Stocking Fillers: Shelf Life and The Pocket Detective

Shelf Life edited by Alex Johnson

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A collection of essays and thoughts on all things bookish from writers of the past, this is the kind of book that I always feel is perfect as that little extra Christmas gift for the bibliomaniac in your circle. It’s attractive and well-produced – one of those soft hardbacks, if you know what I mean – and the contents range from thoughtful to opinionated to fun. There are eleven entries in total. Obviously everyone will find different things to appeal to them, so here’s a little taste of some of them to give you a feeling for what’s in there.

It starts with a bit of fun as William Blades comments on the dangers pesky children present to the safety of books, in which he includes a story about some children taking their father’s precious volumes to build a fort and using valuable tomes to chuck at each other as they re-fought one of the battles of the Crimea. I kinda was on the kids’ side…

Stephen Leacock humorously advises on how to write a melodramatic novel, ensuring that the standard format is met in every respect, and shows that identikit fiction was around long before the woman in the red coat appeared on every second book jacket.

Theodore Roosevelt encourages a wide variety of reading for pleasure and gain, and talks of how books tend to lead one to another in a never-ending chain. Rudyard Kipling advises a class of schoolboys – those who were destined by birth to rule the empire – to use books to learn from history and other people’s experiences, as this will be a help to them when they find themselves having to make life and death decisions of their own. On the other hand Arthur Schopenhauer gets really quite grumpy about people reading, and writing, the vast output of “bad” books when they should be devoting their time to thinking for themselves. Frighteningly, he sometimes reminded me of me…

Hence the number, which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature, which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. . . Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and reviewer are in league.

Walter Benjamin talks of the joy of book-collecting, and William Gladstone gives practical advice on how to create a library to store your 20,000 volumes, including how to screw the shelves together. First you will require a room of “quite ordinary size”, some forty feet by twenty feet with four windows on either side. Charles Lamb, among other things, discusses the thorny question of which books one can read in public without embarrassment.

So lots of variety and amusement to be had, and also some more thought-provoking stuff along the way. I’ll give the last word to Francis Bacon…

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

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The Pocket Detective by Kate Jackson

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Another little stocking filler from the British Library, this is a companion piece to their series of Crime Classics. It’s full of puzzles, ranging from the fun to the fiendish, and will be appreciated by anyone with a decent knowledge of vintage crime fiction. Truthfully I found a lot of it quite difficult so I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who’s only read a few Christies and Sayers in their life. It ranges well beyond the books the BL has published, though, so that adds fun for those with a wider familiarity with the genre.

It has question and answer puzzles (they’re the ones I found hardest, since they’re entirely dependant on you knowing the books quite well), word grids, crosswords and word searches, matching puzzles, such as characters to books, anagrams and word wheels. It also has some distorted covers of the BL series to identify – I found most of those entirely too distorted, hence impossible, and would be intrigued to know if anyone can get them. But there are some fun spot-the-difference puzzles based on the gorgeous BL covers – I loved those. Happily, all the answers are in the back.

So all-in-all, an entertaining little gift for the vintage crime enthusiast in your life.

NB Both books were provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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