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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Penelope Fitzgerald - The Bookshop

The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald

A good friend of mine is going to make her dream real. After years spent working as a bookshop assistant all around Italy, she will finally open her own bookshop in her hometown on next autumn.

This is what I call a brave decision given the state bookselling is in in these days. One may say that the rise of ebooks, bookstores chains and heavily discounted books available on Amazon pretty much killed the business for any independent bookseller, but this is only a part of the whole picture.

The bitter truth is that people don't read.
According to Istat (the Italian National Office for Statistics), 54% of my compatriots didn't read a single book on 2012.
Not. Even. One. Book.

Not that among the so called (and often self-proclaimed) 'readers' things get much better. The same study reveals that 46% of the Italians who read something on 2012, didn't manage to leaf through more than 3 books in 12 months.

So much for Italy and its love for the written page.
And good luck to my good friend who - I must say - got the right cards (i.e expertise, ideas, passion) in her hands to win over the stark numbers and whose bookshop will be a smash despite all odds.

Anyway.
You may expect that the UK - with all of its High Street booksellers, charity shops, jumble sales, literary prizes, and literary festivals - shows a completely different picture when it comes to the reading habits of its inhabitants. If you think so, you would be mistaken.

Surprisingly enough, skimming through the ONS, Yougov archives and the likes, I couldn't find any relevant study on how many UK citizens read something on 2012. Weird, isn't it?

However, even though the current Education Secretary stated that pupils aged eleven should read up to 50 books a year, the problem is that 17% of the UK population still struggle with literacy, according to a recent survey by the National Literacy Trust. I daresay that these 11 million people struggling with the written word can hardly be counted as potential readers.

But it's time to talk about this novella.
I'm afraid that I won't 'give 'The Bookshop' as a gift to my owner of a bookshop to be friend.
You will see the reason why.

Set in a remote corner of East Anglia in the 1950s, this book revolves around the decision of a past her prime widow, Florence Green, to open a bookshop in her village. Quite predictably, the new bookshop is seen as a menace to the dull status quo of the little town by many of the prominent members of the local community. This means that Mrs Green will have to struggle against ignorance, envy, hypocrisy and malice to open her bookshop, keep it open and catch her customers.

As Penelope Fitzgerald herself had her own bookshop on a stage of her life, I expected this novella to be a sort of ode to the power and magnetism of books.

I didn't call for an happy ending, but I thought that the author would have drawn a provincial fairytale with the brave Mrs Green succeeding in elevating the love for the spoken word of the villagers thanks to well chosen books, visiting authors etc. Which is nowhere near what happens in 'The Bookshop'.

Let me make myself clear, I wasn't looking for a British version of 'Reading Lolita in Teheran' with East Anglian fishermen replacing Iranian teenagers (by the way, 'Lolita' is the only novel being mentioned here). No, that would have been too cheesy.
I am aware that the author wanted to escape from a romanticised view of the bookselling business and focus her attention on local characters with their gossiping and petty feuds, which she did remarkably well. But I reasonably expected from Penelope Fitzgerald something more on books.

The thing is that the reader is never told why Mrs Green decided to open a bookshop and not, say, a clothes shop? Is she a reader? No. Was her deceased husband a booklover? Nope. Does she have a stock of inherited novels to get rid of? Nothing like that.

Call me a harsh reviewer, but as far as I'm concerned, the whole entrepreneurial battle of Mrs Green this novella speaks about could have worked the same if she had started a cafe or a hardware shop (none of them to be found in her village).

I reckon that Penelope Fitzgerald wrote an interesting novella and I appreciated her talent more than once leafing through 'The Bookshop'. There's not a superfluous page, sentence or dialogue in this book and you will enjoy the odd pearl of British humour, but what lacks here is substance, passion, warmth.
And if you love books, you will miss all that.