Two new feel-good novels about bookstores celebrate the power of reading
Readers and writers are drawn to bookstores like mountain climbers to views. For some of us, it's hard to walk by one without swerving to check out the window display, at the very least.
There's something inherently hopeful about bookshops. Safe havens for diverse minds, the best transmit a sense of possibility and community. It's no surprise that novels set in them abound. Most are heartwarming paeans to the salubrious bonds forged among readers. Many have been made into movies, like Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop (1978), Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop (2013) and Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014).
These novels are populated by outsiders or loners who often immerse themselves in literature at the expense of living. In a frequent plotline, the luckiest among them connect with a soulmate through a shared fondness for a specific bookstore or book. Other scenarios involve the growing threat of big bad business or declining book sales and literacy in the digital age of smartphones, social media and video games — and the passionate readers who band together to save their beleaguered local shop.
Sometimes booksellers are not bound within four walls but instead peddle their wares directly to customers from bookmobiles. In Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader (2008), one such customer is the Queen of England, who comes late to the joys and benefits of reading.
Two short, bestselling foreign novels newly translated into English — one from Germany, the other from Japan — hit many of the genre's sweet spots, including a devoted bookseller who makes house calls, toting his merchandise in a backpack.
The Door-to-Door Bookstore by Carsten Henn
This charmer, translated from the German by Melody Shaw, is an unabashedly sentimental, determinedly uplifting novel about friendships forged through books.
Carl Kollhoff, a 72-year-old bookseller in southern Germany, is beloved among his customers for finding just the right books for them. But his raison d'être is threatened when his longtime boss' hard-nosed daughter takes over the family business, determined to push out her father's star employee and dear friend. (Bill Nighy, who was so stellar in the 2017 movie of Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, would be perfect in the role.)
The highlight of Carl's narrowly circumscribed life is to deliver books every evening to a handful of shut-in customers. The selections are dictated by their stated preferences — for happy endings, tragedy, philosophical works and so on. Trouble ensues when a preternaturally wise (and cloying) motherless 9-year-old girl tags along with him on his rounds. She decides Carl is not actually giving his customers what they really need, and hatches a plot to correct this.
Like Carl's backpack, Henn manages to fill his novel with books without weighing it down. Chapter titles allude to classics: A Man for All Seasons, The Stranger, The Red and the Black, Great Expectations. Carl, who is terrible with names, assigns a literary character to each customer — Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Longstocking, The Reader — to help him keep them straight.
We gradually come to know these townsfolk: the abused wife; the aspiring writer with the mellifluous voice who is paid to read classics to cigar factory workers; the retired schoolteacher who gets her kicks from spotting suggestive typos like, "At the sight of her, he could barely contain his arbor."
The Door-to-Door Bookstore is also sprinkled with amusing observations. Carl divides readers into hares, who race through books; fish, who allow books to carry them along on their current; curious lapwings, who jump ahead to see the ending first; and tortoises, who fall asleep each night after a single page and take months to get through a book, necessitating flipping back repeatedly to check what they've forgotten.
Readers will have fun finding themselves in these pages.
Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa
Translated from the Japanese by Eric Ozawa, this slim novel — first published and filmed in Japan in 2010 — is another heartwarmer about how literature helps open up emotionally constipated people who are not good at expressing their feelings.
Takako, the novel's plainspoken 25-year-old narrator, is blindsided when a work colleague she's been seeing for more than a year announces he's getting married to a beautiful woman in the same Tokyo office. In her grief, Takako quits her job and takes to her bed. Given the choice between returning to her home in Kyushu or moving into the musty spare room above her oddball uncle's secondhand bookshop in the Jimbocho book quarter of Tokyo, she chooses the latter.
The unadorned simplicity of Takako's voice is anything but subtle, but it's somehow winning in its guilelessness. About the time she spent at the Morisaki Bookshop, she says, "That's where my real life began. And I know, without a doubt, that if not for those days, the rest of my life would have been bland, monotonous, and lonely."
Takako gradually comes to appreciate her uncle Satoru, whom she at first characterizes as "the exact opposite of anyone's idea of a dignified man." Disheveled but kind, her uncle urges her to consider his bookshop as her harbor, and tells her about his own peripatetic youth before he took over his father's business. "Maybe it takes a long time to figure out what you're truly searching for," he says.
To her uncle's delight, Takako, a nonreader, is gradually pulled into the modern classic Japanese novels piled everywhere in his shop — Junijiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai. Her perspective expands. Satoru introduces her to his favorite coffee shop, where she befriends other bibliophiles. Takako tries to help her uncle figure out why his wife Momoko left him without a word of explanation years earlier, and what Satoru — and she herself — might do differently in their relationships.
Days at the Morisaki Bookshop draws a strong connection between the empathy unleashed by great literature and Takako's growing sense of self-confidence and well-being. Reading, she tells us with typical directness in this sweet tale, "opened a door I had never known existed."
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