I can’t remember how Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books caught my attention, but it’s clear why it did. It’s a book about a little town full of used/antiquarian bookstores. And that town is in Wales! It’s Hay-on-Wye, and I’m afraid now any trip to the UK is not only not going to be complete without a trip to the Platform 9 3/4’s sign and an even geekier trip to Cardiff, but now I need to at least spend an hour or two in Hay-on-Wye.
It’s easier to describe this book before you’ve read it. Like, I probably would’ve called it a travelogue, except… for ‘travel’ there’s the assumption that you’re going to a place for a finite amount of time and then going home, or alternatively, traveling on to another place and another in a continental or world tour. But in this book, the author and his wife and small child pack up to sell their home in San Francisco and move to Wales. Without, apparently, a whole lot of research. They supposedly know the UK and Hay-on-Wye in particular, from relatives born there and from past trips, yet they’re surprised that they don’t get a real estate agent because they’re buyers, not sellers? Even I knew the real estate market there was rather goofy. And then they’re also rather surprised when all the cool, old buildings they’re interested in need a lot of upkeep, and they realize they’re not prepared for that. Heckuvan expensive and time-consuming learning experience, if you ask me.
But the book is full of random bits of information, gleaned from old books. Facts, anecdotes, quotes, and just interesting little tidbits. So you really get a sense of this town just from the way he’s written the book. A couple really stood out to me. Right at the start, we learn that the Harry Potter printruns used up most of the publishing industry’s paper for a brief period of time. Logical, amazing, amusing, and something I hadn’t heard before. True? Or just something that should be true?
Because when I finished the book, I wasn’t sure what was true and what wasn’t. Yes, this is a real town, so you might assume names have been changed to protect the innocent, but he doesn’t say this up front. And how do you write about such a small town and mention it by name and still disguise the identities of the people you’re talking about? At the end, he tells us some of the names of people and places are made up. But we don’t know which ones!
There are other parts where I questioned the honesty of what I was being presented. Where there’s a bit of dialogue in which a vital bit of information is shared in an amusing way. Did he really not know that information before that moment? Are the conversations all really that pithy and eccentric? My disbelief has trouble being suspended when I’m supposedly reading a nonfiction book, so my credulity was strained.
Interspersed with talk of the UK, Hay-on-Wye, and books, is mention of his own books. He’s in the middle of the publishing aspects of his first book. We hear about his first reading, sort of. We hear about his proof edits. We also hear about a couple of his novels that weren’t published.
Which leads into a quote I wanted to share.
… that twee little fable that writers like to pass off on gullible readers, that a character can develop a will of his own and “take over a book.” This makes writing sound supernatural and mysterious, like possession by the faeries. The reality tends to involve a spare room, a pirated copy of MS Word, and a table bought on sale at Target. A character can no more take over your novel than an eggplant and a jar of cumin can take over your kitchen.
He’s dead wrong here. Not all novels are written this way, and some are more about plot, setting, or theme than they are about three-dimensional characters, but many are. Once you know a character well enough, you know what they’ll say and do, and what they won’t say and won’t do, even if you need them to for the purposes of the plot. This topic is probably an essay in itself, involving references to psychology and neuroscience and our mental constructions of other people. Suffice it to say that I feel sorry for him that he doesn’t grasp this essential truth, and that it didn’t surprise me to learn that his novels had yet to be published.
At the end of the book, I rather wondered what the whole point of it was. It was like a journey without a destination. You may say the whole point is the journey, but there’s still something unsatisfying about not arriving anywhere at the end of it.
It was an amusing, entertaining read, and made me wish I cared more about old books. Unfortunately, the science fiction genre is relatively new as far as old books go, and I prefer modern fantasies to very old ones, so I have trouble coming up with any topic or author I’d be seeking out in old bookstores in Wales. Honestly, I don’t care to own an old copy of a book I already have a new copy of. It’s still the same book. So if I was seeking anything out, it’d be obscure books. How do you find obscure books of quality?
For the readability and entertainment, I’ll give this three stars. For the ending and the author’s low, for lack of a better word, likeability factor, I’m only giving it three stars.