In an attempt to engage more fully with what I’m reading I’ve started to explore both the short story form and the essay. I’ve never really got on with short stories, although I’ve always appreciated how useful they can be for teaching purposes precisely because they enable you to consider a particular narrative feature without asking the students to read a full length book every other day. The essay, on the other hand, is a form that has always fascinated me but not one I’ve ever had a reason to investigate. I suppose you could argue that reading blogs every day is a bit like immersing yourself in short essays but I was thinking about something more substantial, in length at least.
Not being quite certain where to start I looked on my shelves to see if by any chance I had a volume that would fit the bill and came across a collection I had completely forgotten I possessed, Ursula Le Guin’s The Language of the Night. Picking this book up sent me straight down memory lane because, while I might have forgotten I owned it, once it was in my hands I certainly remembered where I bought it.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about having problems with the massive bookshops that you can find in Hay-on-Wye. I feel just the same about large chain bookstores as well. I get lost in them. I can never find anything that looks enticing or original. I inevitably walk out empty handed. What I like are pokey little bookshops with unforeseen shelves hidden around unexpected corners. Those are the places where you find the books you go on to cherish, the books that you didn’t even know you were looking for until the precise moment your eyes happened to light on them. One such shop was The Silver Moon on London’s Charing Cross Road.
In years gone by when both my finances and my health were in better shape I used to go down to London regularly to go to the theatre. I would get off the train at Euston and, not being a great fan of the Underground, walk down Tottenham Court Road and onto Charing Cross on my way to whichever theatre I was visiting on that particular occasion. Halfway down on the eastern side of the road was The Silver Moon.
It started out in just one small building with books on the ground floor and a café in the basement. Opening just as the feminist movement was beginning to take off in the UK, initially all the books were by women and while men were allowed on the ground floor they were not permitted to go downstairs. Later, as its success grew, the shop expanded into the premises next door. Somehow it was never quite the same after that, it lost that pokiness that had given it so much character. And, today it isn’t there at all, which is a tremendous shame because thirty years on there is still room for a bookseller that specialises in bring the unexpected to the inquisitive browser.
It was here that I first encountered Margaret Atwood, Amanda Cross and May Sarton. Three completely different writers, working in entirely different genres, all women whose books I had never even heard of and, Atwood apart, would probably not have come across anywhere else at that time. And it was here that I stumbled across this book of Le Guin’s essays. I already knew her work for children having read the Earthsea Trilogy (as it was then) to successive classes of ten and eleven year olds eager for original and intelligent fantasy. The notion that she might pen academic essays about her writing had never crossed my mind and I remember quite clearly looking at the collection of books I already had in my hands and wondering if I could manage to afford just another one.
Well, apparently I did and yet somehow it has lain on my shelves for all those years without my ever having opened it. This week I am going to put that right.