The Secret Life of Books by Tom Mole

If you’re like me and author Tom Mole, the first thing you do in any new acquaintance’s house is to scrutinize their bookshelves, whether openly or surreptitiously. You can learn all kinds of surprising things about what someone is interested in, and holds dear, from the books on display. (And if they don’t have any books around, should you really be friends?)

Mole runs the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a professor of English Literature and Book History. His specialist discipline and this book’s subtitle – “Why They Mean More than Words” – are clues that here he’s concerned with books more as physical and cultural objects than as containers of knowledge and stories:

“reading them is only one of the things we do with books, and not always the most significant. For a book to signal something about you, you don’t necessarily need to have read it.”

From the papyrus scroll to the early codex, from a leather-bound first edition to a mass-market paperback, and from the Kindle to the smartphone reading app, Mole asks how what we think of as a “book” has changed and what our different ways of accessing and possessing books say about us. He examines the book as a basis of personal identity and relationships with other people. His learned and digressive history of the book contains many pleasing pieces of trivia about authors, libraries and bookshops, making it a perfect gift for bibliophiles. I also enjoyed the three “interludes,” in which he explores three paintings that feature books.

There are a lot of talking points here for book lovers. Here are a few:

  • Are you a true collector, or merely an “accumulator” of books? (Mole is the latter, as am I. “I have a few modest antiquarian volumes, but most of my books are paperbacks … I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, and I suspect the books on my shelves reassure me that I really have learned something along the way.”)
  • In Anne Fadiman’s scheme, are you a “courtly” or a “carnal” reader? The former keeps a book pristine, while the latter has no qualms about cracking spines or dog-earing pages. (I’m a courtly reader, with the exception that I correct all errors in pencil.)
  • Is a book a commercial product or a creative artifact? (“This is why authors quite often cross out the printed version of their name when they sign. Their action negates the book’s existence as a product of industry or commerce and reclaims it as the product of their own artistic effort.”)
  • How is the experience of reading an e-book, or listening to an audiobook, different from reading a print book? (There is evidence that we remember less when we read on a screen, because we don’t have the physical cues of a book in our hand, plus “most people could in theory fit a lifetime’s reading on a single e-reader.”)

I would particularly recommend this to readers who have enjoyed Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Alberto Manguel’s various books on libraries, and Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From.


A personal note: I was delighted to come across a mention of one of the visiting professors on my Master’s course in Victorian Literature at the University of Leeds, Matthew Rubery. In the autumn term of 2005, he taught one of my seminars, “The Reading Revolution in the Victorian Period,” which had a Book History slant and included topics like serial publication, anonymity and the rise of the media. A few years ago Rubery published an academic study of audiobooks, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, which Mole draws on for his discussion.


Two more favorite passages:

“when I’m reading, I’m not just spending time with a book, but investing time in cultivating a more learned version of myself.”

“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”

My rating:


The Secret Life of Books will be published by Elliott & Thompson on Thursday 19th September. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.


20 responses

  1. Unsurprisingly, this one’s going straight on my list. Absolutely agree with your first paragraph which is a very strong argument against ebooks, for me, plus the lost pleasure of checking out what your fellow rail/tube passengers are reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point — I’ve occasionally been asked “what are you reading?” when I have my Kindle out. But our open-plan lounge / dining room is absolutely stuffed full of bookcases. No shortage of books for nosy readers to peek at!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sounds really interesting. I’m not a book-as-object person – I prefer reading paper books to e-books, but I don’t collect any special books and I actually like my books to look dog-eared!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s enough here about books in the culture, and in relation to technology, that I think you’d still find it interesting. So you’re an accumulator (like me) and a ‘carnal’ reader (Anne Fadiman’s term, not mine!), unlike me. They’re your books and you can do whatever you like with them 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But I would never write in a novel! 🙂


  3. I’d never have thought there was an academic field about the history of books but what a fascinating one that sounds. Seeing that quote “For a book to signal something about you, you don’t necessarily need to have read it” reminds me of some magazine articles I saw last year which were essentially suggesting you use books as decorative items. So much more now than vases and bowls apparently. Yes I did sigh when I saw those recommendations…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know of a couple of large secondhand bookshops that sell “Books by the Foot” in certain colours or bindings to be used in interior decorating, on pub shelves, etc. It does seem rather against the spirit of book collecting. But I think often it is a way of putting superfluous/unsaleable books to use instead of sending them for pulping, so maybe it’s better than nothing?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I need to read this book! I’m a courtly accumulator, (who enjoys the odd collectable) and hates reading books on a screen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We’re pretty similar in our approach to print books (but I do read e-books, too).


  5. This sounds really fascinating Rebecca, books about books are the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is something special about them, isn’t there?


  6. Lovely! I’m a huge fan of Manguel’s books so this may well be one for me!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I loved Ex Libris so this one goes on my wishlist.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I enjoy books about books; am also a Manguel fan, and have a copy of Ex Libris. Will add the title to my Wanted List. thanks for the heads-up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent! Glad I could pique your interest.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This looks marvellous and thank you for the bit about Iris Murdoch you let me know about. I have put this firmly (in bold) on my Wish List.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. OH, yes please: lovely.

    Signed: An accumulator in recovery, still-and-forever courtly.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great review! I can’t wait to read this! 😃📖

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] one respect in which I differ from the Fadiman family, though. Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books had reminded me of Fadiman’s division of readers into “courtly” and “carnal” lovers of […]


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