‘The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words’ by Tom Mole ***

I am drawn to books about books, and Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words really caught my eye. It is marketed as ‘the season’s ultimate gift for bibliophiles’, and certainly holds a lot of appeal for the more bookish members on this year’s Christmas list.

The Secret Life of Books is about ‘everything beyond the words on a page’, and focuses on the book as a physical entity. Mole has explored ‘how books feel and smell, books defaced by lovers and books in art to burned books and books that create nations’. He is concerned with how books and printing processes have evolved over time, along with their readers, and ‘about how books still have the power to change our lives.’

This book, written by the head of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the History of the Book, is described as a ‘stylish and thought-provoking exploration of the book as an object.’ Mole confesses that he is ‘not all that interested in books as things to read. Instead, I want to talk about all the other things that we do to books – and that books do to us.’ They are, he goes on to say, ‘part of how we understand ourselves. They shape our identities, even before we can read them.’

First published in 2019, The Secret Life of Books is filled with reminiscences of Mole’s own reading life, as well as anecdotes about books. It opens, for instance, with one of Mole’s university professors, whose books were rapidly taking over his room: ‘Every time I visited the professor’s office, it seemed a little harder than before to navigate a route across the room on the decreasing area of visible carpet… when I opened the door there was no professor to be seen – the room was full of books, but apparently empty of its occupant. For a moment, I would think perhaps the professor had been crushed under a toppling pile of hardbacks. Then his head would appear from behind a ziggurat of volumes on a bewildering variety of topics.’

Mole certainly presents a lot of interesting ideas about books within the pages of his own. These have been largely collected in vignette form, and gathered together. He writes that ‘to the careful observer, the book can be excavated like an archaeological dig, revealing layer upon layer of information about its previous users from the material traces they left behind them.’ He goes on to discuss holy books, book signings, book clubs, and bibliomancy – the rather unpredictable practice of using a randomly chosen page in a book to predict the future – and gives nods to many authors.

I was particularly taken with the musings he makes over the ownership of books, and what a privilege it is to be able to build a personal library. He writes: ‘Buying books, reading them, organising them and referring back to them – all these things seem to be distinct and different kinds of pleasure.’

I did find The Secret Life of Books became rather repetitive at times, but perhaps this is an inevitability given the subject matter. I enjoyed all of the bookish facts which the volume was peppered with, and found that the general approach took an interesting angle, but on the whole, it failed to captivate me entirely. The prose is consistent, as is the thematic structure, but on some level it did not quite work for me as a reader.

I will end my review with this rather prescient quote from The Secret Life of Books, concerning inheritance. Mole muses, as, I imagine, do many readers in possession of their own libraries: ‘What will become of my books? Not the ones I write, but the ones I own. No doubt, I have too many, and there will have to be some winnowing over the years ahead as I inevitably acquire more. But I’m equally certain that I’ll never get rid of all my books, and that when I do I’ll still own some of them. The paperbacks will probably be falling apart by then, but some of the hardbacks will easily survive me by many years. Books endure. And so – whether sold, gifted, donated or bequeathed – my books will find their ways to other owners and readers.’

5 thoughts on “‘The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words’ by Tom Mole ***

  1. When I’m dead and gone, my children will fight over who gets which books! I have a hard enough time holding on to them now ! I love the sound of this book, I’ll definitely have to read it. Thanks for the review.

  2. My partner has been making noises about what I want done with my 1500 books (perhaps slightly less now I’ve started weeding them) should I predecease her, but I’ve not furnished her with an answer yet as I have no intention of popping my clogs just yet…

    I’ve seen the odd review of this which has taken exception to the vignette approach Mole takes here, but I have to say I’m not averse to it, especially if the personal anecdotes reveal a fellow lover of books in their own right as well as verbal dispensers of stories and ideas.

    • Glad to hear it! I thankfully haven’t had to have such a conversation yet, but my books are spread over two houses, so the full effect isn’t quite known yet…

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