Books are an important part of my life - on a couple of different levels. I had a feel for them long before I became a bookseller with James Thin; they were a way to access information for one thing, and information is one of the main things that makes us all different from each other. There are incredibly vast amounts of it available, particularly nowadays since the internet came along, and no two people can possibly have the same knowledge and therefore exactly the same view of a subject. I am always astonished to think of what it must have been like to be thirsty for knowledge back in the days before printing was invented and the only books were hand-written and therefore extremely scarce. On that level I could just be content to read about subjects on-line, but books are somehow different in another way. Probably only a collector or an antiquarian booksellers will understand but there seems to be a character about an old book; something that identifies it with the time it was written in and the people who read it.

I recently started work on a project that takes me back to the world of books, one that I had dreamt of doing ever since Thins went into administration back in 2002. That project is Books in Scotland and while it is a long way from finished and I normally don't like revealing half-finished websites it will be an ongoing process of refining the programming and adding books, reviews, and articles for the forseeable future. If you're interested in books please take a look and let me now what you think of it.

Personal Reading

If you're reading this then you're probably interested in what type of books I read. Well curiously I don't read as many books as I used to largely due to the amount I read on-line, but when I do I have a fairly diverse collection to choose from.

Chess Books

There are the Chess books of course - a lot of those are simply instructional books on the opening or particularly the middle game - but I also like to read about the history of the game and it's players, and I would love to have time to read through the extensive old library at the club.

Favourites include:
Mikhail Tal - Life and Games of Mikhail Tal
Probably the best book ever written about the game, by it's most daring and exciting player.
Frank Marshall - My 50 Years of Chess
Alexander Alekhine - My Best Games of Chess

Photography Books

There are the books on Photography as well. There I'm less interested in the instructional and technical side these days since I long ago digested the classic texts on darkroom work and subjects like the Zone System - now I just look at the pictures!! I love the work of Ansel Adams, but also that of Fay Godwin and the Japanese photographer Shinzo Maeda, whose delicate studies of trees and leaves are a delight.

Shinzo Maeda - A Tree, A Blade of Grass
Paul Strand - Tir a Mhurain Classic pictures of Barra from the 1950s by a true master of the art
Fay Godwin - Land
Joco Znidarsic - Bohinj Superb colour photos of this gorgeous area of Slovenia

I used to read a lot of computer manuals but these days they are out of date so quickly that it hardly seems worth it!! In any case much of the information is available on-line.

Old Railway Books

I like reading about old railways - particularly here in Scotland - and have quite a few books on that subject. I'm not particularly interested in the engines or the rolling stock - it's the lines themselves that interest me and the people who worked on them. Rather like old books, old railway lines seem to hold on to memories of past times, and walking the old lines can be marvelously evocative. I remember reading once that at the turn of the 19th century one in seven people in Britain worked on the railways or was in some way connected to them - an astonishing figure. Life was very different then.

Hillwalking Books

Hill-walking books make up a fair percentage of my collection too - both the how-to-climb-Ben-X type and also the more biographical and narrative sort. Again, standing alone on top of a hill and surveying the surrounding areas can sometimes seem to bring earlier ages almost within reach, and writers like Tom Weir and Hamish Brown have a happy knack of making that sort of scene come alive for the armchair walker.

Tom Weir - Highland Days One of his early books with a freshness that has rarely been equalled
Hamish Brown - Hamish's Mountain Walk The story of the first continuous walk round all the Munros in Scotland
There was also a three-volume guidebook series called West Highland Walks written by Hamish MacInnes which is sadly now out of print but well worth looking for in secondhand shops. While there look out for anything by Seton Gordon.

Fiction and Historical Fiction

I know that some of you visiting this site will also be looking in this section for my feelings on another topic of reading ....... a certain historical fiction writer perhaps? ;-)
Frankly I never used to read much fiction at all. Oh there was the usual Science Fiction read in my youth, but I soon got a bit fed up with the same old plots and rather went off it, and in any case even then I was reading more factual stuff - books on science and sport particularly.

At school we read things like DH Lawrence, which I found rather depressing, though nothing like as bad as JD Salinger whose Catcher in the Rye I was forced to reject as a course study book as it left me feeling almost suicidal with its hopeless outlook. Strangely, considering that I was always fervently Scots, I didn't get into any of the classic Scottish writers like Scott, Stevenson, Hogg, etc. and I'm ashamed to say I still haven't read most of their novels. (Perhaps when I retire I'll get time to catch up!!) The few examples of historical fiction that I did read were pretty dire and I dismissed the genre. One author I did enjoy in my mid-teens was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - his short stories as well as the Sherlock Holmes books. His intricate plots turned out to be useful practice for later!

Many years later (1994) when I first set up an email account for Thins, one of the first contacts I had was with a customer of ours who was amongst a large number of regular buyers of books by Dorothy Dunnett, and I soon realised that this writer had an unusually devoted following. In fact I was more familiar with her husband Alastair who had been editor of The Scotsman newspaper around the time I first started reading it. One email soon led to many others and it became apparent that many of Dorothy's overseas fans had internet accounts and were in contact with each other. I was pushing to set up a web site for the shop and noticed that many of them asked the same questions about the availablility of her books and suchlike, so maybe they'd be interested in a Dunnett web page?

Well, interested was an understatement. The response was immediate and incredibly enthusiastic. Soon, with their help and encouragement, I had launched into the research, refined the early versions of the page, corrected the mistakes and incorporated the suggestions. The emails came thick and fast and so did the orders. Soon the emailing list had outstripped the old snail-mail notification list and the first new book to come out after the web page was set up - To Lie with Lions - sold twice as many in advance overseas orders as did the previous one. (The next - Caprice and Rondo - doubled that again, and the final volume Gemini saw the now legendary metric ton of books being dispatched around the globe). What impressed me was not just that these people were keen, but that they weren't the sort of fiction fans you might get for the mass market writers - they numbered professors and researchers, writers and historians, computer consultants and many more, and were quite prepared to criticise and probe in a highly intellectual manner while still declaring the writer to be the best they'd ever read.

There were times when it felt a little strange dealing with their emails every day; while I had lots of information at my fingertips I would often have to go looking for more and was being treated as a Dunnett expert when in fact I hadn't read a single one of her books! That's often the lot of the bookseller - when I worked in the Science Dept I used to have physicists and engineers come back and ask me for a better book on their pet subject and seemed to expect that I'd read them all - no doubt every other bookseller must have experienced the same thing. In the middle of all this I got to meet Dorothy a few times and was captivated. She wasn't at all like the stuffy popular image of a historian or the sometimes precious image of the writer - rather she was warm, bright and lively, the intelligence and imagination seeming to flow immediately from those mischiveously glinting eyes, and without a single sign of the airs and graces that many people in her position would adopt. Despite my reservations about reading historical fiction I knew that I would have to read one of her books - you don't pass up the chance to connect to such an personality.

I started in July 97 with Game of Kings - the first of the Lymond Chronicles - and read them with increasing admiration; then managed to finish the first seven House of Niccolo books just in time to read the finale - Gemini - when it came out. All I can say is that if you enjoy complex plots, meticulous attention to detail and historical accuracy, and the myriad interactions of human nature, then you should definitely read these books. They are without compare.

I now number many of the readers as dear friends, and Dorothy too until her sudden illness and death in November 2001 - she was wonderful company, and as kind, thoughtful and encouraging as I could possibly have imagined, and I miss her terribly.

Sadly, after 5 generations and 152 years, James Thin Ltd got into financial difficulties and went into administration in Jan 2002. My website was one of the first things to be closed down and I was made redundant after 21 years of service. The rest of the middle management soon followed and the group was eventually split up and sold off - the academic shops being bought by Blackwells and the general ones by Ottakers. Along with the earlier demise of the even older John Smiths of Glasgow, this marked the end of an era in British bookselling. I find most of the large chain booksellers to be soulless places with little real understanding or empathy with the volumes they sell. Smaller bookshops still retain that feel but they are under more and more pressure and of course their breadth of stock is inevitably limited. I fear that the world of bookselling has changed irretrievably as has the world of publishing, and it may be that new technology will after all eventually overcome it. A pity, books are different, special, and the pressure of the marketplace have been allowed to destroy that.


© Bill Marshall

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