before or recent hardbacks I couldn’t afford to buy new. I kept a list of the books I wanted to find and was always thrilled when I could cross one off. Looking for books was almost as much fun as reading them – more so when the book failed to meet my expectations.

Buying books in the 21st century is different. Amazon astutely saw that books could be bought without the buyer handling the product and their empire has grown, sweeping away physical bookshops. Over the years Amazon has added more features, one of the most interesting being Amazon Marketplace, which offers new and second hand books from sellers worldwide. Readers can search hundreds, maybe thousands of bookshops with a single web request and cheap copies of out of print books can arrive within days. This, and similar services, have made buying second hand books incredibly easy.

But something has been lost. When ordering books from Amazon, my only communication with the seller is to leave a comment on the feedback page. In real-world bookshops I came to know some of the sellers, and could spend ages chatting while deciding which paperbacks to buy and which I’d risk leaving for next time. And, of course, in real bookshops I’d occasionally find books I’d never expected, the sort of random associations and serendipity you can’t build into recommendation engines.

I’ve not been out trawling second hand bookshops for a long time now. For a start I have less free time: it’s easy to skip school but harder to play truant from a job. The sheer efficiency of Amazon marketplaces has seduced me from the secondhand bookshop. Sometimes I wish I had less money and more time, because then I’d be trawling second-hand bookshops again.

According to Driffield “Book dealing is a form of big-game hunting.” There is more to books than words and I miss questing for books. Borges said that heaven would be a library. I disagree. For me heaven would be an endless, dusty, second hand book-shop.

My favourite books of 2011

At the end of the year, it's fun to look back at the books that I've read and pick out the ones I liked most. In 2011 I read 105 books, most of which were non-fiction. Here are my ten favourites, in no particular order:

Bookends: A Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade by John Shire is a fascinating description of an obscure topic. Shire's book runs from the early days of the town through to current times, and brought back memories of bookshops that I loved. As well as being a good history it is also entertaining and personal, with some entertaining asides, such as the observation that all books on Brighton are required to mention Aleister Crowley.

Thirteen by Sebastian Beaument came highly recommended by Scott Pack. It's a novel about a Brighton taxi driver who finds himself in a slowly developing Lynchian nightmare. The end of the book was a little disappointing, but the opening was one of the weirdest, creepiest things I've ever read.

Erinna Mettler's Starlings is a 'daisy-chain novel' set in Brighton. It's well researched and contains a fascinating range of characters and periods (although it did let itself down a little by not mentioning Crowley).

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi was a somewhat frustrating book, in that I hated the first half. I found its metafictional aspects glib and irritating and considered drowning it in the bath. I'm glad I didn't since the second part made up for it. Death In Varanasi was a fascinating description of a city I've visited in the past and where I plan to spend some time in 2012.

Another book which I half-liked was Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow by Brian Fawcett. The book is once again divided into two. The top half is a collection of post-modern short-stories, some of which I found a little dated. The bottom section of each page contained a devasting analysis of the Khmer Rouge's atrocities and the West's response, .

I meant to write a long post about Jane Bussman's The Worst Date Ever, but that is currently lost in my drafts folder. Partly this is because the topics Bussman deals with are so huge. The Worst Date Ever is a clever book pretending to be dumb. It's very hard to talk about the book without getting trapped in complicated issues. In short: a celebrity journalist explores the conflict in Uganda. I regret not taking the time to finish my post about it and will try to do so in the Spring. It's well worth reading – I was shocked at the West's shameful complicity in the conflict.

Another book I failed to write about was Kenneth Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing. The book's title sounds like a gimmick but it is a fascinating and exciting account of what the Internet means for writing. Goldsmith started as a fine artist and this background gives him some amazing insights into where literature might be headed. It's surprising, approachable, fun.

I love pop-economics books and The Undercover Economist is one of the best I've read. The section of Fair-Trade coffee was particularly shocking. Grant Morrison's Supergods was just the mix of memoir, metafiction and comics criticism that I hoped for, and I'm looking forward to reading it again.

The book that's likely to have the most long-term effect on me is London Calling, Barry Miles' counter-cultural history of London. This is a fascinating history of underground movements in London during the  20th century. I read it on a beach in February and one particular paragraph stuck in my head, sparking some ideas that may take up much of the next few years:

"…with the coming of the Internet, underground publication has effectively disappeared. There can be no avant-garde unless there is a time-delay before the public knows what you are doing… whereas artists in the sixties could work for years with no media coverage, the hardest thing now is to not have thousands of hits on Google or a page on Wikipedia."

I received a Kindle as a Christmas gift. I'd always avoided them before, scared of being seduced, but it's going to come in very useful in my travels over the coming weeks (books are heavy). I suspect that it will change the way I read significantly. I'm looking forward seeing what is one my list of favourite books of 2012, and what form they take.

In Loving Memory of Bunny

I love the tiny plaques on memorial benches, the way they attempt to describe lives with a short sentence or two. Often they leave me wondering about the person described and wanting to know more. One that I find particularly interesting is on the Undercliff walk, near the Ovingdean gap. Its text is simple: "In loving memory of Bunny". It makes me think of Bunny Munro, the title character in Nick Cave's book, The Death Of Bunny Munro, who lived in the area near this bench. I don't know the person that the bench actually memorialises so, for me, it's one of those strange moments where fiction and reality overlap. 





How Stewart Lee escaped his certain fate

I bought Stewart Lee's book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, to help myself through a hangover last weekend. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be to read transcripts of three shows that I'd already seen, but the book includes some massive footnotes discussing the routines and Lee's life, all of which proved fascinating. 

Stewart Lee interests me since he is someone who obviously cares about his craft. He talks in detail about his work, and how it relates to the comedians he loves, many of whom I'd not heard of before I read references to them in Lee's interviews. Lee also has some fantastic set-pieces, my favourite being his attack on Richard Littlejohn for Littlejohn's disgraceful comments on the Ipswich murders 

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are when Lee talks about his career and its current status. Inspired by Daniel Kitson, Lee has deliberately aimed for a smaller audience of people who love his work. He's a good example of someone with 1000 true fans

A few favourite quotes from the book:

"…my teenage comedy hero John Hegley told me you only need a few thousand fans. And if they all give you ten pounds a year, you're away. And I thought about all the musicians I like – the folk singers and free jazzers and alternative country cowpokes and persistent punk veterans who all hang on in there, on small labels, selling self-released CDs for cash out of suitcases after gigs and operating within viable margins, tour, rest, tour, rest and sell some CDs. They survive" [p31]

"I am arrogant, I admit, but when I say things like this onstage I have chosen to be arrogant for comic effect and hope, in part, that the comments reflect badly on me, creating a distancing effect between me and the audience. I hope they admire the comedy, but I'd rather they didn't enjoy the show just because they liked me as a person. It seems cheap." [p68]

"For the middle part of my thirties I'd been barely earning a living. I was like a punch-drunk prizefighter with no other viable skills who thought there might still be a battle to be won. And I realised that stand-up was just one man on a stage in the room. And so stand-up was infinite. And I had been a fool to doubt it." [p39] 

I like that last quote because it reminds me of something Harvey Pekar said about comic books, which is often quoted by Warren Ellis: "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures."

Recent reading

I've read a lot of books since my last reading post so this is a quick catch-up of the most interesting ones:

  • Die Hard Mod by Charlie McQuaker is a short book but it's great fun. The story is set in Brighton and mentions lots of well-known places. I loved the fast and effective style, which led to a great set-piece at the end. If you live in Brighton, you should definitely read this. There's a review by Paolo Hewitt here.
  • Jaws was a good quick read, described by Peter Benchley as "a first novel about a fish". I can't see myself reading much more Peter Brenchley, although if a copy of 1994's White Shark falls into my lap then I won't be able to resist "the story of a Nazi-created genetically engineered shark/human hybrid".
  • What was Lost was recommended by Scott Pack and was good enough that I read it by torchlight in my tent at a festival. It's about a shopping centre, and really captures the horror of lunch-breaks and days off. One thing that annoyed me was that the back of the book gave away the structure of the book – it would have been lovely to read this not knowing where it was going.  My favourite line, from a girl who wants to be a detective: "Although Sam Spade is not seen at any point in The Maltese Falcon shopping for stationery, Kate knew how important premium office supplies were to an effective investigator"
  • I read Einstein's Dreams because it was compared to Sum,
    which I read in April. The similarities are notable. However, I think
    Einstein's dreams is the better book, since it asks more relevant questions about our lives – which of the worlds it describes are we living in? My copy of the book was
    augmented by notes from a previous owner. She seemed to be studying the stories in college and had, I felt, had missed the point at times. I thought it better not to email her and point this out.
  • I was initially inspired to explore the Bizarro genre by a post from Damien G. Walter. My appetite was further whetted by Bluejoh, who'd read Baby Jesus Butt Plug and said "It's still with me, in a way that a lot of books aren't". I bought one of the Bizarro starter kits and was mostly unimpressed, but House of Houses is one of the most interesting fantasy novels I've read. It's not Tolkien by any means but it is a truly weird novel, which asks the deep philosophical question: what is a house? While the text sometimes seems immature, it's also one of the strangest and most
    inventive novels I've read. True fantasy.

The Secret State was a fascinating but bleak book by Peter Hennessey.
Now that the world has survived the Cold War, it seems less insane than
it did (In August 1991, the head of the JIC, Sir Percy Cradock,
produced champagne, "toasting the intelligence community as a whole
on the demise of the Cold War with the words "We didn't have a
war. We
did win").
Despite this, some of the memos from the time remain chilling.

Looking back, the Cold War seems like a very strange period of history. As historian Michael Howard pointed out, "War is now seen as being a matter for governments and not for
peoples; an affair of mutual destruction inflicted at remote distances
by technological specialists operating according to the arcane
calculations of strategic analysts. Popular participation is considered
neither necessary nor desirable
– and this despite, as Hennessey
points out, the certainty of massive civilian casualties.

The book was fascinating. One of the
strangest moments was the discussion of how a nuclear submarine checks
whether Britain has been destroyed – one test was whether the Today programme was still broadcasting.

The Bret Easton Ellis Live Experience


One of the things I was most excited about at Latitude was seeing a talk with Bret Easton Ellis. While I was underwhelmed by his last book (Imperial Bedrooms), American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park are among my very favourite novels.

It was certainly an interesting experience. The crowd was in a good mood, cheering the titles of their favourite novels as Miranda Sawyer introduced Ellis. He seemed surprised to see so many people present ("we thought we'd be hearing a song" someone shouted) and took photos of the crowd.

Ellis started by saying "I want to talk about hangovers… because that is more important to me than that book now." He was apparently suffering the second day of a hangover from partying earlier in the tour. Throughout, Ellis seemed to resent discussing Imperial Bedrooms, which he dismissed as an idea he had seven years ago, even though many of the audience had only recently bought and read it. 

In fact, Ellis seemed reluctant to talk about most things. Miranda Sawyer was very patient and did a great job of drawing him out a little before asking for audience questions. In part, Ellis seemed to be trying to demystify what he did, but it also felt as if he didn't really want to be there. 

One audience member asked about Clay, saying that he felt bad for not having as exciting a life. Ellis said he shouldn't worry: "he's a fictional character in a book". Ellis said that he works office hours so he can socialise with his friends in the
evening, and that his novels were reflections of his feelings at the
time he wrote them.

I enjoyed seeing Ellis – it was certainly an entertaining session – but looking back I feel a little uncomfortable with it too. His unwillingness to answer some of Miranda Sawyer's questions verged on rudeness. Obviously I have no expectations of a writer whose book I am reading. But if they're making a public appearance, then a certain amount of openness is expected.


I Have America Surrounded

I've been reading a lot of books about the 60's lately. On my to-read pile there are books by or about William Burroughs, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Johnson, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Most recently I've read  I Have America Surrounded, by John Higgs, a biography of Timothy Leary. I'm not a huge fan of Leary's writings and theories, but he is an intruiging character.

The biography was a good read. First off, I love the title. It comes from an interview with Leary where he was asked to comment on Nixon's claim that he was the most dangerous man in America. Leary, who was dying at the time, replied, "Yes, it's true. I have America surrounded."

In The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby suggests should be a legal limit to the length of a biography. This book is perfect, coming in at just over three hundred pages. There was no messing around: by the end of the third chapter, Leary had been thrown out of the army and then out of Harvard. There were a few points where I'd perhaps have liked more detail, but the book concentrated on telling a great story. The contents page reflects this – there are some fantastic chapter titles.

For me, the best biographies are those that include a series of connected anecdotes and episodes, with hindsight putting them into perspective. This book includes some wonderful stories – like the time that the only LSD Leary had access to was dropped in a suitcase. The drug soaked into Richard Alpert's white linen suit meaning Leary and friends were "reduced to nibbling the suit when they wanted to trip". (Alpert's name was later borrowed for a character from Lost). Or the time when Leary was given a series of psychological papers to decide what category of prison he should be held in – papers he himself had devised.

There's also some interesting background information. I learned that the 007 codeword came from John Dee, magician and spymaster. The notes have a brief discussion of Dock Ellis, a
baseball player who pitched a
perfect no-hitter on LSD
and there's a mention of R. Gordon Wasson, an ex-vice-president of JP Morgan. Wasson's hobby was, apparently 'ethnomycology', "the study of mushrooms in human society". He went to Mexico to investigate mushroom cults for Life magazine, a trip apparently funded by the CIA. 

One thing I love about biographies is how they overlap. Leary gave psychedelic sessions for Burroughs and Ginsberg and was an associate and defence witness for Abbie Hoffman; there's also a weird moment, where Charles Manson criticises some
pro-violence statements that Leary made. But, for me, the most interesting episode was when Leary encountered Eldridge Cleaver. After escaping prison with the help of the weather underground, he fled America for Algeria. Apparently, after Algeria achieved independence, the country recognised 13 'liberation groups' rather than the countries they were resisting. This meant that the official representatives for the USA were the Black Panthers, under Eldridge Cleaver.

Like many 60's icons, Leary's post-60's legacy is more conflicted. He was finally captured by the American Government and was released after agreeing to assist the FBI with their investigation of the Weathermen. Although it was claimed Leary's co-operation was a pretence, and that nobody was arrested as a result, it was a dubious episode.

I Have America Surrounded was a good book – recommended. Next up: Steal this Dream, an oral biography of Annie Hoffman.

Where does the weirdness go?

The price of second-hand books seems to have fallen in Brighton. On my last trip I picked up some good books including The Secret State, The Manual of Detection and a volume of Eldridge Cleaver speeches, all for two pounds each.

I also picked up a copy of Toby Litt's i play the drums in a band called Okay. I'd read a couple of the chapters as short stories so thought I would give the book a try, although books about rock bands are generally disappointing. This turned out to be a lovely novel. It's written as a rockstar's autobiography and makes an episodic sweep across his life. The book's origin as disconnected short stories works well. In fact, it's arguable that the book is actually a short stort collection – but, if it is, then it's one of those rare collections where the selection and sequencing make the stories far stronger.

Another cheap book I picked up recently was Warren Ellis's Crooked Little Vein. I'd expected this to be entertaining but I've been surprised at how much it's made me think. The book explodes with ideas like godzilla bukkake / macroherpetophiles, Aaron Sorkin as a CIA plant, saline infusion, the ethics of human/canine relationships and the meaning of America. But the book also has some interesting things to say about what the Internet means for fringe culture:

"Consider this, though. If I've seen it on the Internet, is it still underground? 'Underground' always connoted something hidden, something difficult to see and find. Something underneath the surface of things, yes? But if it's on the Internet – and I do praise the Lord that I lived long enough to see such a thing – it cannot possibly be underground."

We live in a time when anything interesting is quickly propagated on twitter. Jokes can be stale within hours. Hype cycles can be so fast that they never recover from the 'trough of disillusionment'. There is less time for things to brew in secret before being brought to light – it's ridiculously to throw up a website for a minor project. And that may be a bad thing, it may not, but things have definitely changed. Crooked Little Vein might look like be an extended gross-out at points, but it's also a very clever little book and well worth reading.

The Lost Bookshops of Brighton

Last night I was thinking about my favourite bookshops in Brighton. When I was a teenager I loved sneaking away from school to go shopping there. I'd trawl the second hand shops, hunting for cheap science fiction and horror novels. I've never been interested in antiquarian books – all I wanted was to fuel my reading with as many novels as I could get for my money.

Brighton has changed a lot since the 1990's. There are many good things about the changes, but I miss the places I used to visit when I was younger. Inspired by my nostalgia, here is a list of some of the great lost bookshops of Brighton:

  1. I discovered Savery Books, at Fiveways, in my second year of university. The shop was a converted house, with shelves on every available section of wall space. Both floors were full of cheap books on every subject you needed. It's probably the best bookshop I've ever visited, and its closure was a tragedy. I think Savery Books are still in business, but the old shop is now a bar.
  2. The Queens Road bookshop always looked chaotic, with books piled everywhere. The huge windows at the front displayed what looked like a landslide of books, hopelessly disordered. Many visitors were overwhelmed by the task of finding what they wanted among the shelves and stacks. But the owner, who was usually smoking at the front door, would know if he had the book you wanted, and could lead you straight to it. The shop closed suddenly and the owner was said to have vanished.
  3. On the other side of Queen's Road was a smaller bookshop. I think it was connected to the other one and contained the science-fiction and horror section. I spent a lot of time in there chatting with the owner, a friendly American man. I've no idea what happened to him.
  4. The Komedia was built on the site of the old Jubilee Market. This was a wonderful place, like a nursery for shops – Reservoir Frogs was one of the stalls that graduated to its own premises. Downstairs was a warren-like space filled with more stalls, including Jabba's Hut. This sold old toys, games and comic books. To some people, Jabba's Hut might have seemed filled with tat, but the shop contained some fantastic treasures. It was the most comic-shop-like comic shop I've ever been in.
  5. Unicorn Books was open between 1967 and 1973, before I was born. Unicorn Books was famous for being involved in an obscenity trial in 1968 for publishing the JG Ballard booklet Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan. The trial resulted in significant costs and fines for the bookshop's owner, Bill Butler, eventually resulting in the shop's closure. The linked article makes it sound like a bookshop I would have loved.

Sadly my Drif's Guides from the 90's are in storage, so I can't check to see if there are any obvious ones I've missed. Please leave a comment if you can think of some.

Nowadays I don't have enough time to read to justify the trawls I would make as a teenager. I remember feeling overworked during my A-levels, but somehow managed to read an amount that amazes me. Still, I really should take the opportunity to tour Brighton's current bookshops.