The tenuous link between NASA and Wigtown….and a book review of sorts.

I promise that this will be my final post about Shaun Bythell and Wigtown, Scotland……at least for a while. This post will hopefully round off and give some sense of finality in the saga of Bythell, Wigtown and Booktowns.


The above picture shows two books…..separate books….. relating two sides of the same story…..but in uniquely different ways.
Shaun Bythell’s – “The Diary of a Bookseller” – is the story of life in the biggest second hand book store in Scotland. It’s told in diary form….one little section per day and always starts off with how many on-line orders were taken and how many of the books could actually be found on the shelves of the shop. He then takes us through an often whimsical look at the daily interaction between himself, his staff and customers. It’s the awkward or slightly weird customers – and what they say – who provide the humour and interest.
His main staff member ‘Nicky’ is, shall we say….a bit of a free spirit, who certainly has a mind of her own, often disregards Shaun’s instructions and basically does what she feels like doing as far as “shop tasks” are concerned. Her dress sense, time keeping, unique turn of phrase and her penchant for dumpster diving add hugely to the humour found in this book. The blurb on the front of the book states “Warm, witty and laugh-out-loud funny” – Daily Mail…and I couldn’t agree more with that. I managed to annoy my wife frequently – I’m pleased to say – by giggling my way from chapter to chapter.
Speaking of chapters….each month is one long chapter and starts off with a quotation from George Orwell’s “Bookshop Memories”…..written in 1936 about Orwell’s experiences of working in a bookshop. The similarities between Orwell’s experiences and Bythell’s are many and are mostly about how life in a bookshop would be far less complicated if it wasn’t for awkward, annoying customers who often interrupt the bliss of being able to kick back and read a good book.
The book is written like a diary – hence the title – and has taken a bit of stick from some people who say it’s repetitive. Well, days working in a bookshop are to some extent repetitive when you’re dealing with the day to day running of a bookshop – but the customers are so predictably unpredictable that each day, more or less, also brings a moment of hilarity. Each day also ends with a tally of the days takings and the number of customers who bought books. But…..I loved it’s irreverant humour and Bythell’s sense of fun and irony.
He also brings into the story a young lady called ‘Anna’, an American writer and film maker who works for NASA, but who in a moment of personal crisis decided to take a break from life in the fast lane and take a month or two to mellow, in a bookshop (chosen at random partly by luck and partly by Mr Google) in Wigtown, Scotland. Long storey short…..Anna and Shaun fall in love and have an on again, off again, on again relationship. Where that relationship finally goes to – you’ll just have to read the books to find out.
Being British, Shaun Bythell keeps the personal side of the relationship to himself and only tells us as much as is needed in order to explain his daily life both in and out of the bookshop. Anna is not her real name. Whether he changed it to protect her anonymity or to protect himself from potential law suits – you know how Americans just LOVE to scream for their lawyers – is neither here nor there….. and since Anna decided to write her own book about the relationship “Three things you need to know about Rockets” under her real name – Jessica… becomes a moot point.
Contrary to the British stiff upper lip – keep your emotional life subdued – way of looking at relationships, the American way…..or at least Jessica’s way… is the polar oposite. Emotions come to the fore and in Jessica’s book we are taken along with her on her emotional roller coaster ride through her relationship with “Euan” (aka Shaun).
The Times says “It’s sweet, it’s charming and it’s funny” and indeed it is all these things in parts. The story of her going for a “special waxing” is particularly hilarious and I had tears of laughter streaming down my face. BUT I would also add the word “frustrating” to the description of the book.
There were times where Jessica’s emotional confusion made me want to give her a hug and there were others where her lack of self confidence and her over thinking of things made me shake my head in frustration. In a relationship where two people know one another, love one another and are comfortable in each others company there can be “a comfortable silence” – a silence of contentment. Jessica is not one who finds comfort in silence and interprets Euan’s/Shaun’s moments of silence as being a sign that “something is wrong…..he’s bored with the relationship and with her…..he’s thinking about some other woman”. She is constantly needing to be reassured and seems hell bent on picking holes in a relationship that is – depending on her viewpoint at that moment in time rock steady yet, at the same time, crumbling on it’s foundations.
Whilst I would love to quote a few passages from each book to give you a feel for the different writing styles and mannerisms of these two writers I don’t want to run foul of the copyright laws – as did Blythell when quoting Orwell in his book. But that’s another story.
Both books are certainly worth a read and Shaun’s in particular – since he signed it for me – will hold pride of place on my bookshelves. Bythell’s book is classed as Memoir/Humour and Fox’s as a Romantic Memoir……you make your choice and take your pick. You really do need to read both books though to get the full picture.
Both books describe life in the small settlement of Wigtown in such a way that makes me want to visit there, someday soon. I feel it’s something that just needs to be done. Call it a pilgrimage of sorts if you will – to the book, the bookshop and the booktown.
AND the good news is that a production company has bought the rights to both books with a view to making a combined movie. Whether they actually take up the option and make the movie remains to be seen. I hope they do.
Further good news is that Bythell’s publishers are now asking him for a follow up book. It used to be that when a customer approached the counter, Shaun would think “Oh no what is this idiot going to ask me?” Now he thinks “Yes…great….a customer – hope he/she says something ridiculous” – eager for new material. Watch this space…..
A final plea. If you’re interested enough in the two stories to want to read these books – and I do hope that you do – please buy the physical books, not e-books/Kindle… and please buy them from a bricks and mortar bookshop….not Amazon….on the internet. It’s the patronage of bricks and mortar establishments like “The Bookshop” by readers like you and me that brought about the writing of both these books in the first place. Without us the bookshop and indeed Booktowns would cease to exist.
BUY THE BOOKS……and preserve a way of life…..please.

3 thoughts on “The tenuous link between NASA and Wigtown….and a book review of sorts.

  1. I love that you expressly encourage buying the books in a brick and mortar at the end of your review! Supporting local booksellers bookshops, especially independently owned sellers, is so important. I am fortunate to live in a corner of the world that is a haven for independent booksellers.
    Also, these two books sound fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment. I also have a couple of very good independent bookshops within walking distance, plus an excellent second hand book shop….and will write a short piece on them – eventually. I must admit though I have bought on-line on occasion, but mostly support the bricks and mortar establishments. There are another couple of books I am reading at the moment about bookshops. “Bookshops” – by Jorge Carrion and “Book Towns” by Alex Johnson. – I’ll review both once I’ve finished.

      Liked by 1 person

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