Book shops are magical places. The air is full of stories whispering in your ear, infinite possibilities of being taken to different worlds leaking from the shelves.
If you had to nail me down on what gives me immense pleasure in life, I would say reading and coffee are right up there. I know I’m not alone in this. It’s why so many book shops marry the two these days.
Unlike any other shops, bookstores are full of secrets. They are not brazen about their wares. Nothing is revealed when you walk through the doors. Everything that matters is hidden behind covers. Unless you enter this world with a particular book in mind, the ride ahead is thrilling, confusing, dangerous, and potentially endless. Book buying is a risky business!
So where do you even begin when entering a bookshop without a clue what to buy – a frequent state of affairs for me as I can’t resist poking my nose inside. That mantra of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is fine, but that is the ‘come and look at me’ shout all book cover designers are fighting for. And there’s a lot of shouting going on in those places!
I have no formula for you. I just poke around the shelves randomly pulling books out. Read the cover, read the fly leaf, read the first page, see who’s said what in the promos on the back cover. It is simply the book lovers’ lottery. Sometimes you strike gold, other times you’re walking home with a turkey under your arm. I suppose I’m fortunate in that I’m very eclectic when it comes to books. There are few boundaries I’m not prepared to cross. So, what of the successes I bought on a whim?
Ghost Riders by Richard Grant. A restless wanderer born in east London; he spent a long time travelling with nomads in America. It is an astonishing story of life among so many different communities and the origins of American wanderlust. One of the very few books I have reread. Otter Country by Miriam Darlington. A Devon writer with an obsession for these delightful creatures. She spent 18 months travelling all over the country searching for wild otters. It is so beautifully written that you are beside her during the journey. Skylight by Jose Saramago. What captured my attention about this book is that it was his first novel written in 1953, was lost in a publisher’s office for 36 years before being discovered – probably down the back of a cabinet – and finally coming to life. It is an exquisite story set in Lisbon in the 1940s concerning an elderly shoemaker and his wife. It was well worth the gamble. Equations of Life by Simon Morden. Here’s a book I judged by its cover! And didn’t live to regret it. Set in the London Metrozone two years after Armageddon, the writing and plot lines are of impeccable quality. Being book one of a trilogy, I bought the other two and they did not disappoint in the slightest.
I have a number of others that I took a punt on. My latest is Illuminations by Alan Moore – which is on my waiting to be read pile.
And the biggest turkey? Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon Jones. When I chanced on this and found it had been highly acclaimed, I shelled out the hard-earned cash. And regretted it quite quickly. An obtuse over-complicated book and not well written, I bailed out less than halfway through. Clearly you shouldn’t judge a book by the critics.
Born in North Wales, poet & writer Paul Mortimer has lived in Tiverton for 13 years. His first poetry collection, Fault Line, was published by Lapwing in 2015, followed by Wind Voices from the same publishing house in 2019. He has appeared at several literary festivals and headlined at a number of poetry events in recent years.