Once Upon a Tome

Once Upon a Tome  by Oliver Darkshire is actually a pretty fun read, considering its arcane subject matter. The author answers an ad for Sotheran’s – an antiquarian bookseller in London, little knowing that he’d be drawn into a strange and eccentric society. Slyly witty and self-deprecating, he makes every element of book collecting entertaining. In particular, the account of his accidental entry into the world of rare books is gently absurdist. This could be happily enjoyed on the level of comic workplace narrative. Even the introduction, written by the bookshop’s owner, is delightful in a very British manner.

He goes into some detail to explain the duties of the staff. As a librarian, it’s sometimes confusing to read how this profession uses a term like “cataloging.”  In the bookselling trade, cataloging means describing an item with a list of generally agreed upon vocabulary words. But how those terms are used is very subjective. For example, the degree of “foxing” or discoloration can be described such that it seems like a positive feature.  (When librarians catalog, they use a set of rules that are mathematical in their precision).

Darkshire’s descriptions of how he’s taught to tempt patrons into becoming first-time buyers and onwards to obsessed collectors is a treatise in salesmanship and human psychology.  It finally occurred to me that I was enjoying it so much because the writing voice was so similar to Bill Bryson – one of my favorite American-British writers.