And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 28. januar 2012

City of Books, part II - The Endless Exercise

He looked in this book nearly every day, as though it were a mirror reflecting his own integrity.
- Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, Jocelin of Brakelond (translated by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers)

The knights there entring, did him reuerence dew
And wondred at his endlesse exercise,
Then as they gan his Librarie to vew,
And antique Registers for to auise,
There chaunced to the Princes hand to rize,
An auncient booke, hight Briton moniments,
That of this lands first conquest did deuize,
And old diuision into Regiments,
Till it reduced was to one mans gouernment.
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

An empty book is like an Infant's Soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders.
- Centuries of Meditation, Thomas Traherne

To acquaint oneself with the literature of the world properly is an endless exercise that will never be completed, but which will cause the reader to develop and widen his or her cultural horizon. There is to me a particular pleasure to be found in the company of books, to explore the shelves with a keen and almost all-consuming eye and treasure the numerous manifestations of mankind's creativity. This bibliophilia is - as I touched upon in my previous blogpost - one of the reasons why I have a great fondness for the City of York: its many bookshops offer a wide variation of opportunities, ranging from the old to the current, from the scholarly to the banal and remind its visitors of the necessity to open up to new impressions. I spent much time rummaging around in the bookshops, not always searching but every time discovering, and I often found myself awestruck by the selections and pleased by that typical scent of books that triggers the memory and conjures up the ancient dream of the Library so many of us aim to compile. Since the exploration of bookshops was such an important part of my time in York I wish here to present an incomplete array of bookshops to be found there, together with some of the treasures I brought with me and included in my own collection.

Due to the nature of this blogpost I find it necessary to state that my purpose here is solely to show fellow bibliophiles one of the greatest attractions of York, presenting books and where they can be found to an audience who may be interested to know this. I have no arrangement with any of these bookshops or for that matter any commercial websites where these books may be purchased.


High Ousegate

Most booksellers in York are independent and are thereby free to choose their own selections according to what they themselves want to purvey. My favourite bookshops are chiefly of this category, but I nonetheless want to begin this presentation with Waterstone's, a chain of bookshops represented in York by a spacious shop in High Ousegate. Their selection emphasises popular titles, but capering to all tastes and thereby including a large number of interesting titles. Since I have a tendency to hoard books in large quantities when visiting York, I decided to limit my exploration to the poetry section.

(...) I only know, I am,
I was a being created in the race
Of men disdaining bounds of place and time
- Sonnet, John Clare

York Book Clearance Outlet

Low Petergate

The Book Cearance Outlet focuses on secondhand books and has an impressive selection in its two-storey building, although sadly lacking a poetry section. I visited this shop on my first visit to York in 2009 and came out again with at least two Everyman paperbacks: The complete plays of Christopher Marlow and Piers Plowman. I do not recall whether I also bought a selection of mystery plays and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there, too, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case. 

Fossgate Books


This is one of my all-time favourite bookshops, primarily due to its selection, but also because it has the perfect ambience, as if it were designed according to an orderly superstructure, yet allowing for personal exploration and serendipitious discovery. It is a two-storey enterprise run by a very genteel gentleman with the air of the bookvendor about him - slightly scruffy, but a pleasant converser - and the shop contains a vast number of books, filling every shelf and piled high on the floors. To my utter delight there is a significant poetry section, a great selection of older Penguin classics and some very pretty folio editions of classical children's stories in a room upstairs. It is not a spacious shop, but the space is used strategically and you will never be able to go back out the door thinking "I've seen enough."

 Ah, there's nothing like the smell of old Penguins.
- Fellow student at the University of York

  I have only visited this shop a couple or at most a handful of times, primarily because otherwise I would spend too much money there and as a student I can't really afford that. My last foray resulted in a very nice selection of old, hardcover collections: the poetical works of Robert Herrick, John Dryden, Francis Thompson and James Elroy Flecker.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young
- To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence, James Elroy Flecker

The above picture also features two other collections of poetry, belonging to Oxford series like the collections of Herrick and Thompson. The books in question are the poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Matthew Arnold, and these books were purchased at the Minstergate Bookshop.

Minstergate Bookshop


Minstergate and the adjoining Stonegate were home to bookprinters in days past and there are still a few vestiges of that period, one of which is the above figurine of Pallas Athena reclining by a stack of books. Other remnants are the printer's devil and the sign of John Todd's bookshop of No. 35 Stonegate, as seen below.

 Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?
- Psalm 56:8

In my book Minstergate bookshop ranks even above Fossgate books, presumably because I became acquainted with this little gem already at my first visit to York in 2009 and it left a lasting impression. The shop covers four storeys, but none of the rooms are very spacious and this creates a pleasant feel of intimacy, tricking you into believing the selection will be quickly perused. Once you start exploring, however, you will realise how labyrinthine the shop is, and even rooms you have searched through will appear excitingly new when you return to them.

The shop contains books both old and new, at reasonable prices and displayed outside when they're on sale. This latter feature was one of the reasons that I visited this bookshop far more often than my bank account was pleased with, the other reasons being proximity and an ever-increasing fondness for the place due to its selection - particularly its poetry and history sections - , its ambience and its friendly staff. I have bought more books here than at any other similar venue in York and I look forward to do so again. Next time I might also have the temerity to ask for a closer look at the beautiful first edition of The Wind in the Willows, priced at 1000 pounds.

Ken Spelman booksellers


Ken Spelman booksellers is one of the bookshops in York I have not yet sufficiently explored. The reasons for this is first of all that in York's bookshops are like its churches: numerous. Secondly, I very rarely crossed the river on my city excursions and therefore have not yet made any attachments to this locale. I became aware of this shop when I saw it represented at the York National Bookfair and I decided to render it a visit.

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.
- Wordes unto Adam, His Own Scriveyn, Geoffrey Chaucer

As the above pictures show this is a very spacious bookshop, and I seem to recall coming across some books that only tremendous, monkish self-restraint kept me from buying. Next time, however, I will be prepared.

The bookshops presented above only comprise a minor selection of the numerous bookshops in York, but for visitors, students or soon-to-be residents these are good places to start, either to increase your book collections, to enjoy the atmosphere, to skim through books at leisure hoping to find something pleasantly surprising or all of the above. Happy hunting and may there be pages of discovery ahead.

lørdag 14. januar 2012

City of Books, part I - York National Bookfair

 Stand still, fear not, I'll show you but this book.
- The Honourable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Robert Greene

Goe little booke: thy selfe present,
As child whose parent in vnkent
- The Shepheardes Calender, Edmund Spenser

Like all the men of the Library, in my younger days I traveled; I have journeyed in quest of a book, pehaps the catalog of catalogs.
- The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley)

There are many reasons to be amazed and enthralled by the City of York, and as a self-confessed and committed bibliophile I found its well-cultivated preoccupation with books one of its most charming features. Throughout the city and its adjacent territory there are numerous venues where one may borrow, buy or browse through books, either with the purpose of acquiring reading material or for the sheer pleasure of being surrounded by volumes upon volumes of books. Accordingly I spent quite a lot of time exploring these various venues during my days in York, both in the search for studying material and leisure reading, and at the end of my time there I became very thankful that it is relatively cheap to ship printed paper from Britain to Norway by mail.

Since books constitute such an important aspect of York's cultural and historical personality I have compiled material for a two-partite blogpost, chronicling my experiences with books and their acquisition so that others may be directed towards the venues in question. First off is a report from my visit at York National Bookfair this September.

York National Bookfair is an annual exhibition wherein booksellers from all over Britain may participate. Nowadays it is held by the racecourse at Knavesmire just outside the city walls, formerly the place of public hangings. Visitors may take a free shuttle bus from the Railway Station and free tickets can be picked up at various booksellers in York. The venue itself comprises several floors, all packed with books, and it is a bibliophile's dream. I went there one morning in company of three friends and we spent two hours rummaging around the first floor, exploring, searching, looking, observing and - at least in my case - switching between blind admiration of the many wonderful items displayed and sadness over not being able to buy the things I saw due to monetary and practical issues. 

 The book fair is held, as the above picture shows, in a spacious, multi-storeyed building and to carefully scrutinise the stalls in their entireties would require far more time than I had. I was consequently confined to walk about and see which stalls displayed books most suiting to my tastes, leaving the rest to be perhaps noticed but not perused. Naturally it took quite a while to perfect this technique and I spent quite a lot of time perusing books that were of tertiary interest to me before I buckled up and became more selective.

Aside from the books and the variety of other printed materials exhibited there was also a very friendly atmosphere and for the most part the booksellers were happy to exchange a few words about their books, even though it was probably evident to them I was not a potential customer. At one point, after I had inquired about a volume of polemical tracts by Milton, the aged and bespectacled bookseller demanded in a jovial manner why I didn't buy them. Since the tracts in question were gathered in a volume from 1651 and as such were beyond my financial reach I explained I was a student, an excuse he found rather feeble, but which - I added - was my only one. He conceded the point and, when I had assured him I would return once I was well enough off, he remarked that people like me was what made these exhibitions worthwhile, or at least something along those lines.

A wonderful selection including household books like The Family Dictionary, Young Woman's Guide and The Lady's Assistant, and the two tracts by Milton mentioned above.

Bibles, like miracles, come in all shapes and sizes.

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden
- Paradise Lost, John Milton

One of the most delightful aspects of the bookfair is the immense variety of books, both in terms of subject and age. The stalls included items ranging from the modern paperbacks and as far back as the incunables. In terms of subject, too, the scope was pleasantly broad, encompassing early modern herbals, topographies, local histories, childrens' books, meditations, poetry and so on, a scope illustrated by this minor array of titles:

De Civitate Dei, Augustine (Basel, 1479)

A Natural History of Uncommon Birds [Gleanings of Natural History], George Edwards (1743-44)

Shropshire Folk-lore, Charlotte Burne (ed.) (1883)

The Works of Joseph Hall, Doctor in Divinity and Dean of Worcester (1625)

The Orchid-Grower's Manual, Williams (1893, 7th edition)

The Fairy-land of Science, Arabella Buckley (London, 1909)

In other words there was quite a span. To visually enhance the point made by these titles I will  include a selection of pictures, presented with no particular eye on systematic distribution in order to better illustrate the rather chaotic exercise it was to navigate the various vendor stalls of the fair.

Langhorne's Plutarch

Spenser's poetical works

An interesting juxtaposition: John Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Notes on Artillery.

By this art you may contemplate the variations of the 23 letters
- The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (the above volume is a 6th edition from 1652)

French 15th century manuscript leaves and an English caryatid book carving from the 17th century.

I have a soft spot for alchemical illustrations

 Herbal by Dioscorides, the first illustrated edition, 1543

Scrofula, a disease made famous by King Edward the Confessor, who, according to his hagiographers, included touching for scrofula in his thaumaturgical repertoire.

 Algernon Swinburne's poetical works

After the first self-allotted two hours of discovery we regrouped, but since I was staying but a short while in York I decided to direct my attention back to the city. Subsequently I took leave of the party and went for a walk on the city walls. I left Knavesmire one book and many impressions richer, and if I ever become rich I will make the York Bookfair an annual feature of my calendar. After all, I did make a promise, albeit a rather vague one.

 My spoil from the excursion...

...and the bag it came in