The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

If you love books, and I’m guessing you do, then you’re guaranteed to find something to interest or intrigue in The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham, who has been involved in the book trade for more than 35 years and now runs Waterstones in Canterbury. 

The book covers a wide field encompassing comfort books, marginalia in medieval manuscripts, booksellers and collectors, and great bookshops of the world. Browse among the bouquinistes along the banks of the Seine (the Bouquiniste in St Andrews is named after them) or visit Book Row in New York which in its heyday boasted 43 bookshops – all gone now so you can only return there in your imagination. 

Libraries get a chapter to themselves. Imagine a library where the architecture allows tiny bats that roost behind the bookcases to fly out at night and eat the insects that feed on the books. It does exist – the Mafra Library in Portugal. And when it comes to classification, who knew what an appalling person Dewey was? We can feel happier now that we’ve abandoned the Dewey Decimal System in our own library (though not for that reason). 

Latham has a good word to say for the women among the great book collectors of history – apparently they set greater value on rescuing books and donating them for public use than seeking personal recognition. There are good stories too about book smuggling to avoid censorship, with books packed inside bales of cloth in Geneva and carried across snow-covered mountain passes to Lyons by mules and ‘schnapps-fuelled men’. 

Along the way you get to meet a huge array of characters – endearing and disreputable, sometimes both at once. A few names from Fife crop up too: Andrew Pettegree, Robert Topping, and the earls of Crawford, whose magnificent private library eventually found its way into the John Rylands Library in Manchester through the good offices of Enriqueta, Rylands’ second wife. 

Booklovers are sure to find something in this book – described as ‘part cultural history, part literary love letter and part reluctant memoir’ – to delight and surprise. Highly recommended.

[We have a copy of The Bookseller’s Tale in the Library]