The Bookseller's Tale by Martin Latham review – a literary celebration

Latham, a bookseller for 35 years, has put together a heady mix of history, philosophy, anecdotes and entertaining facts

What most people know about the American librarian Melvil Dewey is his phenomenal classification technique, the Dewey decimal system, which is still used in 135 countries. Less well known is how he liked to classify people, too. In a chapter entitled “Dubious Dewey”, Martin Latham describes how the great librarian created groups from A to D, banning all in the D group – Jews, African-Americans, Cubans and the “new rich” – from his Lake Placid resort. He was also a prolific groper of women. Latham speculates that Dewey’s hypocrisy, and his “obsessively domineering persona”, were what caused his lifelong constipation and piles.

This is a book that is down on banning, rigidity, abuse of power and all kinds of snobbery, bookish and otherwise. It celebrates stories, scribbling in margins and the collecting, cherishing and even kissing of books – something done with surprising frequency, apparently. Latham, a bookseller for 35 years, currently runs Waterstones Canterbury, where he proudly filed the biggest petty cash claim in the chain’s history to pay for the excavation of a Roman bath house under its floor. But this is not one of those funny “anecdotes from a bookshop” books that have recently been popular – though anecdotes there are aplenty. It is rather a history and celebration of all things bookish, from Alexander the Great’s unusual habit of reading silently in an age when all stories were oral stories, through printing, chapbooks, book hawkers and beyond.

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