Shortly before opening Mostly Books, another bookseller told us to always remember that “bookselling is a privilege”. Over the years I've spent a lot of time trying to work out exactly why that is.
Of course, books are wonderful, transformative gateways to other worlds and ways of thinking. Reading delivers so many benefits you sometimes wonder why it isn’t available on the NHS (perhaps it is?). But in terms of being a bookseller, I think the ‘privilege’ part comes from being the gatekeeper between customer and the entire book world. We are the people who talk to customers, try – sometimes socratically, often obliquely – to understand what they are looking for, coming up with suggestions that allow them to move beyond the obvious, the best-selling and the hyped.
It’s a great responsibility. And with great responsibility comes great power (I think that’s right?).
Power – and its pursuit – inevitably leads to the General Election, now less than a month away. Mostly Books finds itself in one of the most marginal constituencies in the country (Oxford West and Abingdon) which means campaigning will be fierce, and inevitably there will be a lot of political talk in the shop.
This year, on Tuesday April 14 at 6pm, we'll be chairing the Abingdon Chamber of Commerce Business Hustings at the Abingdon Guildhall (you'll need to email the Chamber if you want to attend).
So if you fancy grilling the candidates - or just informing yourself of the facts ahead of the vote - here is our pick of some of the best new political books. You may be surprised by some of our selections...we've tried to pick books that reflect the candidates standing and the conversations we've already had in the shop.
Last year we had a special selection of books ahead of the Scottish referendum vote, and after Nicola Sturgeon's solid performance in the election debates, let's start with 'The Dream That Shall Never Die' by Alex Salmond. This is the inside story of the IndyRef from Salmond's point of view (although your enjoyment of the book will probably align with your opinion of Salmond himself). Whatever you think about the referendum, or how the vote eventually went, the energy and engagement shown by the Scottish people is something we hope spills across the border into this year's General Election, so it's a fitting book to begin with.
Many people get infuriated with politics at the best of times, so the intensity of campaigning in Abingdon this year may require an escape valve. We recommend John Crace's satirical pop at the status quo in 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election'. Crace - better known for his 'digested reads' in the Guardian - hits the nail on the head of coalition politics by conjuring up some fly-on-the-wall imagined conversations that various politicians might have had. It works brilliantly and hilariously - but may actually soften harsh judgments about how certain parties 'sold out', and the realities and compromises that are inevitable in any coalition...
It's easy to be cynical about modern politics - and the 'they're all as bad as each other' approach is an easy response that let's you off the hook of any responsibility to get involved. The more difficult job of course is to actually bother to think about the issues, do some digging to discover who the good guys are - and give them your support...
In 'Honourable Friends?', Green MP Caroline Lucas explores the results of her own digging during her five years as an MP. This book - a heartfelt and passionate argument about wholesale political reform - rises above narrow party allegiances simply by dint of the high respect Lucas is held in by other MPs, and the wide-ranging experience she has had before her election to Westminster (she was a Green MEP - and she held an Oxfordshire County Council seat in the late 90s).
Lucas was awarded "MP of the Year" in the 'Women in Public Life' Awards in 2011 - but it's the role of women in economic life that is examined in Katrine Marcal's fantastically witty 'Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?'. Arguing that it's women who are the 'missing mass' in failed economic systems (throughout history) this walks a perfect line between angry polemic and incisive argument. As Marcal states in the opening paragraph "Feminism has always been about economics. Virginia Woolf wanted a room of her own - and that costs money."
We have a very active Christian community in Abingdon, and in recent years - particularly following the appointment of Justin Welby as archbishop - the church has strongly reengaged with politics. Recent books such as John Sentamu's 'On Rock and Sand' have argued for more Christian values in politics, but we've plumped for Andy Flannagan's 'Those Who Show Up', which encourages those involved in religion to roll up their sleeves and get active - because it is often members of the church, through involvement with food banks and debt counselling, who end up helping the victims of society's failings. The title is a quote from Bart Simpson of all people - giving you a flavour of Flannagan's contemporary, humorous style.
After last year's close IndyRef, the possibility of a British exit from the European Union is a distinct possibility, and 'Brexit' by ex-Labour MP, and former Europe minister Denis MacShane provides a timely look at the UK's relationship with Europe - from Churchill to UKIP. MacShane is probably better known for his expense-fiddling (for which he was jailed in 2013) but this is a sobering look (from someone who 'was there') at the context of our relationship with Europe, the pros and cons of membership, and how Britain really is sleepwalking towards an EU exit.
Most of us are born in it, die in it, and spend considerable amounts of time in it during our lives. It directly employs 720,000 people, and we spend 9.4% of our GDP on it (less than the EU average of 10.2%, interestingly). With an ageing population and an obesity epidemic, it is no wonder few subject stir passions as strongly as the NHS. But what about our own personal relationship with this behemoth? Dr Phil Hammond - author, comedian and doctor - has written 'Staying Alive: How to get the best from the NHS' which not only does what it says on the front, but contains a lot of sensible advice on how to improve the NHS written from someone on the front line. Dr Phil visited Abingdon in 2009 - and he is a passionate, intelligent, trusted and highly entertaining guide to the realities of 21st century healthcare. Highly recommended for both personal and political reasons.
We're going to be subjected to a lot of propaganda via the media and advertising hoardings over the next month, so get the low-down on politicians and their relationship with advertisers and the press with the following two books.
'Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising' by Sam Delaney, starts with the well-known history of Saatchi et al in the 1980s, and tells you what happened next. The anecdotes are at times genuinely shocking and frequently hilarious, with Delaney talking to many of the key players. A brilliantly entertaining (if slightly sinister) history of political advertising.
'Beyond Contempt' by Peter Jukes is (we feel) the best account of the phone hacking trial. To be read with Owen Jones' 'The Establishment', it's a remarkable look at how power operates in this country. Ultimately depressing but thoroughly recommended.
A lot of people feel extremely patriotic during an election, and there really can be nothing more patriotic than recalling the plucky individuals that helped us to defeat the axis powers in World War Two. Zia Chaudhry's 'Just Your Average Muslim' recalls the 400,000 muslims that did just that - and if you are passionate about returning to a time when Britain stood up to the world, this book works hard to dispel some of the more modern, lazy stereotypes of muslims in British society - and encourages us to work harder to reflect on our similarities, not our differences.
No matter who you vote for, the government always seems to get in, eh? Political education needs to start young, so we're going to recommend DK's 'Who's In Charge?'. With a foreward by Andrew Marr, this is the perfect introduction to power and politics for the young. There are big challenges to our continued existence on the planet - it's the youth who are going to be resolving them. Start them young!
P.S. Feeling politically awakened? Want to support something that every major political leader has called for? We recommend voting for books, with the 'Read On. Get On' manifesto for reading.
P.P.S. The bookseller who offered us that 'privilege' advice nearly ten years ago? Anna Dreda of Wenlock Books, still going strong and definitely a bookshop you must visit…