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A Common Reader: "An engaging read."

Date: Sep 16 2010

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As an avid reader I enjoy “books about books” and this one certainly falls into that category.  Imagine a couple of lovers of literature who get the opportunity to open a book-shop which only sells “good” books, those which meet a criteria of literary worth, deliberately ignoring the current literary prizes and the year’s crop of much-lauded novels.  The premise of A Novel Bookstore is that a wealthy woman, Francesca, is able to work with Ivan, a like-minded book-shop manager, acquire some prime real-estate in Paris and indulge their tastes without fear of bankruptcy.


A team of eight people is recruited (all writers of quality literature or having other suitable qualifications) and are required to provide a list of 600 books which the book-shop should stock. When the lists are received, the manager and owner correlate the eight lists together to compile an overall list which will provide the shop’s initial stock. The shop will not stock new books until they have proved themselves and the committee has agreed that they should be added.


But trouble soon arrives on their doorstep, beginning with physical attacks on three members of the selection committee.  Who is behind them?  Before long a vicious campaign is launched to vilify the shop and to present is as an elitist enterprise run by people who have contempt for the tastes of most readers.  The rest of the book follows the attempts to uncover the source of the plots and personal attacks, while a couple of romantic relationships are developed along the way with the usual joys and sorrows.


On the whole, I quite enjoyed the book.  Despite its 400+ pages, its an engaging read which held my interest, despite the basic implausibility of the story, the occasionally clunky dialouge and the flaws in the out-working of the plot.  A Novel Bookstore relies on the presupposition that the opening of a book-shop in Paris that only sells “good” novels, will provoke an angry response from the mainstream literary world, leading to poster campaigns, articles in newspapers, speeches from government ministers and even attempted murder.  We even find the opponents of the shop are so incensed by the Novel Bookstore that they go to the lengths of setting up three other book-shops opposite and next-door  to the Novel Bookstore selling “pleasurable books” and “good books”.   I found this sort of thing stretched my credulity more than it should and rather spoiled the book for me.


Perhaps Paris is different to London: I am certain that the opening of a book-shop in central London where the books were hand-picked by an anonymous committee would lead to nothing other than a few laughs – not least because readers who may require such a service have surely by now migrated to the Internet where their needs are met by Amazon, Ebay and Abebooks.


In fact, the idea of specialised book-shops for devoted readers is not new and for example, London already has a new book-shop that “stocks an eclectic but carefully chosen range of old books, a selection of new books and classic reprints from interesting small publishers” for people who “tend to be independent-minded too – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.” Hmm, this sounds rather like A Novel Bookstore, though on a smaller scale, and I’m sure that Slightly Foxed would be immensely grateful for even a fraction of the attention, whether critical or not, that was attracted by the fictional book-shop in this novel.


The whole book has a rather archaic feel to it. The correlation of the lists is done laboriously by hand – it would have been quite possible to have done this in moments with Microsoft Office or similar.  Its as though the shop exists in the 1970s, before the days of cheap personal computers and the Internet.  The creation of a website is a sort of after-thought, and is achieved by the manager going on a “webmaster” course – Laurence Cossé obviously knows little about the complexities of setting up an inventory management system with a related database and the merchant services to enable customer to use credit cards. Even the sourcing of obscure or out of print books is solved by the manager saying, “I know an excellent network of used book dealers.  I’ll get in touch with them, and get them to find us those unobtainable books”.  Evidently he has not heard of Google or the search facilities on sites like Abebooks.


But I am being unfair! The purpose of this book as far as I can tell is as a sort of hymn to good reading, where a special clientele of sophisticated and refined people can indulge their literary tastes in a discrete atmosphere where an old-fashioned library-silence reigns.  This is the power of fiction which the author puts in the mouth of one of her characters like this:


Literature is a source of pleasure . . . is it one of those rare inexhaustible joys in life, bit it’s not only that. It must not be dissociated from reality.  Everything is there.  That is why I never use the word fiction.  Every subtlety in life is material for a book.  Novels don’t only contain exceptional situations, life or death choices, or major ordeals; there are also everyday difficulties, temptations, ordinary disappointments; and in response, every human attitude, every type of behaviour, from the finest to the most wretched.  Literature informs, instructs, it prepares you for life.


I got the impression throughout that the concepts of the Novel Bookstore are close to the author’s heart. She really couldn’t have written 400 pages about this shop and its ethos without being convinced of its value. For myself, I was impressed by the counter-arguments put forward by an opponent of the shop –


We have to ensure the life of a popular culture which has given us great works. Some of those works, which were looked down on when they were published, are now unanimously revered, such as works by authors such as Alexadre Dumas, Jules Verne, or Hergé. The essential problem raised by the notion of literary value is that the value changes with time. A work that might have been hailed by its contemporaries seems trivial a hundred years later, perhaps even thirty years later. Our love of the novel and of the book is so great that we cannot see why, or even how, once could exclude, by means of a selection process, 99 percent of the titles available. Our passion and our cause is to respect the diversity of cultures, and the diversity of individuals.


I thought this was a rather good argument against the Novel Bookstore, but the managers of the Novel Bookstore responds with a blunt – “what a load of sophistry”.


Despite my reservations, this book is still a “good read”.  I have no doubt that most readers will not actually quibble at the things I found annoying – which are probably due to my lifetime working in the IT industry. The book is beautifully designed and presented – one of the most attractive books I have seen in a long time.


Incidentally, the publishers have created a website for the fictional shop – a bit of fun which may well convince quite a few people that A Novel Bookstore is more than a work of fiction. I was inspired to read this book after reading reviews by Guy Savage and Mary Whipple, both of whom seemed to think it was pretty good.

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