Monday, 2 August 2010

All by the book

I was fortunate enough to have an invitation to a book launch last week – and a jolly pleasant evening it turned out to be.

The volume in question – The Faber Book of South American Cinema – was written by Demetrios Matheou, a colleague. And there have been times over the last few years when I can’t help feeling that The Other Half and I have been amongst a number of people who have, in some ways, helped provide pre-natal care for his baby.

So it was most gratifying to be there for the official birth. We heard a little speech from the author himself and we were served copious amounts of South American wine and beer, and we bought his book and got him to sign it.

But it has to be confessed here that a very great part of the pleasure of the night was the venue itself – Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street in west London.

Daunt Books is a little bit of paradise on Earth.

Originally built as a bookshop in the Edwardian era, it's centred on a lovely, long room with a stained glass window and a gallery. And it's arranged in the quirkiest manner I’ve ever encountered: by country. So you have sections in varying sizes for all of Europe on the ground floor, while the continents of Australasia, Africa and the Americas are represented, by country, in a vast basement space.

But Daunt doesn’t just sell travel books – far from it. Each of those sections includes history, literature, poetry, popular fiction and language as well as travel.

And because it’s an independent, you find things such as AC Baantjer’s DeKok and the Dead Lovers, one of a substantial series of police procedurals set in Amsterdam.

Or Berlin Noir, a collection of the first three of Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther police procedurals set in Berlin.

Or the original Collete story of Gigi, published in a slender volume with The Cat

Or Klaus Mann's Mephisto and Goethe’s erotic poems.

The most mainstream thing that I picked up, as I mentioned yesterday, was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

That is the only book I could have expected to find in the majority of bookshops that now adorn our high streets – or the supermarkets that have spent millions to drive independent retailers out of business by deciding that they could make even more mega bucks by selling everything imaginable under one roof!

And that’s why such moves do not only have the negative impact of homogenising our high streets – the reality is that they also reduce choice. Not improve it – reduce it.

Okay, so I didn’t get the discounts I’d get online. But then again, the pleasure of browsing brought the reward of finding things that I’d either never have heard of at all or didn’t know were actually available in print/English.

Britain is apparently one of the biggest producers of books in the world. But quantity is not the same as quality.

I don’t want to stop people having the chance to buy their crass biographies of reality TV ‘stars’, but why should I find that my opportunities to discover rather better – and a greater variety of – books decreased?

I use Amazon devoutly. I browse; I take recommendations; I search. But it is not the same as going into an independent bookseller (or music shop, for that matter) and being able to physically browse. It is really not the same. And cyber browsing has nowhere near the pleasure of the physical version.

The Other Half and I will make the effort to go to Daunt again – we’ll have to travel halfway across the capital to do it, but we will. So it’s not that we’re ‘lazy’ in our own interests. Or that we expect what we like to be particularly cheap (we’re in the fortunate position, at present, of not having to worry about whether we pay the listed price for a book or get it on a special offer).

But we will travel half way around the second biggest city in Europe (Moscow is the biggest) to visit a real, quirky bookshop that offers one of the best browsing – and, therefore, learning – experiences that I have ever seen.

It’s all rather an interesting insight into the current stage of capitalism that we’re at. In Paris, town planners actually work against the big franchises that want to wipe out independent stores – not just of books, but of other things too. They think that the 'soul' of the place is worth working for – not to preserve it as though it were a museum, but to keep it alive.

That’s part of why I increasingly love France. Yes, there is a place for Fnac (a chain of entertainment mini-malls, in effect – and excellent they are too) but there is absolutely a place for the Daunt Books of this world. And the French realise that far more, at this point in time, than the British do.

Perhaps it’s no wonder I feel myself increasingly becoming a Francophile – and the same for any other Continental nation, because they have similar attitudes – and why I sometimes feel so tired of what I increasingly feel is a small-minded nation.

PS: And that’s without mentioning that Amy Winehouse was in the same bookshop as us, at the same time.

PS#2: So, a big plug for The Faber Book of New South American Cinema by Demetrios Matheou

PS#3: And Daunt Books. Take the virtual tour of this Edwardian bookshop, if nothing else.

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