Nobody Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson — the journey of a bibliophile

When Mark Hodkinson was growing up there was just one book in the family house in Manchester. Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain shared a space on the top of a wardrobe with treasured items which included his parent’s marriage certificate and Mark’s cycling proficiency certificate.

His parents “didn’t see the point” of reading — like many of their generation in a working class community, they had higher priorities like keeping warm and putting food on the table.

Despite this Mark grew up to be an avid reader. Laid up in bed with one childhood illness after another he raced through Enid Blyton and devoured every kind of reading material he could lay his hands on — comics, football programmes, magazines — before progressing to the All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriott.

Fast forward a few decades to today. After a career in journalism, Mark is now an author and the owner of independent publisher Pomona Books. His book collection is significantly bigger — some 3,500 titles at the last count.

Conscious that he owned more books than he could reasonably expect to read in his lifetime, Mark once consulted (separately) a psychologist and a life counsellor. He admitted he felt guilty and anxious about his book acquisition habit. But he also described the thrill he experienced whenever he enters a bookshop.

First off, I get the thrill of seeing the shop, anticipating what is inside and this reminds me of other thrills I had, possibly as a child — that same feeling of seeing a bookshop or even books for sale somewhere … And so it’s a kind of nostalgic thrill, a memory of a thrill. And the third thrill is the one of being excited about the books I’m going to find in there. It’s a definite tingle going around my body.

The psychologist reassured him he wasn’t suffering any serious mental health issues. She acknowledged that 3,500 books was indeed a lot for one person but in her opinion Hodkinson wasn’t’ really a hoarder. He was simply a collector.

The life counsellor gave him a different diagnosis. She told Mark that he viewed books as a safety net; a way of coping with the feeling of abandonment that he’d experienced in his life.  

Most people experience this or similar and the pain is such that, in many different ways, they make preparations so that it either doesn’t happen again, and that can go as far as avoiding future relationships altogether, or setting down to themselves a clearly defined coping mechanism. I think, to you, books are metaphorical friends and part of the reason you have so many is that, ever so slightly and in a perfectly normal way, you have lost a little bit of trust in the world.

Although I don’t own anything like 3,500 books, just like Mark I have accumulated books at a rate considerably greater than my capacity to read them.

I like the idea of being viewed as a collector — it suggests that my shelves of read and unread books have been curated; chosen with care and thought. Whereas hoarding to me suggests just grabbing stuff without any consideration about quality or value. Buying them for the sake of buying.

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy is a book that charts Mark’s journey as a reader and a collector. He doesn’t stick rigidly to the memoir format however, frequently interspersing his recollections with digressions on punk music, the art of blurb writing, the growth of the working class novel during the 1950s and 60s and the tribulations of being an independent publisher.

We also get a rather tetchy commentary on how today’s public libraries have morphed into community centres. The idea that libraries are places where people can read/borrow books has been shunted aside, in favour of dementia support sessions, computer classes, and rhyme-time for kids. So now they’re filled with “noisy teenagers, the hung over homeless, shouty poets and a woman with a box over her head pretending to be Big Ben”.

Ouch.

As you’d expect, a book from such a committed reader and buyer is laden with references to authors and their output. His childhood favourites were fairly typical of the age but as the years rolled on his interests marked him out as a different kind of reader. Hence the book title which captures the reaction of a sceptical bookshop owner when Mark walked in with a wish list of authors.

‘Do you have any of these?’ … ‘Don’t be silly’ he chastised. ‘Aleister Crowley? Thomas de Quincy? And what’s this? No one from round here reads Tolstoy, especially twelve year old kids.’

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy is about our personal response to literature and its ability to help us understand the world.

In some of the most interesting sections Mark reflects on how working-class writers like Barry Hines and Alan Sillitoe ( known as the “Angry Young Men” ) reflected his own experience of growing up in a working-class community in Northern England. In novels like A Kestrel For a Knave he saw himself in books for the first time.

Mark’s story is one that resonated with me, as I suspect it will with many other avid readers. My tastes and Mark’s frequently differ — I don’t share his passion for J D Salinger for one thing — but his enthusiasm for the the northern working class writers like Stan Barstow and Barry Hines has me thinking its time I paid them a revisit.

This is a deeply personal tale but it speaks to the reader in us all.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

27 thoughts on “Nobody Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson — the journey of a bibliophile

  • January 12, 2023 at 6:16 pm
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    I really enjoyed this one, too, I was fortunate enough to read a copy to review for Shiny New Books. He did go off on tangents but it was very enjoyable on the whole, and made me feel fortunate to have had a book-filled childhood (and most of those books are still on my shelves now!).

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    • January 12, 2023 at 10:21 pm
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      Sadly I don’t have any of the books I enjoyed in my first childhood years. I do still have my copy of Orwell’s essays which was a set text in our A levels but some of the other texts fell apart.

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  • January 12, 2023 at 5:31 am
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    I really enjoyed this one – except that it introduced me to the concept of BABLE (book acquisition beyond life expectancy), which forced me to confront my mortality in a way I wasn’t anticipating 😂

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    • January 12, 2023 at 10:25 pm
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      It’s sobering isn’t it to look at the number of unread books and work out how many years worth of reading that would constitute

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    • January 13, 2023 at 9:54 pm
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      There is a fine line between them I suspect

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  • January 9, 2023 at 9:03 am
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    I’ve had this on my list since it came out – though I have to confess that quote about libraries puts me off a little. I love the fact that my library is used by so many community groups! I feel like it introduces people to the library who otherwise might not know it was there. And I’d much rather have a busy, noisy library than a shuttered one – so many of the libraries in my city have been closed over the past decade, and the ones that are still open are the ones that are used by all sorts of people.

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    • January 9, 2023 at 10:19 pm
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      Totally agree with you about preferring a library to be used by different groups rather than go dark. At the moment the libraries are providing an essential service for people who can’t afford to heat their homes. If it means just one of them picks up a book as a result of being there, that would count as a win for me

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  • January 9, 2023 at 3:50 am
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    War and Peace used to be a synonym for too long to read, but it is a pretty easy going book really, sort of Pride & Prejudice with battles (though, as you say, the names are a problem. I often wonder what a ‘Prince’ is a in Russian, they seem to be somewhere between an English lord and a duke.)
    I worry that screen-time is apparently a different type of reading to book reading, and that book reading will be lost and with it complex story telling.

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    • January 9, 2023 at 10:21 pm
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      Do I get bonus points for having read War and Peace twice?? (minus the battle scenes….)

      yes screen reading is entirely different as multiple studies have shown. When we read on screen we tend to skim far more so levels of retention and comprehension are impacted

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  • January 8, 2023 at 4:04 am
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    I saw this title and had to laugh, as I’m part of an online reading group of about 850 people from around the world who are reading War and Peace a chapter or two a day (or more, if they get wrapped up in the story) throughout 2023. So far, I’ve been enjoying War and Peace, and I’m looking forward to getting deeper into the story.

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    • January 8, 2023 at 9:48 pm
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      War and Peace would be even better if it didn’t have all those sections on the battles (have to admit I skimmed those)

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  • January 7, 2023 at 10:48 pm
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    I was in the library that I used to work in years ago, a busy main county library which had over 1,000 books in and out every day in the 1970s. In the whole hour I was there there was not one other person in the actual library. I was amazed and really sad, it used to be such a bustling centre of the community. There were a few people using computers. My only worry about my book buying habit is that my house is beginning to smell like an old bookshop, I don’t really mind, but other people might!

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    • January 8, 2023 at 9:52 pm
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      In the library I went into last week there were people waiting for the bus (the stops are outside but it was cold and wet so much nicer to wait indoors); students using the computers and tables; some men reading the newspapers; women in a knit and natter group and tiny kids having a story time. I felt very much in the minority just browsing the shelves for a book!

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  • January 7, 2023 at 10:22 pm
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    Tolstoy is a challenge even if one had the time and I am not saying that I do. This a good review and thank you for sharing.

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    • January 8, 2023 at 9:52 pm
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      I find a lot of the Russian authors challenging just because the characters seem to have more than one name so its hard to keep track of who is who

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  • January 7, 2023 at 9:25 pm
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    Both he and you put it well, Karen, that books are as his psychologist said “a safety net; a way of coping with the feeling of abandonment that he’d experienced in his life“ – for me it was less a feeling of physical abandonment, more a sense of being isolated amongst family who didn’t think like me, or accept let alone recognise my point of point of life.

    And I’ve definitely ‘curated’ all my books, contrary to what my late father-in-law thought, that they’d been bought as job lots at jumble sales… Definitely a book to remember, especially with a catchy title like that! 🙂

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    • January 7, 2023 at 9:33 pm
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      I think one of the reasons he gravitated towards the Angry Young Men was that in most of the other books he read, he didn’t see himself – they were about worlds alien to him. So a feeling of isolation to me rather than lack of trust as the therapist put it

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  • January 7, 2023 at 7:15 pm
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    To the life counsellor, I say bunkum. I am a collector of some books, which do have a monetary value, but I also have a large number of books which I’ve acquired because I want to read them. Anybody who likes to read understands that!

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    • January 7, 2023 at 7:20 pm
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      *Chortle* – that life counsellor really made him feel good didn’t she!

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    • January 7, 2023 at 9:05 pm
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      You’re not the first blogger I’ve read who recommends this book. It sounds like the kind I’d agree with a great deal, while also finding paragraphs to – more in sorrow than in anger – take issue with. In other words, a lively must-read!

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  • January 7, 2023 at 6:53 pm
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    A collector but also a patron of the arts! Someone has to support starving authors!

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    • January 7, 2023 at 7:19 pm
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      Each time I think about curtailing my purchasing of books I get guilt feelings about the authors who will suffer. The incomes of most of them are so low

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  • January 7, 2023 at 4:10 pm
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    This sounds interesting. I own at least four times the number of books Mark reports collecting and that’s not all that unusual in academic circles, although some academics keep a lot of their collection in their office.

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    • January 7, 2023 at 5:57 pm
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      I’d put academics into a different category entirely – there is a good reason why you need many more books than those of us who just read for pleasure

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    • January 7, 2023 at 5:57 pm
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      I hadn’t heard of it until I came across it while browsing in the library.

      Reply

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