Book Review: Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

If the number of review copies arriving through my letter box is anything to go by, publishers are on as big a push as ever to capture the Christmas market in book sales, despite the difficulties put in their way this year by bookshop closures and the ever changing rules on social contact. This little title, however, was the first to arrive that I would describe as a stocking filler. Please don’t think from that classification that I am putting it down. Any reader finding this book in their stocking on Christmas morning should feel lucky. It contains plenty to amuse – an excellent diversion for a recipient doing their best to avoid interacting with rarely encountered relatives, ones who insist on sharing distasteful opinions or recounting anecdotes about people only they have any interest in.

Of course, I digress, as does the author of this book on many occasions. It is these digressions that make the contents so entertaining. Like Bythell’s previous two publications – Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller – the tone is one of caustic wit woven through complaints about the behaviour of the customers encountered in the second hand bookshop he has owned and run for the previous two decades. There is, however, a greater generosity of spirit than was apparent in his earlier books. Perhaps this is due to the lack of people he has been permitted to observe and serve this year.

In the introduction, the author explains the focus of this latest work.

“It is about our customers: those wretched creatures with whom we’re forced to interact on a daily basis, and who – as I write this under coronovirus lockdown – I miss like long-lost friends.”

He then goes on to categorise and castigate these much missed providers of his income. Using what he describes as ‘a sort of Linnaean system of taxonomy’, the reader may muse over the failings of such customers as: expert, young family, loiterer, bearded pensioner. He introduces the last of these thus:

“This genus includes both males and females, although it tends to be dominated by males (by a whisker).”

Each chapter is further subdivided as the author sees fit. His Genus: occultist, includes the species, ghost hunter. He quotes from a YouGov survey from 2014 in which:

“alarmingly, 9 per cent of people claim to have communicated with the dead (although technically this could include shouting at a gravestone, as it’s unclear from the question whether or not the dead were required to respond).”

In amongst Bythell’s complaints about conduct within his shop are tangential rants about typical behaviour of various customers beyond his walls. Motor home drivers in particular are vilified for driving slowly and emptying their chemical toilets inappropriately.

The sartorial choices of each species are derided and compared – hipsters ignite the author’s ire even more than Goths; the pantalons rouge brigade are encapsulated with relish.

Habits highlighted are, of course, being mined for their entertainment value. In that, the writing succeeds, albeit in a mordant manner. For each smile or chuckle elicited there may be a tremor of guilt in the reader who wishes to regard themselves as of a more generous nature.

Such generosity would, however, be severely tested by regular and unavoidable encounters with many of the customers described within these pages. The corollary is that, as a bookshop customer, the more anxious may ponder how staff have judged their dress and behaviour.

Any Cop?: Many readers will doubtless enjoy pigeon holing themselves and their acquaintances into the genera and species depicted. Just as booksellers come in shades spanning Shaun Bythell to Frank Doel – both adding colour and interest to their métier– so I would counter that life would be a lot less interesting if all customers were of Bythell’s final genus – perfect.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Idea of the Brain

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“This is the story of our quest to understand the most mysterious object in the universe.”

Those who pay attention to the various interests of contributors to this site may have noticed that I review a fair few books that offer insight into how and why people behave as they do from the point of view of properly researched science. I am, however, a casual reader on the subject, not an academic with a background in, for example, psychology or neuroscience. I suspect The Idea of the Brain would be better appreciated by those with a stronger scientific grounding than I possess.

I insert here the caveat that I read the majority of this book during an escalating novel pandemic when the country was required to live under unprecedented lockdown conditions. I found the text dense at a time when my attention was wont to wander. I hoped to enjoy the copious information conveyed more than I could manage.

Following a brief introduction, the book is structured in three parts: Past, Present, and Future. As may be expected, Past covers centuries of study. The author selects those researchers he feels significantly progressed man’s understanding of the brain and describes each of their accomplishments in some detail. It is this detail that challenged my ability to retain focus. There were nuggets to be gleaned. The sections covering areas I already had knowledge of retained my attention the most.

The more researchers learned about the workings of the brain, the more they came to realise how complex it is and how little it is understood.

“To argue that there are things we can never understand is to undermine the whole point of science, which is to explain what is currently unexplainable.”

Many false premises were posited and blind alleys followed. Sometimes these led to the unexpected uncovering of useful knowledge.

The second section, Present, covers progress made in the last century. This includes the invention of various imaging techniques that allow scientists to observe an active brain without removing portions of skull – as had been done previously. The leap forward this offered laid bare how little it helped in understanding how brain activity affects consciousness – the mind, thought.

“There are many scientists who feel we are drowning in a tide of data about the structure of brains, while what we really need are some clearer theories and ideas about how it all fits together.”

“in and of itself knowledge of structure provides no direct understanding of dynamic function. Where is not how.”

Examples are provided of the benefits that became available to patients thanks to the ongoing research – at the cost of a great many creatures sacrificed in labs. Ethical considerations are mentioned along with economic reality. One patient briefly benefited greatly from an item of supportive technology until the company that provided it went bust. Her loss, after glimpsing what could have vastly improved her quality of life, had a distressing impact.

Chemical treatments for depression, schizophrenia and the like were often discovered accidently. These led to the increasing medicalisation of illnesses linked to the brain. As side effects became apparent and few effective new treatments were added after decades of research, pharmaceutical companies lost interest.

“Our understanding of the origins of mental health problems, and how to treat them, remains profoundly unsatisfactory.”

“It is hard to know what to say. We do not understand how a healthy brain and mind work, so it is hardly surprising that we do not know how to fix things when problems arise.”

Brain activity can now be monitored in real time but it remains hard to pin down, from the many parallel processes observed, correlation or causation. On what or where consciousness may reside, even less is known. There remains

“complete ignorance of how neural activity is turned into thought”

The final short section, Future, is perhaps the most bleak in terms of considering progress. Great leaps forward in terms of observation have demonstrated how little is yet understood. The limitations in where to go next with current research are acknowledged.

“’The Brain Has a Body’. And the body has an environment, and both affect how the brain does what it does. This might seem trivially obvious, but neither the body nor the environment feature in modelling approaches that seek to understand the brain.”

“the brain does not represent information: it constructs it”

The author includes an extensive list of notes at the end of the book for those who wish to read further on the research that underpins what he has written.

Any Cop?: My interest in the topic enabled me to plough my way through but this was a challenging read for a lay person. What I take away though is greater comprehension of where the science is now. The increase and development in my knowledge makes me glad to have read the book. It offers a candid and in-depth exploration of a complex topic, skilfully rendered but perhaps recommended only for those who have prior understanding of the basics of brain science.

“The four most important words in science are ‘We do not know’.”

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Waterways

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

It is said that most of us in Britain live within five miles of a stretch of canal. Many of these have fallen into disrepair. Some have been built over. Thanks to the work of enthusiasts, however, many remain navigable. There are now more boats using these manmade waterways than in their working heyday.

In 2016 Jasper Winn was approached by the Canal and River Trust – current custodians of the canals – about becoming their first Writer in Residence. His brief was to spend the next year making his way across the two thousand or so miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales – on foot, bike, boat and canoe – exploring their history and learning the stories of the people who live, work and play there. A partnership between the Trust and Profile Books would enable his findings to be published, providing an account of Britain’s canals including their culture and wildlife.

To start things off, the author spends three days as an apprentice on a narrow boat, discovering the basics of canal navigation. He then travels to the Exeter Canal – built to solve a local problem before there was apparent need nationally for the transport option provided.

“Sixteenth-century England didn’t have enough high-value, bulky cargoes to move around; there was no need to build anything national”

“For the 200 years after the Exeter Canal was built, the majority of the goods and materials people used, consumed and aspired to were produced locally.”

This changed when the industrial revolution increased the need for coal in city and other locations. Canals were built, underground as well as overground, to shift commodities from source to factories. The wealth generated along with increased migration changed the economy – ergo the population’s consumer habits.

The author purchases a fold-up bike and sets out to cycle along the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal which is regarded as the first canal of the modern age. The history of this and subsequent canals visited makes for fascinating reading. As well as detailing the engineering achievements there is social and economic history – and a snapshot of what remains. Text is enhanced by the inclusion of many pictures showing canal life and key features.

The author also travels the canals in his kayak, navigating coast to coast in the north and along the route of the Devizes to Westminster race. He joins a litter picking party using paddleboards to reach detritus. He runs a half marathon along towpaths. To round off his year or so of exploration, he hires a narrow boat with a group of friends.

Interesting tidbits are interspersed with facts gleaned, such as: why towpaths change banks on long stretches of canal; why there are occasional ramps leading from canal floor to towpath; how, on a busy working canal, passing boats dealt with crossing towropes.

The author delves into the lives of those who built the canals – the navvies – as well as those who worked the boats and supported the industry and network. He writes of the dangers of life on the waterways, but also that it could provide a decent living. As he walks, cycles and kayaks he talks to those who use the facility today. He sleeps alongside towpaths in his bivvy bag. He enjoys the canal side pubs, especially those with live music.

Although the advent of the railways took much of the trade from working waterways, many remained operational well into the twentieth century. It is thanks to the vision of those who saw the potential of canals as leisure facilities that many of these were saved. Working boats were converted into houseboats offering affordable if peripatetic accommodation. As demand increased, costs rose, but canal dwellers still form an atypical if largely friendly and helpful community.

Any Cop?: Across fourteen engaging chapters the reader is provided with views of life on the canals across time and from a wide variety of perspectives. It made this prospective have-a-go boater rethink the wisdom of ever hiring a narrow boat. Nevertheless, it brought to life many aspects of the waterways I have long enjoyed touring.

 

Jackie Law

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

Book Review: Breaking and Mending

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“medicine is all about people, and people are made out of stories”

Why would anyone wish to become a doctor? It is a question most potential students applying to medical school will be asked. Perhaps they wish to save lives, to make a difference. Perhaps they come from a family of medics and it has always been expected of them. 

It costs around a quarter of a million pounds to train a doctor in the UK, a significant proportion of which must now be borne by the student, often in the form of debt. The course is one of the most demanding offered by universities. And yet for every place available, four people who expect to achieve the necessary exam results will apply. It is and remains a competitive career choice.

Joanna Cannon entered medical school in her thirties. She was accepted by the admissions panel as a wild card. Her motivation throughout the long years of training was to get into psychiatry. Breaking and Mending is the story of her experiences on hospital wards as a student and then Junior Doctor. It is a sobering indictment of how medical professionals – the people entrusted with individuals’ myriad and complex health issues – are treated by the NHS and certain of its senior employees.

“Stories bind us together, stories unite us, and we tell our stories in the hope that someone out there will listen, and we will be understood.”

Cannon’s story is told in snapshots that she describes as her Kodak moments. Each chapter details an encounter with a patient or colleague, the memory of which she carries with her. The burden of her emotional responses over time became a weight that she struggled to bear. The long and busy shifts a doctor is required to work took their toll and she found it ever more difficult to be the type of doctor she had worked so hard to become.

Written with grace and candour the descriptions and reflections are a balance between compassion, valuable learning and simmering anger. There is much for the reader to contemplate and absorb. Doctors work to ease suffering and delay death under exhausting conditions. Given the lack of care they themselves receive it is little wonder that too many of them face burn out.

Yet this is not a polemic. It is a very personal story that cuts to the heart of issues faced by a vital profession dealing daily with human suffering. Doctors must somehow find a way to inure themselves while showing others care and understanding. Their role goes beyond prescribing and administering appropriate clinical treatment. Good doctors learn to listen to the stories they are told by patients and to find the right words in response. They also benefit when colleagues notice and find time to listen to them.   

Any Cop?: Cannon is a skilled storyteller and this is a poignant and thought-provoking medical memoir. It highlights the importance of talking about topics that make many uncomfortable such as death and mental illness. It underscores the stigma doctors face if they admit they are struggling to cope with the conditions under which they are required to work.

 

Jackie Law 

Book Review: The Lies That Bind

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Divided into five main sections – creed, country, colour, class and culture – The Lies That Bind is a philosophical exploration of what is meant by identity in our contemporary world. To better understand how fluid any definition will inevitably be it is necessary to delve into history, and to consider how people choose to interpret different aspects of their inherited place, upbringing and potential. The author argues that:

“labels belong to communities; they are a social possession. And morality and political prudence require us to try to make them work for us all.”

“As a rule, people do not live in monocultural, monoreligious, monolingual nation-states, and they never have.”

The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a section on classification. This lays the groundwork for all that is subsequently discussed.

“Identities […] can be said to have both a subjective dimension and an objective one: an identity cannot simply be imposed upon me, willy nilly, but neither is an identity simply up to me, a contrivance that I can shape however I please.”

The author writes of clannish tendencies and habits, of how children have manners drilled into them that enable them to fit in with their home society. The way they walk, talk and dress offers acceptance and safety. ‘Others’ may be regarded as threatening and suffer suppression.

“In many places in the world one ethnic or racial group regards its members as superior to others, and assumes the right to better treatment.”

What though is an identity? The section on creed discusses how the major religions developed, how their holy books were created, and how interpretation of texts changes over time. Like everything else that is important in human life they evolve. Fundamentalists defend practices they favour and try to force them on others.

“Heretics aren’t killed because they differ in arcane theological details; they’re killed because they reject, and threaten, the authority of their theocratic rulers.”

Religion, it is argued, is not so much about belief but rather practice and fellowship. It is a verb more than a noun.

If identity requires acceptance and a feeling of belonging, the section on country challenges what this could mean in terms of place. It explores how borders change over time and how citizens travel and settle elsewhere. A country of birth may cease to exist due to mergers and divisions. The language used to educate may then be changed alienating the next generation.

Colour also presents challenges of classification as so many, including the author, have forebears from multiple lands. Birthplace or family ties offer little in the way of answers to certain prejudices.

The discussion on class is also complex encompassing as it does financial, social and cultural capital. Education may offer a chance of mobility but resentments can fester when success is perceived as unearned.

“It is no accomplishment to have been born on the finish line.”

Appiah enjoyed a privileged upbringing with influential contacts in Britain and Ghana. Although recognising the advantages to wider society of a meritocracy, of fairness of opportunity, there is recognition of the difficulties in achieving this ideal.

“being able to give money to your children incentivises a parent”

Wealth acts as a gatekeeper to elite education and the opening of doors to certain respected careers.

The final section, on culture, explores what differing groups and individuals regard as of value and influence, and how sections of society try to claim ownership.

“we should resist using the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as an indictment. All cultural practices and objects are mobile; they like to spread, and almost all are themselves creations of intermixture.”

Appiah accepts that intellectuals have a tendency to suppose that the things they care about are the most important things.

In talking of Western culture he argues that the division is not so much between nations as between Christianity and Islam. Despite the historic conflicts involving the two religions, there has been more sharing of knowledge and ideas over the centuries than may be credited.

The traits men use to distinguish themselves from others are shown to be self-serving and often contradictory. Identity offers the benefit of belonging, but with who can be difficult to define or agree.

Any Cop?: Appiah’s arguments are cogent – conversation starters rather than prescriptive. Despite the complexities of the subjects pondered, this is a digestible read.

“I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Diary of a Bookseller

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The idea of running a bookshop can conjure romantic notions among certain bibliophiles. Wigtown, Scotland’s official Book Town and the setting of this memoir, has a bookshop that anyone can apply to run for a week throughout the year. Since opening it has never been short of volunteers eager to experience this aspect of the book trade. With the recent news that a bookshop in Wales has been given away as a raffle prize, the financial viability of high street bookselling must surely be under question. But what is the reality?

The Diary of a Bookseller takes the reader through one year in the life of a proprietor whose caustic honesty had already gained him notoriety with followers of the business on Facebook. Bythell readily admits to being naive when he purchased The Book Shop in 2001. He stocks mainly second hand titles and lives in a flat above the premises. Turnover is largely seasonal and profit insufficient to pay for additional full time staff. Thus the brunt of the work – finding stock, cataloguing, selling and otherwise disposing of books – falls to him.

Each work day has a short diary entry. Bythell observes his potential customers and shares with the reader his thoughts on behaviour. He comments on the part-time staff he employs and with whom he has a less than respectful relationship. He travels to view collections offered, often due to a house clearance and of varied worth. He shares his frustrations with the process of online book selling.

Bythell was raised near Wigtown and still has family in the area. He attended boarding school, has contacts in the wider national arts scene, and has friends who own fishing rights in sought after locations. Such privileges grant him access to interesting people and places but do little to ease the workload and stresses of running his business.

As part of the local community the author is involved in the annual literary festival, including opening up his home as a writers’ retreat. He has little patience with the successful scribes he hosts if they do not treat volunteers and staff with anything less than courtesy. This is an interesting attitude given his often volatile behaviour.

Entries during the festival offer further nuggets of dark humour.

“One year one of our house guests had a bath on the morning of the first day of the festival, and, through no fault of his, the bath drain started leaking the moment he pulled the plug, and a torrent of water crashed through from the bathroom, soaking the electric cooker, which exploded with a bang.”

The old building suffers many leaks, including water damage to a window display that resulted in mugs and other vessels being placed to catch drips. One customer offered their compliments unaware that it was not intentional.

There are other issues to contend with such as difficulty heating the building through winter. Customers come in out of the damp and cold, settle themselves in an armchair by the fire and read stock for an hour or so before leaving without buying. The piles of books they browse are left for staff to return to their shelves.

The descriptions of customer behaviour go a long way towards explaining the author’s exasperation with the people he encounters. As well as those who seek out books that they will then order from Amazon, or who price check against the behemoth and then ask for discounts, are the people who request a particular title and then, when it is located and proffered, inexplicably leave without purchasing. Others wander the stacks loudly declaring their love of books and how delightful this bookshop is before walking out empty handed. I feel relieved that when my daughter visited the shop a couple of years ago, she paid the asking price for the 1928 first edition she was after. Bythell reports that fewer people, either buying or selling, understand the worth of certain books in today’s market.

The strange titles of particular books customers seek are scattered throughout the pages: Sewage Disposal from Isolated Buildings anyone? or Donald McLeod’s Gloomy Memories? So strange did some of these titles appear that I became convinced the author was inventing. A quick check on Google suggests they do indeed exist.

A short comment piece at the beginning of each month in the diary is preceded by a quote from George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories from 1936. The author ponders if he should have read this book before committing to the business.

“It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.”

Any Cop?: Bythell’s experiences may serve as a salutary warning to readers who believe running a bookshop would be delightful. For the rest of us it is a wry, amusing account that offers a behind the scenes look at a high street business I hope can somehow, despite the behaviour of its contemporary customers, find a way to survive.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Complications

“No matter what measures are taken, doctors will sometimes falter, and it isn’t reasonable to ask that we achieve perfection. What is reasonable is to ask that we never cease to aim for it.”

Unlike other medical themed books I have recently reviewed, Complications, by Atul Gawande, is set in the USA with its insurance based system of healthcare. I can only assume that payment was not an issue for the patients treated as there is never any question, in any of the cases detailed, of the cost of the complex care provided. Indeed, when cost has already been taken care of, the tests and treatments offered are perhaps more complex than may actually be required.

Written when the author was a surgical resident, he explores in this book the myriad reasons why sometimes fatal mistakes can and are being made. These serve not to lessen the reader’s confidence in doctors but rather to remind us that they are human, and that they must learn a craft that is constantly changing due to welcome advances in surgical techniques, equipment and medication.

The first section of the book, Fallibility, explores the need to teach doctors for the future good of all. They must practice on patients if they are to adequately learn, and as they progress will not always be under close supervision. In the USA doctors become specialists in very particular areas leading to better statistical outcomes as the surgery and subsequent treatment is familiar to the clinical team. Nevertheless, individual patients will not always react in a uniform way. They bring their differing health issues, and sometimes doctors will diagnose incorrectly. With a growing culture of litigation, professional honesty may prove inadvisable. There is discussion of reliance on machines, rote learning and the improvements achieved through practice. One chapter looks at what happens when previously good doctors repeatedly fail to achieve satisfactory outcomes. It can be a challenge to kill the career of a once respected colleague, even when their actions are inadvertently killing patients.

The second section looks at the mysteries encountered in medicine, the diagnosis and results that remain inexplicable. One chapter touches on pain and the role of the brain, the reluctance to accept psychosomatic causes of physical issues. There is a chapter on prenatal nausea, another on blushing. The limited effectiveness of medical interventions alongside the lack of drugs for certain problems is acknowledged. The chapter on obesity suggests this problem is a particular challenge where there is no clear solution.

The third section looks at the uncertainty doctors face in diagnosing problems without opening patients up in surgery. There is a chapter on a patient’s right to decide on treatment, focusing on their lack of specialist knowledge and the pressure of being unwell and, perhaps, fearful. One case cited involved a young woman who the author treated, his recommended procedure invasive when there was a possibility it may simply have required antibiotics. Such choices are made on instinct, an imprecise use of science and learning. This is an ongoing issue – how much can be prescribed and made routine when dealing with the variations of people and their circumstances.

Although a fascinating account of actual cases, with a number of strong arguments and commentaries from the author, I found this book lacked the warmth, occasional humour, and undercurrent of emotion found in other medical themed books I have read. It is factual and interesting but perhaps less engaging to a casual reader. My medical student daughter was glowing in her praise.