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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

I like books, I like bookstores – and I thought I’d like this book. Yet it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. Author, comedian and book addict Robin Ince set himself a goal to visit at least 100 independent bookshops in the United Kingdom, to coincide with the release of his latest book. Bibliomaniac documents this journey, during which he also indulged his passion for book-buying.

Ince’s life, he explains, is summed up by the Japanese word tsundoku¸ which he translates as meaning allowing your home to become overrun by unread books (and still continuing to buy more). He confesses that his home is full of books waiting to be read. He can’t resist visiting at least one charity shop (op shop) in every town he passes through, to scour the shelves for more books. Jam-packed with used books, his backpack eventually becomes so wide that he can’t fit into a public loo: I am now too broad with books to fit through the door…a future lies ahead racked by bladder-damage…

I can relate to Ince’s twin passions for books and for indie bookstores. The book’s sub-title is “an obsessive’s tour of the bookshops of Britain”. It was the non-book related content about Ince’s other obsessions that I found rather tedious. For example, he’s also fixated on baking, toilets, and reporting on every little bit of smut he saw or overheard on his travels. At times I felt as though I’d stumbled into a book co-authored by Nigella Lawson and Benny Hill (or Benny’s modern-day equivalent with a school boy’s fascination with topless women and their bosoms). If the following excerpt makes you chuckle, then perhaps you’re Ince’s target market: Sometimes it can be quite distracting attempting to urinate while being watched by a smiling, cake-holding [cardboard cutout] of [English baker] Mary Berry, although for some, this might be a beautiful dream. Like Prince Harry, Ince also sneaks in a few references to male anatomy. Vomit, sewage and poo feature in more than one chapter.

Many of the books Ince mentions are obscure, likely with a niche readership. Quotes from some of these books could have been shortened or removed altogether, although it’s fun to see the Hairy Maclary reference. There’s a certain recklessness and stream of consciousness to Ince’s writing, perhaps reflecting his self-described interviewee persona during book festivals: I like to be surprised by what I say – it makes me work harder to find out what I mean.

Despite the overall tone of the book not appealing to me, there were elements of the book I enjoyed. Some of Ince’s observations are thought-provoking, such as when he mulls over an author’s ability to continue to influence readers after the author is long gone: This is one of the wonders of books…I pick up a book from a shelf, and someone who is no more than ash or bone can still change me. The descriptions and locations of the bookstores are intriguing – one had previously been set up in a church, another in a former florist’s shop, and a Canterbury bookshop down a lane is an ‘architectural oddity’ in a crooked house with ‘Dr Seuss-like skew-whiffery’. I liked the detail and charm of the end papers, and the maps and other illustrations prefacing each chapter.

Ince notes that over two months he travelled 8000 miles, took part in 111 events, and visited 104 indie bookshops. His quest began in Wigtown, Scotland – although curiously there’s no mention of fellow author and Wigtown bookstore owner Shaun Bythell. During Ince’s many trips around the countryside he appears to have been both happy and grateful to connect and re-connect with the ‘really lovely people’ who showed up to his events. I’m impressed by the number of bookstores that exist – and apparently there were many others he was unable to fit into his schedule. Ince includes an index of bookshops, as well as an index of books, for readers inspired to visit particular bookshops or to track down books he mentions.

I wonder if this book would be most appealing to readers in the United Kingdom who are familiar with at least some of the locations that Ince visits and who are also partial to Ince’s idiosyncratic sense of humour. Here in Aotearoa, perhaps this book will help to raise the profile of (and appreciation for) our own excellent indie bookstores, some of which struggle to survive.

Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Allen & Unwin


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