Independent Bookshop Week 2016: The Gifts of Reading

Independent Bookshop Week 2016 (18th-25th June) is part of the much-loved Books Are My Bag campaign, seeking to celebrate independent bookshops across the UK and Ireland. Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time in bookstores, and I’ve found their presence both extremely comforting and enjoyable. I didn’t actually realise it was IBW until I read an essay by Robert Macfarlane today (more on that later).

When at home, in Norwich, I have always enjoyed visiting The Book Hive. I love its central location amongst the quirky Lanes area as much as the beautiful three-storey building itself, and as it was just minutes from my sixth form I often visited whilst studying in the city. I fondly remember grabbing hoards of reduced books from a window display one lunchtime, dragging everything from Antony Gormley’s Inside Australia to Christopher Simon Syke’s biography of Hockney, Ramona Koval’s Speaking Volumes to Liam Gillick’s All Books, and Fashion and Art Collusion to Peter Hook’s Unknown Pleasures back to my locker in several trips across the Cathedral Close.

On an English Literature Mrs Dalloway study day in Bloomsbury, I was ecstatic to quickly squeeze in a visit to London Review Book Shop with my English teacher and another student. I remember the panic that I felt knowing that I had just a few minutes to choose a book before I had to be back at the British Museum (I settled on a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass). This was probably one of the first times that I visited a bookshop in the city, and ever since I have spent countless hours in places such as Brick Lane Books, Foyles, the massive Waterstones in Piccadilly and Black Gull Books.

Recently, I’ve indulged my fondness for bookshops when abroad. When in Cambodia I visited the Smiling Sky Bookshop, in Battambang, on several occasions, stockpiling second-hand editions of books such as Tea Money and Indian Summers. I’ve wanted to visit the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris for a long time now – a sort of personal reading mecca that I vow to complete one day soon.

The Gifts of Reading is the first essay that I have read since returning from Cambodia last month. Written by Robert Macfarlane, the essay has been specially commissioned to celebrate Independent Bookshop Week’s 10th anniversary, published as a small-format Penguin paperback on 16th June (available exclusively to independent bookshops). I purchased it yesterday in Foyles, simultaneously dodging the Soho rain and looking for a cheap read for the train home. I first came across Robert Macfarlane when the aforementioned English teacher recommended his book The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot to my class when studying Edward Thomas for our AS exam – I enjoyed the book, including it in my university personal statements to study both English Literature and Land Economy – and so I picked up the essay because I’m a fan of Macfarlane’s writing, completely unaware of the purpose of the essay. Macfarlane’s autobiographical essay is extremely personal, exploring the emotional resonance of books and travel (two areas that Macfarlane always writes about extremely well).

The essay begins with Macfarlane discussing receiving a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time for Gifts from his friend Don, and ends with their subsequent exchange of books. This cyclical element of the essay made the reading experience especially poignant for myself, and I even shed a few tears when I finished it (I won’t say why exactly – you’ll have to read it for yourself). This caused me to reflect upon my own experiences of giving and receiving books. I ardently remembered the happiness I felt when I gifted a copy of Charles Saatchi’s Babble to one of my best friends, Tasha, since it is always a challenge to find an art book that she hasn’t read or doesn’t already own, and the sheer joy I experienced in return when she gave me copies of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark and Lucky Kunst for my 18th birthday. I also recalled the time when another friend was so keen for me to read Don DeLillo’s White Noise that he accidentally bought it for me for both my birthday and Christmas.

…art enlarges our repertoire for being, and that it further enables a giving onwards of that enriched utterance, that broadened perception.

Robert Macfarlane’s The Gift of Reading (RRP £2.50) is available from independent bookshops across the UK and Ireland. Proceeds from the essay will go to his nominated charity, Migrant Offshore Aid Station.

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