“The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn’t know how to read.” Benjamin Franklin
Never has a quote been more apt, than when the chill of winter is amongst us. When waking early on a cold dark morning means witnessing rain sliding down the window like a sad love song.
Those dark days and darker nights can often be cured with a roaring fire and a good book. Burying your head into a different world, where nothing else exists: Just you and your book together, on an adventure, exploring an Imaginarium of possibilities.
You may journey with Robert Louis Stevenson, have your heart warmed by P.G Wodehouse, travel with Jules Verne, and sword fight with Alexandre Dumas. Reading is an endless corridor of excitement that demands to be explored.
At this time of year, I’d suggest that it is perfectly acceptable to hibernate from the world outside and enjoy the warming comforts of your favourite novels or perhaps discover a new author. Your phone is ringing? ignore it. There is a knock at the door. Most definitely ignore it. The world can wait for just now. You’re busy exploring a new one.
With that in mind, The Atlantic Dispatch caught up with the gentleman that is Andy from the outrageously successful @places_and_books. “I’m reading two books just now, Anna Kavan’s Ice, which is Kafka-esque, and Hermann Hesse’s Demian. I’m hooked on Hesse at the moment.’ He tells us, as we delve into his love of literature.
@places_and_books has become a literary treasure chest of advice and guidance for thousands of people across the world. His enthusiasm for literature is palpable and his expertise on a vast array of authors, novels and genres has gained him a cult following across social media.
What is it though that attracts him to a novel? ‘Just great writing. I read literary fiction, detective, dystopian and historical fiction, non-fiction, biographies and memoirs, poetry, children’s fiction, and books from all over the world. It is the quality of the writing that attracts me.’
He is a man captivated by numerous genres, from crime to classics, and everything in between, but who prey tell is his favourite author? ‘Ahh, you went there!’ He replies. ‘I’d have to say, Alexandre Dumas, for his sheer storytelling ability, the joy of his writing, and the sheer volume of what he wrote.’
As it happens, the Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, happens to be my favourite novel of all time. It remains a masterpiece in any era. An epic tale like no other that takes you into the world of a man hell-bent on avenging those who’ve wronged him. In fact, Dumas’s’ back catalogue reads like a greatest hits; The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Twenty Years After are just some of his most famous tales which continue to live on and will do until the end of time.
Where does your love of books come from?
Mostly my parents who read to me and my brother when we were younger (Watership Down, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, etc), taught us to read early, so I was reading well before I got to school, and frequently took us on visits to the library where I tended to head straight for the Tintin and Asterix books
Later, this was reinforced by teachers at junior school reading to the class – I remember The Iron Man, Stig of the Dump, and the fantastic Mr. Fox – and two excellent teachers at my otherwise dreadful secondary school who enthused about Shakespeare, Coleridge, Byron and Keats, Harper Lee and JD Salinger.
What would you say is your favourite bookshop in the world?
I’m going to cheat and name two:
1) The Ironbridge Bookshop, in Ironbridge, Shropshire. It is a small bookshop but I never come out with less than five books. It seems to have everything, and Meg who runs it is fabulous. Also, it’s super cute, and in a very pretty town.
2) Word on the Water, the London Book Barge, just north of Kings Cross. Yes, a bookshop in a boat. So quirky, so cool, so idiosyncratic, and with a wonderfully curated stock of books.
It would be remiss of us not to mention a few of our favourite bookshops as well of course. Should you find yourself in Northumberland, then it is absolutely essential that you visit Barter Books, one of Britain’s biggest second-hand bookshops, located in Alnwick’s magnificent old Victorian railway station. It is a veritable feast of literature from every era imaginable. On a recent visit there, I purchased, Graham Greene’s, ‘The End of the Affair,’ a heartbreakingly beautiful book.
I would also be inclined to include ‘Open Door Bookshop’ in Rome. Not just for its gloriously unassuming shop front, which alone makes it quite unique. But also for the fact that it is a place that holds no airs or graces and remains a Roman institution after 40 years. It is amongst one of the best places to find used English language books in Rome and its charm is delightful.
In your opinion what is the most underrated novel of all time?
A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A book that didn’t even find a publisher in his lifetime. It is a tour de force, a comic masterpiece, painfully funny, and includes one of the most memorable characters literature has ever produced, Ignatius P Reilly.
Buoyed by Andy’s suggestion, I bought a copy of A Confederacy Of Dunces. It was a novel published posthumously in 1980, over a decade after Toole ended his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning. Despite having been earlier rejected by publishers, the book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Confederacy of Dunces is a hilarious and at times heartbreaking comedic novel centered on Ignatius J. Reilly, a buffoonish overweight man-child with poor fashion sense, worse social skills, and deplorable hygiene. It is outlandishly funny and awash with disarmingly clever lines: “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.”
As I was reading Confederacy of Dunces, it got me thinking about other underrated novels, but also underrated novelists. One man, who I feel falls into this category is Canadian writer, Partick deWitt. With only 4 novels to his name, that may be a bold claim. However, his work is absolutely sterling and I plead with anybody to read, The Sisters Brothers, Ablutions, Undermajordomo Minor, and the exquisite French Exit. This year will mark his latest release, The Librarianist.
Is there a particular quote from a book that stands out for you?
It’s not a novel, it’s the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and it is “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” I love it because it is a reminder to live in the present, a reminder that life is short, a reminder to look on the positive side, and because it is so perfectly succinct. Omar Khayyam was a Persian polymath who lived from 1048-1131 AD, and who was known for his contributions to mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and poetry.
Books are probably the best consumer item it is possible to spend your money on. They broaden your horizons, educate you, and increase tolerance and understanding.
Are there any authors you would urge people to read more of?
Hilary Mantel – her prose is Tolstoyan, and her Cromwell trilogy is breathtaking and flawless. Start with Wolf Hall.
Chester Himes – you will never read anything like his Harlem detectives series, cool, brutal, and hilarious. Start with A Rage in Harlem.
Rose Tremain – she tells great modern stories, deals with big issues, and writes with compassion and humanity. Start with The Road Home or Restoration.
Steve Toltz – an Australian author who bombards you with words and ideas. No sentence is ever predictable. Start with A Fraction of the Whole.
Willa Cather – for me America’s greatest novelist. Such a consistent storyteller. Start with My Antonia or O Pioneers.
What makes owning a book so special? Do you think a love of books will ever die out and be replaced by technology?
Books are probably the best consumer item it is possible to spend your money on. 1. They contain worlds. 2. They broaden your horizons, educate you, and increase tolerance and understanding. 3. As a hobby they are incredibly good value for money. 4. Reading a book is great for your well-being, it calms your heart rate and takes you away from your everyday cares. 5. They are aesthetically pleasing objects. 6. You can pass them on to friends and other book lovers.
What are your 3 desert island books?
Can I have the complete works of Shakespeare, Lord of the Rings, and The Three Musketeers / whole D’Artagnan series? The whole world is in Shakespeare and his poetry is sublime. And the other two because I never tire of reading them.
“You are very amiable, no doubt, but you would be charming if you would only depart.”
– Alexandre Dumas
In hindsight that may be a slightly unfair question. Being stranded on a desert island may not be the ideal conditions for reading. The reader may be preoccupied with generally attempting to survive. So whilst Andy is stranded on a desert island, we will take a more relaxing trip on the Orient Express through Italy, enjoying the works of Patricia Highsmith’s, Ripley series. Five, incredibly crafted novels that I will never tire of.
If you could invite any authors from any era to dinner who would they be?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: He was hugely articulate, had an incredible breadth of learning, and was a legendary conversationalist.
Oscar Wilde: He would be brilliant, witty, and charming. A perfect guest.
William Shakespeare: Because he is simply a legend, in a league of his own.
Virginia Woolf, a sparkling intellect, and the best female writer ever.
Alexandre Dumas, a larger-than-life figure whose writing I adore. He’d be a lot of fun.
I don’t think they would get on! I certainly wouldn’t get a word in edgeways. A more reasonable table would have Patti Smith, Mary Oliver, Rose Tremain, AE Housman, and Laurie Lee.
It could be said that literature more than any art form has produced some of the most fascinating and intriguing personalities throughout history, which is why the idea of a dinner party featuring Andy’s guests would be something to behold. Each of those writers would bring a kaleidoscopic amount of conversation to the table and it would be a joy to observe.
If I was afforded the luxury of such a dinner, then Laurie Lee would be one of the first invitations handed out. I would be at pains to pick his brain on his travels throughout Spain in the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War. The Bard would undoubtedly be at the head of the table. Ernest Hemingway is a divisive character, but his words, which fire out like a machine gun still thrill me. Patricia Highsmith has produced countless works of genuis and I’d be intrigued to see how she and Ernest bonded. Agatha Christie would have to be there. I can’t think of many writers who fascinate me quite as much as she. I’d be tempted to include Fitzgerald, but he’d just miss out in favour of the French contingent of, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo.
Now wouldn’t that be a night to remember? We can but dream. That though is the beauty of these writers and the books they wrote. They invite us all into the world of imagination, where everything and anything is possible.
With thanks to Andy @places_and_books.