The Uncommon Reader

All of my life I have been a voracious reader. For most of my life I have been a voracious collector. It took a long time for the two to intersect.

When I was in my pre-teens I collected Warhammer figures; I glued them together with poly cement or superglue and I clumsily drew a paintbrush across their plastic and metal surfaces. My friends became part of the hobby too, but they learned the rules and played the game while I collected. I amassed huge armies across the different game systems. The desire to acquire was like a virus spreading too fast. My collecting outstripped my ability to make and paint the figures, so now there are old shoeboxes under my bed containing hundreds of half-completed figures.

Then, Pelicans came back, the non-fiction Penguin imprint covering a huge range of topics.  They returned whilst I was in the middle of my PhD in History, at a time when I had moved away from home to the quiet, erudite centre of Oxford, surrounded by centuries of accumulated knowledge. When I wasn’t working on my thesis (which was often), I wandered between the honey-coloured stone and the interiors of the bookshops. Big chain stores like Blackwell’s and Waterstones where I would window shop before buying it all off amazon for slightly less. Ethical? Perhaps not, but it’s hard to take a stand when you are a poor student. When I started my PhD I made new friends, for the first time I met and regularly socialised with people from different parts of the world, and incredibly intelligent ones at that. I felt the limitations of my own knowledge more keenly than ever before. Whilst their knowledge of the classics, philosophy, science, and so on, seemed dauntingly comprehensive I was left wanting, needing, to know more about everything. In retrospect this was almost certainly a manifestation of the ‘imposter syndrome’ I could never quite shake off as a student at Oxford. The feeling that you don’t belong. Confronted by what seemed like the harsh realities of the real world, I did what bibliophiles often do and tried to lose myself in books.
In an attempt to compensate for what seemed like my general ignorance about everything I begin assiduously acquiring reading material. Amazon,’s second-hand book marketplace, and Oxford’s £2 factory reject bookshop became my best friends as I picked up books about art, about philosophy, about literary criticism, the complete works of Shakespeare, classical literature, classical mythology; nothing was really off the cards. I had to know more and I had to know it then. Pelicans returned in the middle of this feverish acquisition of books that I hoped would be synonymous with an acquisition of knowledge. Of course, I never read most of these books, but at least the habit was a lot less expensive and had a lot more future potential than buying and then storing plastic wargaming figures.

There was something about the return of Pelicans that really appealed to me, even though they went out of existence in 1984, a handful of years before I was born. I totally bought into the philosophy which underlay the books, the idea of self-education through affordable literature written by experts and rendered in a way as to make complicated concepts understandable to the common reader. I should probably put my cards on the table by saying I am left-wing, and so this idea of making knowledge available to everyone is something I can absolutely get behind. What’s more, the first five books announced really appealed to my eclectic flailing around for wider knowledge, covering as they did the human brain, evolution, economics, political philosophy and history. Admittedly, as an historian I was disappointed to see that Pelican had chosen Orlando ‘I wrote positive amazon reviews for my own book and negative ones for my colleagues’ Figes as the representative of history. There are many, somewhat more professional, historians of Russia they could have chosen to give an overview of the period, but I quickly acquired the other four (to this date Figes’ is the only new Pelican I don’t own – my principles managed to trump my desire to have the full set). Subsequent titles have also proven appealing and I must confess I regularly check the website to see what the newest titles are (the EU is coming up next! Genuine glee!)

The second thing that appealed to me about these Pelicans is their aesthetic. Now whole blogs and instagram accounts are no doubt dedicated to the ‘look’ of Pelicans, and the Penguin imprint on a wider scale has always looked marvellous on a shelf. The new Pelicans stay true to the older design but with a modern twist. Owning 5 of the (then) 6 Pelicans available was soon not enough. In the immortal words of Leo from Inception I had to go deeper. I soon located some old Pelicans in the second-hand bookshops of Oxford. The first three I bought, purely based on their titles, were W.G. Hoskings’ ‘The Making of the English Landscape’, JM Richards’ ‘Modern Architecture’ and Nan Fairbrother’s ‘New Lives, New Landscapes’. Thus began a new phase in my collecting.

Since that day I have picked up dozens more old Pelicans. It has become a sort of ritual. Every time my bibliophile partner and I go into a bookshop my eyes instantly start scanning the shelves for the distinctive blue spine and the bold text.I have acquired many Pelicans, at many prices. At the start of the year we went to Hay on Wye, a must for any booklover, and I came back with about 20 new ones. This week, I have been staying with her in London and picked up 10 more. I got three of these from the outdoor book fair on the South Bank by the National Theatre. I say ‘the’ because I presume it is semi regular as I have been there on two separate occasions (I’m not from around here, Londoners feel free to correct me). Here the second-hand books are laid out in great rows on trestle tables like a chaotic, horizontal library. Battered and faded copies of Fifty Shades of Grey alongside children’s stories from the turn of the (last) century. There, amongst old gardening almanacs and oversized picture books about omnibuses, lay pay dirt in the form of old  Pelicans, conveniently arranged next to each other for me to hungrily prowl through. I have become so used to it that I have even developed an M.O. for acquiring them now. Testing their spines like a seasoned pro to make sure that they won’t flutter apart on their first read, making sure the seller on the next table doesn’t have a better-condition copy for cheaper. I took my time roving up and down the tables in the shadow of the ugly 1950s concrete which makes up London’s cultural heartland (or so they tell us out in the provinces).

The other seven I picked up only yesterday, from a fantastic little political bookshop called Housman’s which is a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross Station. Itself a place that got me thinking about books (Harry Potter of course). Housman’s is truly wonderful (or, if you are politically conservative, incredibly tedious – they definitely wear their heart on their sleeve). Past the counter with its sweet jar full of anti-austerity and “I heart the NHS” badges, you descend into their book basement where there is a small room full of books that are £1. I was powerless to resist, spending far longer than I should in the room agonising over which Pelicans to take away with me (I did leave some behind – go and buy them and support the shop). On the way back, I looked through the big glass doors of King’s Cross but could only see up to Platform 8.

There is of course, a belated twist to this story. It was foreshadowed by my Warhammer collection. I have acquired all these Penguins since 2014, but I have yet to read any of them. Why? Well I never seem to be in the right frame of mind. There is something very comforting to me about having all this knowledge within reach of me (and it is usually within reach, my bedroom is tiny) when I want or need it, but I keep seeming to have other books to read. Books I receive as gifts, or books I just have a burning desire to read. I left Hay on Wye in January with about 30 books, and I have read nearly all of those except the Penguins. Those books that I do read, I often review. Whilst I was doing my phd it was a good way to do some writing that wasn’t academic or about white Rhodesians, because sometimes you just need a break. This blog was originally a place for me to write eclectic thought pieces about current events and history, but I am repurposing it as a place for my book reviews. Previously I have used goodreads and if it interests you then you can find some of my old reviews there (and I might even be rejigging some of them for this blog), but what I want to do is write honest book reviews detailing what I am reading instead of those Pelicans I keep buying and, god only knows, maybe it will force me to finally crack some of those beautiful blue spines open and learn some stuff along the way.










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