Tag Archives: Essays

Bookshops – Jorge Carrión

Why do bookshops matter? How do they filter our ideas and literature? In this inventive and highly entertaining extended essay, Jorge Carrion takes his reader on a journey around the world, via its bookshops. His travels take him to Shakespeare & Co in Paris, Wells in Winchester, Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier, the Strand Book Store in New York and provoke encounters with thinkers, poets, dreamers, revolutionaries and readers.

Bookshops is the travelogue of a lucid and curious observer, filled with anecdotes and stories from the universe of writing, publishing and selling books. A bookshop in Carrion’s eyes never just a place for material transaction; it is a meeting place for people and their ideas, a setting for world changing encounters, a space that can transform lives.

Written in the midst of a worldwide recession, Bookshops examines the role of these spaces in today’s evershifting climate of globalisation, vanishing high streets, e-readers and Amazon. But far from taking a pessimistic view of the future of the physical bookshop, Carrion makes a compelling case for hope, underlining the importance of these places and the magic that can happen there. A vital manifesto for the future of the traditional bookshop, and a delight for all who love them.

This was picked up on a whim when it first came out. Suckered into it, I’ll admit, by rave reviews from the media. which were hurriedly found on the trusty phone whilst protectively holding the last copy close.  This sounds like it should be a good book to fuel the passion of a reader for (more) books and the shops they find themselves in. Sadly I found myself underwhelmed after a couple of chapters.

It is an interesting read in parts, celebrating bookshops is a great idea of course but the disconnect for this reader came partly from the lack of small bookshops, they are forgotten with all the razzmatazz of their bigger cousins.  Showcasing well known or popular bookshops is good but the lesser known and equally (arguably more interesting) smaller shops would create, not only a nice contrast but are also something that more people can relate to, especially as they have their own charm and mysticism.

As this is a translation, it’s understandable that some of the phrases seem a bit out of place, however quite a lot of it feels like notes taken and left in the final draft.  There are many occasions when authors, shops and subjects are touched upon in the same paragraph with bewildering speed and change of subject.  It’s fairly sprawling in its name dropping both of obscure and common authors, publishers and so on but it feels like a very mixed bag overall.

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Posted by on 19/03/2018 in Essays, Travel


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The Trial of Henry Kissinger – Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens goes straight for the Jugular in The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Under his fearsome gaze, the former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor is accused of being a war criminal whose reckless actions and heinous disregard for international law have led to torture, kidnapping and murder.

This book is a polemical masterpiece by a man who, for over forty years, was the Anglosphere’s pre-eminent man of letters.  In The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Hitchens’ verve, style and firebrand wit are on show at the height of their potency. 

The Trial of Henry Kissinger is certainly an eye-opening read and a devastating attack on both his character and many of his actions – which had a significant impact on thousands of lives around the world – showing him (with supporting documents) to be a morally bankrupt man.  As the quote on the back cover of the book from the Literary Review says:

‘This book is so stupidly defamatory that if Kissinger values his reputation, he really must sue’

The silence on this matter, from the Nobel Peace Prize winner himself really does speak volumes.

Chronicling the different events Kissinger was a part of – a litany of manufactured, supported and prolonged wars,  and sabotaged peace talks, all a tale of so many lives ruined and lost needlessly, – it is frightening to see how he moved through successive U.S. governments with his power intact.   Hitchens is clearly no lover of the man but as ever, his arguments are reasoned, razor-sharp and not afraid to court controversy.  There is a term ‘Hitchslap’ that does the rounds that is often used for his most incisive commentary and this is certainly a good example of the term.

One of the most telling pieces of information is that Kissinger’s papers (the ones he classified as personal, when it is suspected many are incriminating) are under lock and key at the Library of Congress and can only be opened after Kissinger dies thanks to the agreement beforehand.  Of course being in the public interest a subpoena would most likely open it up (and a huge can of worms) but there in lies the issue. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 19/02/2018 in Essays, History, Journalism


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Howards End is on the Landing – Susan Hill

LandingLightsEarly one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again.

A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard’s End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.

After the disappointment of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, I needed something which would encourage me more in my bookish ways (as well as reinforce my reasons to unashamedly buy more) and this one does just that.  It views the personal landscape of a famous author’s reading life, in which she doesn’t buy any books for a year – something I tried once and it made me feel miserable – and focuses on the ones she has.

As well as her detailed bibliophilic thoughts, there is also talk of fonts, titles and years of accumulating books and the associated memories of where they were brought and the circumstance of the time, it’s an autobiographical insight into Hill and her influences.  There are chapters about authors, genres and attitudes all with plenty of anecdotes which allows the reader to get to know her somewhat.

A litany of authors and aspects of the fine art of reading are discussed and it’s good to be reminded that spending time with one’s own carefully built collection can be as rewarding as reading from it.  It seems easy sometimes to take for granted what we have and see everyday and we probably forget just how rich our lives for having them so close at hand.

There are diversity of genres (albeit, mostly fiction) and authors discussed, it’s all agreeable and amiable in its way, especially in the chapter ‘It Ain’t Broke’ which argues against the charmless e-reader.  Howards End is Not on the Landing gives an excuse to hoard more books but also it’s a lament to the ones sadly abandoned or worse not read; as well as an encouragement to explore the obscurantism of books, to delve into the lesser known and pass on the gems to other lucky and voracious readers.

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Posted by on 21/08/2016 in Autobiography, Book Memories, Essays


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Book Haul the Nth

Finally I can get around to catching up with all the books I have bought in the last couple of months.  I am particularly proud of this lot as there is plenty of quality and variety which will keep me happy in the upcoming months.

WP_20160720_001Currently I am halfway through the mammoth Arguably by Christopher Hitchens and it was by no means an easy choice of pick with all the other books having an equally persuasive argument for my time and attention.  In the en it made sense to read that first so I could catch up on the many outstanding reviews that need doing, whilst not adding many more to the list in the meantime.

WP_20160719_002Hanging around bookshops is not only an exhilarating experience but also reminds me on how narrow I find my field of reading is.  When looking at one’s book collection critically, it is easy to spot many yawning gaps, which is great as they demand plugging with yet another trip and a keen eye for bargains. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 03/08/2016 in Essays, Fiction, History, Lists/Ephemera, Travel


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Days of Reading – Marcel Proust

Books!In these inspiring essays about why we read, Proust explores all the pleasures and trials that we take from books, as well as explaining the beauty of Ruskin and his work, and the joys of losing yourself in literature as a child.

Part of the challenge with Proust is finding plenty of time in which to become intimately involved with his approach to writing.  This is my first reading experience of P. and his style is impressively immersive and made me feel nostalgic for places  and a time I have never experienced.

Plenty of essays ramble on but P. prefers clear concise language whilst being able to digress at will, yet each meandering discovery the reader makes always – eventually – comes back to the original point but makes one feel richer for the detour.

It’s a joy to read, although it is understandable that Proust splits readers due to his technique.  This reader had to change his mindset and learn to soak up the ambience of the prose, rather than feeling I was getting somewhere with plot or idea like I usually would.  In that regard the first few pages were a grind but realising that the author was going to take his time puts the reader either resigns the reader to a long haul or to the appreciation of a slow meditation of life.

The book opens with an essay on John Ruskin’s contribution to the understanding and appreciation of art and architecture, especially inspired by Christianity.  How art in general echoes its greatness (when it is) through the centuries and reaches to us emotionally, each example studied is a communing with antiquity.  It’s a study of us as well as a celebration of what we can achieve through our own creativity.

The essays on childhood memories and in particular of reading books when the mind is still open to the most innocent wonder and imagination is gloriously evocative writing.  Proust appreciates how rereading books brings forth a tangible memory of his formative years, he mirrors the echoing of art down the ages with thoughts, of ideas from our past that define modern life; not to mention timeless characters, books and the universal joy for all seasons and people. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 30/07/2016 in Architecture, Art, Autobiography, Essays, History, Life


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Letters to a Young Contrarian – Christopher Hitchens

HitchSlapIn the book that he was born to write, provocateur and best-selling author Christopher Hitchens inspires future generations of radicals, gadflies, mavericks, rebels, angry young (wo)men, and dissidents. Who better to speak to that person who finds him or herself in a contrarian position than Hitchens, who has made a career of disagreeing in profound and entertaining ways.This book explores the entire range of “contrary positions”-from noble dissident to gratuitous pain in the butt. In an age of overly polite debate bending over backward to reach a happy consensus within an increasingly centrist political dialogue, Hitchens pointedly pitches himself in contrast. He bemoans the loss of the skills of dialectical thinking evident in contemporary society. He understands the importance of disagreement-to personal integrity, to informed discussion, to true progress-heck, to democracy itself. Epigrammatic, spunky, witty, in your face, timeless and timely, this book is everything you would expect from a mentoring contrarian.

Forthright, erudite and outspoken, agree with his views or not Hitch is required reading for all, a brilliant orator, thinker and writer, full of wit and intelligence, logical and uncompromising.  A welcome nod to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, this is the first book in the ‘Letters to a Young…’ series which gives short guides om ways to live life or pursue careers.

I have spent whole days watching videos of the author on YouTube and not considered the time wasted one bit, now in book form, not only do I find that he once again incisively gets to the heart of whichever matter he chooses to turn his attention to but he also invokes such a wide range of reading material that my book list has been sufficiently topped up for a few more years.

“Be … suspicious … of all those who employ the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ without your permission. This is [a] form of surreptitious conscription … Always ask who this ‘we’ is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs.”

A wide range of subjects are tackled with Hitchens’ immense talent and intellect, from faith, the under reported horrors of the Balkans war, The Dreyfuss Affair, Henry Kissinger, the less than palatable side of Mother Teresa, the manipulation of language, socialism, humour and plenty more.  Each chapter is refreshingly honest, nothing is held back, it’s refreshing and clear and applies literature, history, logic and considered persuasive arguments. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on 27/02/2016 in Essays, Politics


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Creative Theory, Radical Example – Justice Koolhaas

CreativeTheorySmashwordsThis book offers dizzying and breakneck theories on subjects including digital identity, transhumanism, and blue-chip art celebrities. The introductions outline Koolhaas’s regrounding methodology, poetics, call for Theory Celebrities, and politics of infolution, along with comprehensive interpretations that allow students to choose material without feeling pressured to grasp everything at once.

The book is comprised of two introductions by the translator, six essays, and excerpts from an unfinished novel. The first introduction outlines Koolhaas’s technological foci, her regrounding methodology and poetics, the need for Theory Celebrities, a politics of infolution, her architecture for university reform, and the intransigent refusenikism that arguably contributed to her obscurity. The second introduction is a chapter-by-chapter commentary that guides the student through Koolhaas’s essays and literature:

‘Cybernetics: Nietzsche and Heidegger’
‘Studying Media: Baudrillard and Science Fiction’
‘Literature: Deleuze & Guattari, Kafka, and Joyce’
‘What’s So Wrong About Rant?’
‘Žižek and the Sex Between Emin and Hirst’
‘Methodological Considerations’
‘Nouveau Roman Excerpts: Caliphornia’
The Textual Connexivities chapter lists the works cited.

C. M. Cohen’s comprehensive interpretations mean that the uninitiated Koolhaas student can pick and mix material from this book to suit their purposes without feeling pressured to grasp everything at once.

Every so often, I trawl the internet looking to learn new things at no cost to my malnourished wallet.  Each year I wait in anticipation for what I term ‘student season’, where books are published for free on topics mostly unfamiliar to me and sound really impenetrable.  Why? you may ask, well as a reader I like to be challenged, to spend time reading around a subject and feeling like I have actually understood something new and in-depth by the end of it.
I wouldn’t have picked up this book were it not for the non existent fee, as it isn’t usually something I’d feel comfortable with jumping into at such an advanced level but it does raise an interesting point about the university system and modern day technology.  With search engines taking out all of the effort and time out of finding texts, is it all becoming to easy for students?

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Posted by on 16/04/2015 in Art, Essays, Languages, Philosophy


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