Book-grubbing and Sylvia Plath on a Happy Day

I’ve fallen in love with yet another bookshop. I once bought a collection of Keats’ poems and (I think) a copy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw/The Aspern Papers here. When I begin to forget where a book has come from, it means that my collection is growing at a worrying rate, but it doesn’t bother me. I need a book when I’m deliriously happy and I need a book when my mood is darker than a storm cloud. Books are better than chocolate.

For some reason, I’d forgotten about the existence of this bookshop. It is tucked away in a wonderfully eclectic section called Kensington Gardens in the North Laine (which reminds me of Chinatown in Singapore). Having just popped into a shop selling tiny bottles of ink to be dipped into with a quill, little leather-bound diaries, and journals with pretty covers, I’d already been transported into an entirely different world. Now, turning into this magical street, I was prepared to lose my head altogether.

Under grey skies, in a light drizzle, we walked down this lane past displays of bead bracelets, clothes, a splendid shop (which is less store, more flea-market), inviting-looking coffee shops and, rather incongruously, a Buddhist monk sitting in a chair, looking placidly at the stream of people walking past him yet visibly lost in prayer. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised: the hour was magical, everyone seemed happy, and just about anything pleasant could have happened then. Or maybe I just had my rose-coloured glasses on.

The Sandpiper Books sign beckoned from a distance, and we were soon rummaging through the cartons of GBP 2 books on the doorstep; after a bit, we headed to the little room at the farthest end of the shop. Each book in this room costs only a pound, and patient searching can yield some lovely bargains. The diverse nature of titles requires that you should throw all notions of time to the wind and be prepared to set out on several different voyages at once. We spent a blissful hour plucking books off the shelves, reading blurbs and wondering over what had driven certain authors to spend years writing on the topics they had chosen.

I’m not exactly fond of music in bookshops, but in this quiet little room, with a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds and streaming through the window, it added quite a bit of charm. That, of course, was owing to the fact that it wasn’t irritating muzak of the supermarket and aeroplane kind- instead, it was uplifting, ethereal and otherworldly, seemingly inspired by a mixture of church choirs, pagan rituals and sun-sprinkled forests of conifers on snow-clad mountain slopes.

I finally decided on Mark Twain’s Can-Cans, Cats and Cities of Ash, a slim account of his travels through the Azores, Morocco, France and Italy. As we paid for our purchases, I asked the man at the counter about the music, and he told me it was Julianna Barwick, and very kindly offered to write the name down for me. I watched him write, the slanting letters flowing with a fluidity I rarely see in people’s handwriting now: does he write often, does he write letters to friends in faraway places, or perhaps chapters of a book? I lost my tongue momentarily as he tucked the slip of paper into one of the books, but I mean to go back some day and say thank you to him for introducing me to some splendid music to work by, and to compliment him on his handwriting.

We went on to the town library where I had to pick up a book for my dissertation, and tempted by other reading as always I tried to borrow a couple of other books. Realising too late that I’d already reached the limit on my membership, I returned home to drop the unromantic groceries we shopped for later, and then walked to the university library. Rainclouds had gathered fast and thick, and the moment I stepped out of the building to walk to the library, the clouds cleaved and some proper rain (not of the hissing, spitting kind) began to fall. Having read three pages of the book at the town library, however, I wanted a copy immediately with the obstinacy of a three-year-old. Deciding that a little rain doesn’t hurt, even when the wind continually tries to claw your much-tried umbrella out of your hands, I went to the library on campus and picked up a copy of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

There are some books that are best read at a particular phase in life: I’ve been waiting to read Plath for a few years now, but something always seemed to thwart my attempts. I’m rather glad about the way things have turned out, because I think I’ll appreciate the book much better now than I would have a couple of years ago. The mid-twenties bring their own less celebrated crises, often denigrated as indolence and capriciousness by unsympathetic, wilfully forgetful older people.

Thirty pages in, I’m quite sure many of us would identify with young Esther Greenwood’s confusion. Of late, I haven’t been particularly keen on books that hint at mental illness and depression, but I’m quite prepared for Plath now, because I have a feeling she will clear up some of my own questions.


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