Magazine article The Spectator

Book Selling for Illiterates

Magazine article The Spectator

Book Selling for Illiterates

Article excerpt

Waterstone's used to be known for its well-read staff. Not any more

Books, we are continually told, particularly by people who rarely read them, are going the way of the dodo. The shops that sell them are closing at an alarming rate, as the dreaded Kindle takes over, and public libraries are being encouraged to turn themselves into noisy 'resource centres', designed to attract the feckless young.

One might think that the places continuing to sell such glorious, old-fashioned things would be eager to put their best foot forward.

So a post-Christmas visit to the biggest bookshop in Europe, as Waterstone's in Piccadilly likes to call itself, was an eye-opener.

It's a shop that evokes happy memories.

I have been buying books there for years, including a complete set of Proust, which is not so much a purchase as an investment for life. The fiction list is less quirky than it was, but it remains a good place to browse and buy. At least I thought it was, until I met the duffers.

The first duffer was anonymous. On a shelf of 'staff picks', he or she had recommended Brideshead Revisited , by Evelyn Waugh, as 'her most evocative novel'. It takes exceptional ignorance not to know that the greatest writer of English prose in the last century was a man, but it was an ignorance that the second duffer, a shop assistant whom I invited to comment on this absurdity, did his best to match.

'Doesn't that strike you as odd?' I asked, pointing to the offending card. He gave a blank look. 'There's a rather embarrassing mistake.'

'I've never read Brideshead Revisited , ' he replied.

'No, but you must have heard of Evelyn Waugh.' Silence. This time, a puzzled look. 'He was a great writer, and it is a he. You work in a bookshop. You should know such things.'

The look turned to befuddlement. Presently (an adverb Waugh loved to use) there came a sigh of exasperation, as though it was I, not the card-scribbler, who had committed an indiscretion.

Once, Waterstone's employed only men and women who had degrees in English Literature. That is not the case now, as a press spokesman pointed out when I raised the case of the two duffers. Company policy was 'more inclusive', she said, which seems fair enough. George Orwell worked in a bookshop (he wrote a lovely essay about it), and he didn't have a degree. …

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