Where do the books that we sell at the House of Hodge come from? Mostly from local people. And, so, what do our assembled books say about those who donate and those who buy? In my mind, they offer a mirror of what is read on the Blackstock Road and its environs - and what a varied panoply it is.
One of our early book donors, Alison, was herself a volunteer in the shop for many years, going back to the time of Dr. Doreen Rolph, our founder. Alison was a Blue Guide and, after her death, her family kindly donated her books to us. As you would expect there were many books and brochures on stately homes, cathedrals, historic areas and such. She was also very keen on the Royal family and particularly Royal mistresses, and her interest stretched over nations and countries, King Charles II providing an awesome supply.
Unpacking one box of donations, I correctly identified the reading matter of a military man (military history and autobiographies/memoirs of officers unheard of by me) but also of now obscure 19th century authors, such as Harrison Ainsworth (one of Dickens’ circle) who wrote lurid tales associated with such places as Windsor Castle and the Tower of London.
Turning from the individuals who donate books to a more general look at what we tend to have most of in the shop: it’s clear that fiction is most favoured. Does that mean people are only looking for light entertainment? That may be so. But readers can learn about relationships and the world from the experience of others, or gain understanding of historical events or social issues they might not come across otherwise - all through fiction, in a way that is easier to digest than a thick history book. Perhaps these factors explain why there is so much of it.
Fiction takes up one complete wall in the shop, and it’s packed from top to bottom. Within the section, the range varies from would-be romance such as work by Helen Fielding to historical novels as delivered by Hilary Mantel, to post-modern heavies, for example DeLillo, tortured tales of inter-family disputes brought to us by Julie Myerson, through to not-so-modern heavyweights like George Orwell, and, of course, Classics from Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and the Russians, among others.
The second largest section is history, taking up 5 long shelves, which includes: Ancient History (Egypt, Greece, Rome, China), World History, European History, and the history of individual countries.
Examined more closely, I have spotted some trends: of the 5 shelves nearly 2 are devoted to UK history, and while this may not be too surprising, it appears that certain historical periods are represented far more than others. For example, there are only a few books covering the Anglo-Saxon period (600 years if taken from the departure of the Roman Legions by 410/411 AD to 1066) while the Tudors stretch for a good half of a (long) shelf. And Henry VIII not only has books to himself but his many wives merit collective or separate biographies too. Staying with royalty, there are several biographies about Elizabeth I as well as on her individual courtiers and sea-dogs. By contrast, the Stuarts occupy a respectable amount of shelf space - but in my view that’s hardly a proper representation of the period which laid the foundations of our present constitution.
Of history of other countries: the USA has quite a presence, weighted mostly to post WWII developments. In Europe, France dominates followed by Germany, Italy, Spain, some Eastern Europe and Russia. And what of the rest of the world? China, Japan, South East Asia, India and the Middle East are present, but hardly prominent. The Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South America hardly get a look in. And Africa? We have but a quarter of a shelf of books on Africa, and they predominantly about the apartheid period of South Africa, plus a few works on the West Indies. All to say: what a Eurocentric western world view is revealed on these shelves!
And, finally, how and why do the books come to be in the shop? When the shop is closed, boxes and bags of donations sometimes get dumped and left on our doorstep, to be gathered up when a volunteer arrives - by which time the books are often in poor condition having been left out in the elements, and/or ransacked. More often, thankfully, people phone us to check we are open and that we have space for more bookish booty. Books are donated for a variety of reasons, such as when people move house, or a family may bring in their recently departed’s treasured reading. Book reviewers are great suppliers of new books in hard-cover and in immaculate condition. I suspect Marie Kondo has had a big influence on book donations too; I remember that we were inundated with bags of books after the Christmas of her first book being in vogue. Readers brutally turned out books which no longer Sparked Joy for them, or if they exceeded the recommended 20 maximum of books to keep. I declare: Marie is coming nowhere near my own book collection! And, of course, Covid lockdowns gave people the opportunity to go through their shelves and attics to have a clear-out. Finally - as a sign of our times - I remember the young lady who recently brought us a modest selection of books as she was leaving our locality, which she loved, but the landlord had hiked her rent, so she could no longer afford to live here. She was going to live temporarily on a friend’s boat on the Regent’s Canal.
In one sense the reading tastes of the Blackstock Road are wide and varied, and in another, within the variations, are divisions showing who we are and what attracts the most interest. Is this a scientific analysis? Not at all, but considering it is some 14 years since the shop came into existence, it is at least an indication of what people in general are moved to read.
Wherever they come from, may the books keep rolling in.
- David W, House of Hodge Volunteer