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”.
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.