Now what book-lover can resist a book all about books and which promises to unlock some of their secrets? Not this one anyway! Unusually, this book isn’t actually about reading but focuses on concepts such as how physical books have developed over time, what the books we choose to keep on our bookshelves say about us (who among us doesn’t like a look at other people’s bookshelves?), how books are viewed in cultural terms and what the future may hold for books in the digital age. There was so much I enjoyed in this book and I’m just going to pick out a few parts to give you a flavour.
The author talks about the way a physical book imprints on your memory contrasted with ebooks. This is so true. When I came to write up my thoughts, I could easily visualise whereabouts in the book I had read certain passages – near the beginning, left hand page, near the top etc. Reading an ebook (and I do also love my Kindle) does not give that same reading experience, it does not imprint on the memory in the same way.
The author spoke about the way books connect people but can also separate them. This isn’t just about the way reading a book cuts you off from people. As he points out: “Don’t try snuggling up to your partner in bed when he or she is just getting to the last pages of a murder mystery. Not even the most ardent lover is more interesting that finding out whodunnit.” When I read on the bus, as well as actually wanting to read, it is also a sign that I don’t want someone to talk me, a physical barrier. But then there are book groups, growing in number, which bring people together to share their thoughts on a particular book, the reading of which has of course been an individual activity.
I was fascinated to read about what could be regarded as the first book groups. When books were an expensive luxury in the 19th century, and indeed many people were still illiterate, people came together to share the books they had bought. One copy could be purchased through shared funds and then passed around many people. Benjamin Franklin helped set up a group like this in the late 18th century. His group evolved into a public library and where would we be without our wonderful public libraries offering access to countless books to everyone, regardless of means?
One part of the book I particularly connected with was about the way books mark out the milestones in people’s lives, with significant occasions being marked by the giving of a book. Tom Mole notes that it was very common for people to record births, marriages and deaths in a family bible. I consider myself fortunate to have a very weighty tome which belonged to my great great grandfather James Powell. I have shown the births page below although there are separate pages recording marriages and deaths. It was extremely useful to me when I was researching my family history. The Janet Mackie Powell near the top is my great grandmother. I find it particularly interesting that the first of the grandchildren mentioned, James Powell, is noted as ‘son of Margaret’. This first grandchild was illegitimate but still it was considered important to record his birth. As you can see, I certainly regard this particular book as an artefact of social history but I digress.
Alexander McCall Smith has described the book as ‘A real treasure trove for book lovers’ and I would definitely agree. If you are looking for a gift for the bibliophile in your life, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book. When you look at your own bookshelves and think about why you have kept these particular books, the memories they bring back of where you were when you read them, what was happening in your life or what feelings they evoked, I am sure you will agree with the author who says, “Every volume is a remembrance of things past.”
My thanks to Alison Menzies for my review copy of the book. The Secret Life of Books is published by Elliott & Thompson and available now in hardback and ebook formats. You should be able to buy or order a copy from your usual book retailer or you can order online from Hive here: The Secret Life of Books
From the back of the book
We love books. We take them to bed with us. They weigh down our suitcases when we go on holiday. We display them on our bookshelves or store them in our attics. We give them as gifts. We write our names in them. We take them for granted. And all the time, our books are leading a double life.
The Secret Life of Books is about everything that isn’t just the words. It’s about how books transform us as individuals. It’s about how books – and readers – have evolved over time. And it’s about why, even with the arrival of other media, books still have the power to change our lives.
In this illuminating account, Tom Mole looks at everything from binding innovations to binding errors, to books defaced by lovers, to those imprisoning professors in their offices, to books in art, to burned books, to the books that create nations, to those we’ll leave behind.
It will change how you think about books.
About the author
Tom Mole is Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh, where he runs the Centre for the History of the Book. He has taught at universities in the UK and Canada, and has lectured widely in Europe, Australia and North America. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has written or edited several volumes about books and literature, including What the Victorians Made of Romanticism, which won the 2018 Saltire Prize for Research Book of the Year. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and young daughter.