Books

Bookshops help us understand humanity's complexities

Robin Ince finds empathy and understanding as he visits various bookshops round the UK

Bookshop

Image: Megan Bucknall/Unsplash

This year continues to be one spent mainly touring bookshops and libraries, so it is time spent with the best people. We live in a world of anxiety with a low hum of panic around us, so each act of kindness becomes increasingly powerful. I was recently helping out in The Unexpected Bookshop in Alnwick. Someone came to the counter with an excellent selection of books and I said, “Can I recommend one more – Leonard and Hungry Paul – just read the first paragraph and you will know if it is for you.”

Within that paragraph is the sentence, “She was a person for whom kindness was a very ordinary thing, who believed that the only acceptable excuse for not having a bird feeder in the back garden was that you had one in the front garden.” She read it. It was for her. Passing on beauty, delight and compassion is one of the wonders of the library and the bookshop. 

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A few days before, I was giving a talk at Mount Florida Books in Glasgow. It is a small bookshop, but impossible to escape from without finding five books you had never heard of before which will now change your life in some small way (or maybe even a large way). 

I started to tell the story of a car crash I was in when I was a little boy that caused severe injuries to my mother. I took myself by surprise. I do not plan talks, and the multiple connections my mind makes second by second means I can find myself in all manner of unexpected places. Emotion rose up to my throat and I could feel it reaching my eyes. I paused – unusual in itself. 

In the brief silence, a man at the back said, “Take as long as you need.”

What a lovely thing to say. 

How happy I was that he felt he was in a space where he could express that just as I felt I was in a space where I could talk honestly. I reset myself and continued on. At the end of the story, he said, “Thank you for sharing that.” I saw that his eyes were wet and walked to the back of the room and hugged him. Then, I carried on until it was time for questions and book signing. Disobeying the social rules that so often drive us into dishonesty for the sake of decorum made me happy. It felt like a further breakthrough, the cutting back of more barbed wire. 

A few days later, I was in Real Magic Books in Wendover where I couldn’t resist buying Obsolete Spells, a book about Victor Neuberg,

“Victor Neuburg had two claims to fame: he discovered Dylan Thomas, and Aleister Crowley once turned him into a camel.”

Signing books after my event, one man hung back so he was last in the queue. He looked serious. 

“I bought Welcome to St Hell on your recommendation.”

I have mentioned Lewis Hancox’s book in this column before. It is a comic book that tells of his experience growing up trans in St Helens. Knowing that the culture wars have led to an increase in hatred and demonisation of trans people, I was not sure what might come next.

“I bought it for my son, but I read it first. Then, I just left it lying around for him to find. When he saw it, he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen his stuff on YouTube.’ That is when I realised that I wasn’t buying that book to help my son understand himself, I was buying it to help me understand my son.”

That he could share this story was something that showed his kindness and empathy. It lifted my spirits. Books are not just a place where people can be given permission to be themselves when they find the voices that reflect their sometimes hidden lives, but they are a place where we can come to understand what is new and strange to us and see that it may be far less strange than we imagined.

We do ourselves a great disservice if we demand everyone is moulded into the same shape as us, just as we do by believing we must force ourselves into the shape we believe others expect us to be. 

Robin Ince’s book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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