Muli Ben-Yehuda's journal

April 1, 2023

Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller by Oliver Darkshire

Filed under: Uncategorized — Muli Ben-Yehuda @ 12:31 PM

A few days ago my beloved son, after asking how my day was and getting my customary laconic reply, said “you know, Dad, it’s OK to say more than a couple of words”. After careful consideration, I realized I might have gotten used to silence and inner reflection to a degree that is perhaps less than useful. I could, perhaps, benefit to some small extent from fleshing out and airing some of those thoughts, ideas, flashes of inspiration, and plain silliness that cavort around in my skull all the time.

So with that in mind, let’s try and awake from its slumber—raise from the dead?—a muscle I rarely use noways. Writing the occasional non-technical bit, using more than a couple of words or 140 characters. To wit, a book report.

I recently finished reading “Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller“, by Oliver Darkshire. This was a delightful book, albeit not quite what I expected.

Last year, when we were last in London, I made a point of visiting Sotheran’s, a rare book store. This was partly because I love book stores, especially of the rare or esoteric kind, and partly because I had a thin sliver of hope we would meet Oliver Darkshire. Oliver, you see, was writing the store’s twitter feed at the time, and it was one of the best things the Internet had to offer, bar none. I was hoping to run into him and tell him how much I enjoyed it. That is not my usual position, a gushing fan boy, but there you have it, the twitter feed was just that good.

The store’s twitter feed at the time was snarky, quirky, full of unexpected humor and often poignant. The book, is … the same, I guess? Except it’s also raw, contemplative, and maybe a little sad. I’d be hard pressed to say exactly where the sadness comes from; perhaps it is because I got the sense that Oliver constantly measures himself and comes away wanting. It took me longer than usual to read it, because every few pages I’d put it down. It’s a book not to be devoured but rather consumed in small doses.

The book is autobiographical in nature, covering Oliver’s path from a young apprentice to an accomplished bookseller. It is composed of many short vignettes covering all sort of things: the different kinds of customers you get at a rare book shop, the different kinds of characters who sell rare books for a living, the practicalities of buying and selling books, a slice of London life, and many strange happenings. Perhaps “The Education of a Rare Bookseller” would have been a more accurate title, if less catchy.

My favorite part may have been the trip to acquire books out in the country. Lacking a driver’s license, Oliver takes the train and then ambles through the country side to the old manor house, where weirdness reigns. Having taken my share of walks through the English country side to old manor houses, I could feel the experience in near visceral detail.

There’s a lot more in the book but I would like to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that if you love books, by all means, read this one. Just don’t expect razzle and dazzle; it’s a slice of every day life, full of hope, books, a bit of angst, and ghosts. Must not forget the ghosts.

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