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Literary Guide to London

Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman hangs on the shelves at John Sandoe Books Ltd., the author’s favorite London bookshop.

Photo: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

Somewhere in my house, there’s a leather-bound Latin copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, purchased in London 35 years ago with money I borrowed from a Bryn Mawr student who was disgusted to find I’d spent it on a book. I can’t remember why I borrowed money from her. I can’t remember where I bought the Ovid. I can’t remember Latin. But I do remember her disgust. It surprised me, because at the time—living a student’s life in London—I could think of no better use for a pound, even a girlfriend’s pound, than to spend it on a book.

Somehow a book bought in London was—and still is—different from a book bought anywhere else. Back then, I was a budding bibliophile, stuffed with the lore of making books. I pictured printer’s apprentices running from midnight garrets through the streets of 18th-century London with freshly scrawled sheets of foolscap ready to be set up in type—poems, essays, novels, the very works I had come to love as a student of English literature. I tried to imagine the late-17th-century coffeehouses that doubled as book and pamphlet shops. In the book-ridden aisles of one shop or another, I half expected to bump into the 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb on the lookout, as always, for what he called “a kind-hearted play-book.” To walk into a London bookshop—and whole streets seemed to be made up of nothing but bookshops—was not so much to go back in time. It was to stand in a place where the past casts up its riches like sea wrack on a tide-swept beach.

Many of the shops I knew in the mid 1970’s have vanished, and perhaps just as well, for some of them looked as though they were about to combust, dust and paper bursting spontaneously into flames and sending great inky gouts of smoke into the sky. Sadly, their deaths were more mundane than that. Some expired of natural causes, their flyblown windows finally emptied of their time-bleached stock. Many died in the Great Consolidation—a kind of financial virus that has swept over publishing and bookselling in the past three decades. Still more will die in whatever we decide to call this current economic crisis. Some of the victims vanished unmourned and unregretted. But others, such as the recently shuttered Murder One Bookshop—a beloved store that sold mysteries and crime novels on Charing Cross Road, the street that used to be the very heart of London bookselling but is now a slightly depressing remainder of itself—left behind grieving, dismayed customers.

These days, of course, you can get any book—every book—delivered with a few clicks on your computer, including the cheapest copy of the latest book. And yet at the same time books are steadily slipping behind an electronic curtain, becoming iBook apps or drab, Kindled, digital versions of what Lamb once called “biblia a-biblia”—books which are not books, mere intangible shadows of their old, visceral selves. The touch and smell of a book well-bound and well-printed on well-made paper feels more antique than ever, a sensory experience increasingly lost to time, like the scent of a spermaceti candle. Soon we’ll forget what a tactile pleasure reading really was.

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