No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working-Class Reader by Mark Hodkinson

Review by Liz Dexter

While he’s now a publisher and editor with his own imprint, Hodkinson grew up in a terrace house in Rochdale with one book in the house and a suspicion in the family of reading for pleasure. He takes us through his life from then until now, with plenty of detail about his school days and adolescence and a perhaps unexpected deep dive into the tribulations of being an indie publisher, including distressing trips to the tip to dispose of excess copies. There are tales of writers read and writers met, sometimes the same people, of books encountered and books acquired: a real joy for any reader, especially a fan of books about books. It’s also full of music and musicians, which I wasn’t expecting, either, with lists of his current TBR (to be read) piles and their contents to be treated like the bonus track on a record. 

Now, like the author, I have a house stuffed with books, bookcases in funny places (I discovered in the last few years that a tall IKEA CD rack can be repurposed and put in many a cranny that won’t consider giving room to a conventional bookcase) and so the opening of the book after the foreword setting out his stall will likely send shivers down your spine if you do, too – that nightmare of moving house in the rain! From there, we go back to the very beginning: how did he end up going from a house with one book to a house full of the things and a serious case of BABLE (Book Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy)? 

The books, reading and publishing stuff is interspersed with the story of Hodkinson’s grandad, who had a serious mental health condition but was also his friend, supporter and companion. The pieces about him make a separate track through the book, moving and important, never denying the impact his illness had on other members of the family. This is a brave thread to run through the book, but the author is technically accomplished enough to make it work well, with the hint of something special coming at the end planted at the very beginning. 

I found Hodkinson’s discovery of books and reading very moving, even though it seems unprepossessing at first: he doesn’t much like the library, unlike all those authors (he lists some) who were ill in their childhoods and/or loved the library, finding it intimidating, and he just reads anything when he starts, local books with violent heroes, all sorts. But that’s rather lovely, isn’t it: he finds reading and he’ll read anything, and whether we found books in a cardboard box marked “Brainy” on a market stall or worked our way round the village library in alphabetical order, everyone who loves books did that at some stage. And his stories of the second-hand bookshops, often in seaside towns, with their invariable lean-to at the back with the jumble of stock, are lovely and lead the reader into their own reminiscences. 

He is a little … brisk about my beloved Virago Press at one point, finding their covers to usually feature “a glum woman looking out of a window, or, for a little variety, a glum woman sitting on a chair looking out of a window” but you know what, when I had a look at some Virago covers, a lot of them do seem to feature a woman, perhaps glum doing just that, and he does make the point that they looked drab next to “the golden orange glow of a Penguin,” so who am I to argue? 

I loved reading about his college years, his sociology tutor and the discovery of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man and its uber-sociology tutor, Kirk. There are several moments where he’s in just the right place at the right time to discover particular works and also working-class writers, shaped nicely into the book but authentic, too. 

The much shorter Part 2 “Where Are We Going”, after tracking through Hodkinson’s life and reading life, looks at the publishing industry now, including issues of representation and diversity. Then we get the anticipated appendices, including notes on items and sketches found in books and the details of his TBR piles: destined, if nothing else, to make the rest of us feel better about our single (whole bookcases of) TBR shelves, etc. 

Funny and serious, diverse, diverting and going on diversions, there’s something for every book lover here, I’d say. 

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Liz Dexter is a middle-class reader who blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Mark Hodkinson, No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working-Class Reader (Canongate, 2022).‎ 978-1786899972, 368pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. I like the sound of this one–I think any bibliophile will love it.

    The ‘glum women’ made me laugh, and also to run and look up the viragos I have, but I only found Eudora Welty–but that has a man–somewhat glum!

  2. OMG! I suffer from BABLE too. I’ll be acquiring a copy of this book to add to my piles.

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