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The Secret Life of Books

I seldom write book reviews. Despite reading many good books, it’s quite an effort, for me at least, to gather my scraps and notes and thoughts and hone them into a few hundred words. But Tom Mole’s latest book is worth the effort – and worth more than a retweet or a half-hearted thumbs-up emoji.

When one of your favorite authors has this to say about a book, then you click the take my money button!

“Every sentence is utterly captivating … probably the most compulsive text ever penned about what it means to handle and possess a book.” – Christopher de Hamel

Tom Mole is professor of English Literature and Book History, and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh. The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words is foremost an investigation into our elaborate relationships with books. From the blurb:

“We love books. We take them to bed with us. They weigh down our suitcases when we go on holiday. We display them on our bookshelves or store them in our attics. We give them as gifts. We write our names in them. We take them for granted. And all the time, our books are leading a double life.”

I’ve always liked to think of myself as rather pragmatic and unattached to books as objects (and yet I’ve carted many of my books across decades and oceans). I’m not a collector. I don’t buy books for their bindings or because they are signed by their authors or because they are otherwise valuable as first or limited editions. But Mole’s book had me continually reappraising my own relationship with books. And it got me to thinking of the book loaned to me more than 20 years ago that was instrumental in my decision to leave the UK and make my home in Japan.

“Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting.”

The Secret Life of Books, p. 80 (Kindle Ed.)

The horror! (Disclaimer: My book; not my highlighting.)

Hypocritical Highlighter
My name is John and I’m a highlighter snob – I am (proudly) a very conservative highlighter and secretly, (until just about right now), tut-tut those who highlight lengthy passages, or even whole pages. Having loaned out my original copy of Cicero’s On Duties, only to never see it again, I recently bought a second-hand copy of the same Loeb Classical Library edition. I opened it to discover that the previous owner (undoubtedly an absolute raving lunatic) had highlighted most sentences on most pages. I found it very distracting and was even embarrassed at the thought that someone might take it off my shelf and assume that the crazed fluorescent yellow highlighting was mine! Anyway, the reason I mention this is because it’s exactly the kind of thing that Mole highlights in his The Secret Life. I think I was pretty much nodding at Mole’s every sentence. And what’s more, I was highlighting like a speed-reader (a reader on speed, that is). Damn you, Tom Mole!

Making The Secret Life all the more compelling is Mole’s exemplary writing. His turn of phrase, his precision, and his conversational tone make for a wonderful read. It’s a topic that could quite easily have turned into an academic treatise but instead reads more like a public confession of someone deeply in love with books. If you are an academic struggling to write prose that appeals to readers beyond your staffroom, then adopt The Secret Life as your model.

“The annotations were notes to my future self, scaffolding for my faulty memory.”

The Secret Life of Books, p. 208 (Kindle Ed.)

Header image: ‘The Great Picture Triptych’, 1646. Usually attributed to Jan van Belcamp; and referenced in The Secret Life of Books, p. 160 of the Kindle edition.

ILT participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. So whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price.

International shipping of books to Southeast Asia is prohibitively expensive, and that’s why I bought the Kindle edition of Mole’s book. However, I will be asking a friend to bring me back a paper copy from their next trip overseas. I have my fluorescent yellow highlighters at the ready!

This is not a book about the history of the book, but rather a celebration of our relationships with books. Erudite, entertaining, touching, thought-provoking, and beautifully written. If you read books, you’ll love reading The Secret Life of Books.