Book Review: Confessions of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is an irony of my position that – although I’m surrounded by books every day – most of what I know about them is imparted by customers, the self-same customers whom my first instinct is to discourage from talking.”

Shaun Bythell wrote The Diary of a Bookseller in 2014. It was published three years later and went on to become an international bestseller. Confessions of a Bookseller has the same structure – short entries for each day of a year in Bythell’s life. Each month opens with a quote – in this volume from The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller by Augustus Muir – followed by some personal thoughts on various aspects of books and bookselling. Bythell muses on: the habits of customers, the latent excitement and inherent risks of book acquisition, and the challenges he faces due to the existence of Amazon.

The author is proprietor of The Bookshop in Wigtown, a business he purchased in November 2001. He buys and sells second hand books, both in the shop and online. He is a native of Galloway and writes of the place with deep fondness. He is less complimentary about the part-time staff he employs and many of their customers, including regulars. 

Written with caustic wit the daily entries take the reader through the seasons detailing tasks that must be completed associated with the business. Bythell has converted several rooms and buildings linked to his shop – which he lives above – to form meeting rooms and accommodation. These are well used by both locals and visitors to the region, especially during the Wigtown Festival in late September.

The diverse cast of characters are presented in less than flattering cameo although there is no rancour in the writing. Brief descriptions of encounters form the backbone of a book that strips away any dreamy preconceptions around the reality of running a bookshop. Unforeseen expenses include the need for a retrospective planning application and repairs to a collapsing chimney. Bythell must come up with ideas to offset costs as they may not be met by profits from book sales. Daily entries conclude with a tally of customer footfall and till receipts which provide a salutary reminder of the decline in high street spending as the public embrace the ease and convenience of the internet.

“I managed to get the ‘Death to the Kindle’ mug available for sale on Amazon. I wonder how long it will be before it is removed.”

Amazon’s focus on buyers rather than sellers, along with software issues processing listings and orders, provide ongoing headaches for Bythell. Customer expectations have also been altered by the behemoth, with those bringing in books to sell harbouring unrealistic views on value and purchasers demanding discounts.  

Although best read in chronological order to keep abreast of ongoing developments this is a book that can be enjoyed in short fragments. The author offers up his trials and tribulations with a mix of mockery and dour humour, unafraid to admit to his personal peeves and shortcomings.

Any Cop?: Another slice of life as a bookseller with the added quirks of Bythell’s character, this was ultimately a diverting and congenial read.

    

Jackie Law

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Book Review: This is Going to Hurt

This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay, was written after the author rediscovered his medical training portfolio – a sort of diary in which he logged his clinical experiences – while clearing out old paperwork. The GMC had recently removed his name from the medical register, several years after he tendered his resignation. The book is a fascinating account of the day to day life of a junior doctor. It is laugh out loud funny, devastatingly sad, and a wake up call to anyone who may ever have cause to seek medical care in the UK. It should be required reading for any voter or politician who believes that tax cuts matter more than health.

The book opens with a brief discussion about why young people choose to enter the profession, and how candidates are selected. The chosen few must then cope with a demanding five or six year university course after which they enter a hospital, newly qualified to administer treatment. They work their way up through a system designed to ensure a more senior doctor is available to call on if needed, right up to consultant level. In practice there are medical emergencies that must be dealt with immediately and too few members of staff. Added to this is the fact that shifts can last for days without rest – nobody goes home when patients may die if they do. The pressures of the job are unimaginable, and the personal cost to the staff immeasurable.

Each chapter covers a level in the progress of a junior doctor’s career. The author offers a brief introduction and then includes a series of diary entries from that period. Many of these are amusing:

“Friday, 10th September 2004

I notice that every patient on the ward has a pulse of 60 recorded in their observation chart so I surreptitiously inspect the healthcare assistant’s measurement technique. He feels the patient’s pulse, looks at his watch and meticulously counts the number of seconds per minute.”

Footnotes explain medical terms and procedures. There are references to the social and family events missed (stag dos, weddings, funerals, holidays) because a shift had to be covered at the last minute. Reading this, it is little wonder that doctors have high divorce and suicide rates.

When a choice of specialism was called for, Dr Kay opted for obstetrics and gynaecology – a blend of medicine and surgery working in labour wards and in infertility clinics.

“Labour ward is literally four things: caesareans, forceps, ventouse and sewing up the mess you’ve made.”

As he admits, not all storks have happy landings, but he had ruled out every other possible route to consultant, and the alternatives did not appeal. The diary entries from here involve his work with women and their families who are trying to have, are having, or have had babies. His experiences beg the question why any of us put our bodies through such trauma, and what health challenges old age may now bring!

Despite their best efforts, and willingness to be covered in any number of varieties of bodily fluids, doctors are not always treated with gratitude and respect by those they help. They must also deal with those: who think they know better because they read something in the Daily Mail; who believe they can control outcomes with dreamy birth plans (candles by an oxygen tank anyone?); or whose religious beliefs could result in their death. There is also the point that doctors are human beings who will sometimes make mistakes. The growing litigious culture only adds to the pressure, and drives more of them to leave.

The structure of diary entries make this book eminently readable. The numerous amusing anecdotes interspersed with detail of heart rending cases are highly engaging. As well as portraying the life of a junior doctor with its unremitting demands and thankless expectations, there are the frustrations of a system that is constantly trying to find ways to cut costs, thereby making clinicians lives even more difficult. Then there are the patients…

“Saturday, 4 November 2006

Get bleeped to see a postnatal patient at 1am. The ODP relays to the bleeping midwife that I’m in the middle of a caesarean. I get bleeped again at 1.15am (still doing the section) and 1.30am (writing up my operation notes). Eventually, I head off to review the patient. The big emergency? She’s going home in the morning and wants to have her passport application countersigned by a doctor while she’s still in here.”

Despite his heroic efforts the author does not come across as any sort of angel. There are personal anecdotes that made me cringe, perhaps to demonstrate that doctors can be good at their jobs without being perfect human beings. They lose friends and partners after months or years of constantly cancelled dates – let downs after promises to (for once) be there – due to work or exhaustion. The job is portrayed as manic and relentless.

Add to this the current climate of blame, especially from politicians (most especially from Jeremy Hunt). The author resigned after a particular experience but it was the culmination of years of life changing stress. It is a wonder that anyone can work in such an environment, and perhaps that is why so many doctors are leaving the profession. Given how long it takes to train a doctor, the impact of this on the nation’s health will be difficult to turn around.

As the parent of a medical student I read this book with some trepidation – what sort of life have I encouraged my daughter to pursue? Doctors have been telling us for years what is happening but it seems only to get worse, their warnings ignored. This book is funny and heartfelt, I stayed up late to finish it in a day. I hope it will encourage others to place more value on the NHS before it is lost, at the ballot box as well as when they or those they love require treatment. A recommended read.

Book Review: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

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The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by Helene Hanff, is a sequel to her earlier epistolary publication, 84 Charing Cross Road (which I review here). It is advisable to read them in order. The copy of the book I was gifted, pictured above, unexpectedly contained both works.

‘Duchess’ is a memoir of the author’s visit to London following the publication of ’84’. It is based on diary entries written during her stay and chronicles the events she attended, the people she met and her impressions of a city she had long dreamed of experiencing.

As with her first book, the appeal of this journal are the characters who emerge through her words. Her observations on those she encounters are entertaining as are her impressions of the places she searches out.

As a financially stretched, obscure writer she is amused by the interest she generates. For a brief time she is treated as though famous, wined and dined by the great and the good. Her desire to relish every aspect of her trip shines through.

There are now numerous, humorous travelogues and this short offering is, perhaps, a precursor to these. The anecdotes and musings are both charming and perceptive. It was both a joy and an education to see a familiar city through new eyes.

I missed the understated contributions of Frank Doel which I felt counterbalanced Helene Hanffs writing style in ’84’. Like her first book though, the kindnesses offered this lone traveller suggest a benevolence that can so often appear to be lacking in society. This is a vivacious and engaging quick read.

Book Review: 84 Charing Cross Road

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84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff, is an entertaining, evocative and moving collection of letters sent by the author, from her home in New York, to the staff at an antiquarian bookshop in London. Their correspondence spanned twenty years and resulted in a valued friendship.

There is an essence of the various writers in each letter. The author offsets her impatience with humour. Frank Doel, her main contact at the shop, displays a courteous formality underscored by his obvious wit. The other ‘inmates’ at Charing Cross Road are more curious and open. Even Frank’s wife, their neighbour, and some of the author’s friends eventually become involved.

Each letter is short and concerns the acquisition of books alongside little personal asides. Occasional gifts are exchanged and thanks sent. All parties express an eagerness to one day meet.

It is hard to fathom why such a little book could be quite so captivating, other than the obvious quirks of the writers that are divulged in their writing. The shared love of literature and of the books themselves are appealing to any bibliophile. The historical detail referenced – post war rationing, a coronation, the purchase of a first car, the Beatles – adds to the sense of time passing and the world changing. Little is mentioned of how each correspondent looks allowing the emphasis to be rightly reserved for the people they are inside.

Perhaps it is the lack of explanatory text. The letters are allowed to tell the story and they are enough.

This is a meeting of minds, a shared love, a poignant reminder of what friendship can be. It is a gentle and beautiful read.