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Freedom: the real meaning of bookshops  

25 November 2016

John Arnold considers travels round the booksellers’ world


Jorge Carrión
MacLehose £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30



THIS book resembles some of the bookshops it lovingly describes, in that it operates on several levels, contains a vast amount of knowledge, continually surprises with bizarre juxtapositions of subject-matter, and provides both instruction and entertainment.

It is a serious work of scholarship in the fields of cultural studies and comparative literature; only the lamentable lack of an index prevents its being more useful. It is also a global travelogue, interspersed with chatty, anecdotal gossip, and name-checking literary celebrities; here, the poor quality of the illustrations spoils the journey.

No part of the world is unvisited, but the main emphases are on the European tradition with its offshoots in the United States and Australia, and especially on the literature and languages of the Iberian Peninsula — Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan — and of Latin America.

A recurring theme is the part bookshops have played, and still play, in combating tyranny, frustrating censorship, sustaining hope, pro­viding meeting places for dissidents, and keeping minority languages alive. The dark shadows of the Spanish Civil War and of Francoism lie over the whole book.

Carrión loves borderlands. He points out that Western Europe meets Eastern Europe where the alphabet changes in Greece or Serbia. He frequents Istanbul, Tangier, and Marrakesh — indeed, wherever cultures converge rather than clash, and where colourful characters meet lovers and co-conspirators and converse with them.

He notes the rise of bookselling chains, and laments the fall of some of the most amusing independents. As with farming and, indeed, churches, there is something to be said for diversifying, for opening cafés and chatrooms, and for em­­bracing rather than repudiating elec­tronic media. He is confident that, for the foreseeable future, people will want to browse, take books in their hands, smell them, dip into them, talk about them, and buy them from real booksellers in congenial book­shops.

I will, for one. My own favourites: the Baggins sprawl­ing bookshop in Rochester; Barter Books in the old station at Alnwick (it has an open fire in the waiting room and a model rail­way overhead); and the enchant­ing Chaucer Book­shop, just round the corner from where I live in Canterbury.


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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