Every day in the run up to Christmas, sometimes several times a day, the front doorbell rang with a parcel for one of my five sets of neighbours. Each time, I ran down six flights of stairs to scribble a hieroglyph for the man from the Royal Mail.
It has not been a season of ding-dongs-merrily-on-high, but of the ping of text messages – ‘A delivery coming today. Could you bear to…?’ – and the insistent buzz of the door. I regret revealing at the last residents’ meeting that I worked from home.
None of the parcels were for me. This time last year, I made a New Year’s resolution to give up my appalling Amazon habit. What with one-click ordering it had become fantasy shopping, clicking on Penguins as if they were penny sweets. I was spending hundreds of unthinking pounds – and never visiting the bookshops I claimed to cherish.
And I have stuck to it. With only one shameful lapse, I have bought my books in bookshops. What a joy it has been.
Had I bought my books online this year, I would never have learnt that the most shop-lifted books at Waterstones Notting Hill Gate were Yotam Ottolenghi’s. One conspiratorial bookseller revealed, as she returned from the stock room with a copy of the chef’s Jerusalem, that they were keeping Ottolenghi under lock and key. She had a hunch the books were being sold off a barrow in Portobello market. So great is the ardour for za’atar, tahini and charred okra in this part of London, it has sparked a local crime wave.
I am indebted, meanwhile, to the bookshop owner in Oxfordshire, who, observing that I had bought rather a lot of Virginia Woolf lately, suggested I might try something more uplifting. He was right. Weeks of reading Woolf’s diaries and letters had left me gloomy. He sent me away with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Fizzy grog and buttered eggs did me a world of good. An internet algorithm can only direct you to more of the same; it cannot anticipate that four Karl Ove Knausgaards have left you in glum, naval-gazing spirits and recommend a course of anti-depressant Trollope.
And nor does the internet enthuse about its favourite title by clutching the paperback to its chest, as one young man at Daunt on Marylebone High Street did. Pressing the book – Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net – to his Fair Isle jumper he advised that while he was ‘devoted’ to her first novel, it was not ‘quintessential’ Iris Murdoch. For that I needed The Sea, The Sea the most ‘Iris Murdoch, Iris Murdoch’ of her novels. It was a lovely bit of phrase-making.
It is the pleasure of lines of conversation eavesdropped in bookshops that has fully turned me against online book shopping. In Winchester, on the last night of term, I found myself in P & G Wells, the bookshop next to the college. Scholars, clever and bumptious, were queuing to cash in their book tokens awarded for top marks. The phrase they all used, announcing their winnings to the bookseller, was that they had ‘raised books.’ This, an old boy explained, was ‘awarded by a div don to the best man in each half.’ It might have been another language. Chaperoning parents understood, and beamed.
I bought a copy of Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! and fervently hoped that if I am alive, alive oh, as she is, at 97, I will still be buying my Christmas books from proper shops with oak fronts and bevelled glass windows.