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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Heaven

Back from a quick trip to Hay on Wye, about an hour and a half's drive from the 'old home town' via some stunning scenery in the Brecon Beacons. A quiet Monday in winter is probably just about the perfect time to visit Hay; I had several bookshops all to myself, so it's possible to browse contentedly without having to fight one's way to the History and Maritime shelves, as is so often the case later in the year. I made some pleasing purchases, but on the whole Hay is less of an 'experience' than it used to be, when no trip there was complete without returning weighed down by bagfuls of long-sought-after tomes or serendipitous discoveries. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the fact that I've now got pretty well everything that I've wanted to track down over the years; perhaps it reflects the growing dominance of the Internet, both in the secondhand book market as a whole and in my own purchasing habits. On the other hand, there's no doubt that Hay is now much more overtly commercial than it used to be. There are fewer and fewer real bargains, more and more shelves swathed with publishers' remainders. Booth's bookshop, which used to be a glorious chaos, is now organised like a military operation, with properly categorised shelves, space for a person to fit comfortably between the bookcases, and (above all) is actually clean. I'm not saying that something has been lost, but gone are the days when it was possible to ferret around in darkness in the cellar and come out with a volume of the Calendar of State Papers Domestic for £10.

A couple of other book-related matters. I'm not quite sure how I managed to leave Astrodene's wonderful website-cum-blog about naval historical fiction out of the last post, but I'm very happy to remedy the omission, especially as Astrodene was one of the first to give a big push to Gentleman Captain. Meanwhile, I'm currently reading Jenny Uglow's A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration. This has been very well received, but I'm always a bit sceptical about books written by non-specialists (Uglow has previously written about the likes of Hogarth and Elizabeth Gaskell). My suspicion initially seemed to be borne out by the plethora of silly factual errors that weaken the book (four on p. 18 alone); confusing the surname 'Lambert' with the place name 'Langport' is just unforgivable, as this is clearly not a typo, and she makes a monstrous howler about the number and identity of the dukes in England in 1660. But having said that, Uglow's reading has been impressively broad, embracing some manuscript sources - a rarity in this type of book. Her depiction of Charles's reactions to the circumstances in which he found himself, and the reactions toward him of others at all levels of society, is much more nuanced and perceptive than that found in many more august studies of the king. Some of her descriptions, such as that of Whitehall Palace, are quite excellent, so although I remain on a high state of howler alert, I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.  

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