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The bookshelf is a ubiquitous piece of furniture. Most people have one. A surprising number of places have one too. Sometimes you see them where you’d expect them, in hotels and waiting rooms, sometimes where you wouldn’t, like train stations and the odd park. 

But most people, when they refer to a bookshelf, refer to more than just the piece of furniture and, often, more than the books on it. They refer to their bookshelf, something which, more than being the sum of its parts, reflects them; their taste, their interests, and perhaps even where they’re from or how old they are. 

We find ourselves beyond our favoured and familiar literary terrains, and with no easy path back to comfort.

This doesn’t come out in just the books, either. The arrangement might be personal to you, too. Poetry here, novels – in alphabetical order – there, then history, then biography. What philosophy? Or it could be in size order, publishing house order, or, if you read a lot of interior design magazines, colour order. Maybe there isn’t an order, but then even that, too, is personal. The simple fact is that the bookshelf is always personal: you can’t escape that it’s yours.

Unless you decide to spend time with someone else’s bookshelf. This probably isn’t something most of us would voluntarily do under normal circumstances – and for perfectly understandable reasons. We like what we like and, for the most part, when we seek something new, we look to what other people we respect like. At the moment, though, our circumstances aren’t normal. 

More than a few people have found themselves stuck in places they wouldn’t otherwise be, with (if they’re lucky) shelves occupied by books they wouldn’t otherwise read. We find ourselves beyond our favoured and familiar literary terrains, and with no easy path back to comfort – what with bookshops being closed and delivery times being frustratingly long – we’re prompted to read around or not read at all. And so if you like to read you have no choice but to explore.

"Had it not been in that apartment I’d probably have snubbed it"INSTAGRAM/caffeineandcommas

This isn’t such a bad thing, either. I had the curious fortune of ending up stranded in an apartment in locked-down Venice for the best part of March and a small part of April, with only a mercifully Anglophile bookshelf for company. It wouldn’t be right to say that during my time there I put my tastes aside – after all, there’s still a choice to be made about which of the books we might not have otherwise read we will, in the end, read – but they were, simply because I was having to work within a restricted set of options, reoriented. 

This is neither surprising nor unnatural, but it is an unusual opportunity. In the near-month I was there I got through a distinctly unimpressive number of books – three, maybe four – but even this was enough to see a subtle shift in the way I look at my own shelf and, perhaps more importantly, a reevaluation of the bases on which I’d formed it. 

The first of these was Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow, which swiftly did away with my unfounded prejudice against top-ten lists (it’s a New York Times bestseller). Had it not been in that apartment I’d probably have snubbed it, thinking arrogantly that nothing in the charts section of an airport WHSmith could be of any interest to me, or anyone else for that matter.

Its walls grow outward rather than inward – something particularly welcome during days of lockdown

I’m glad it wasn’t, because, within the first chapter or so, it becomes clear why Towles’ second novel has sold so well. Centred around a fictional Count, Alexander Ilyich Rostov, and his confinement in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, its narrative takes in Russia’s shift from Tsarist to Communist and the variously surprising, humorous, and moving ways in which that shift impacts the Count’s life. 

The most obvious of these is the Count’s life-imprisonment in the hotel – and it’s this that gives the novel its thrust. Beginning on his first days in the hotel and following a chronological line from there, the narrative is such that we as readers find ourselves always in step with the Count; our sense of dismay at the prospect of his confinement both appears and fades with his. In due time it gives way to familiarity and affection for the hotel borne out of curiosity and rendered in hugely enjoyable, exceptionally well-written descriptions of all of its minute workings. 

In Towles’ prose, and with his Count for company, our containment in the world of the Metropol turns out to be an expansive rather than a contractive experience. Through patient observation and a stoic acceptance of circumstance, its walls grow outward rather than inward – something particularly welcome during days of lockdown.


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There were other pleasures, too. After picking up Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, I promptly put it down again; its formula of quickly-paced successions of mystery and then discovery demanded a one-sitting race of a read to get to the final full reveal – and so revealed the reason for its endless reprints and adaptations for TV and cinema. Likewise, Somerset Maugham; in this case, though, it was replaced as quickly as it was picked up after only a few pages, the conclusion – ‘not my type of thing’ – being clear enough. 

But this seemed another gift from the unfamiliar shelf: knowing what you don’t like is surely as important as knowing what you do, and finding out for free can’t hurt. The greatest gift, though, was to my own shelf. The snobbishness and timid tastes that limited it are now diminished, and its rows more open to new additions of all sorts and all sources – top-ten detective thrillers from the airport WHSmith very much included.

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