The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More than Words by Tom Mole

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Paperback review by Liz Dexter

Tom Mole, as Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Edinburgh, is certainly qualified to write this Christmas-present-worthy joy of a book about why books “mean more than words”. There’s a bit of everything in this gallimaufry of book facts and opinions, from the history of the printed word to musings on e-books and whatever you might find in between; a book you can read from cover to cover or dip into when the fancy takes you. I am not a collector of books for their appearance, but I will note that it’s a very pretty book, too, with a lovely pile of books highlighted in gold making up the cover image.

Very much not about the content of books, which of course can remain constant over many forms, covers and physical or electronic objects, this is a book about the book as an object, to be read, annotated and hopefully not but sometimes burnt, and also as the book as a tool to connect people, whether that be authors and readers, previous owners and new owners or members of book groups.

I felt seen early on when I came across a reference, in the chapter Book/Book, in a section about the way people shelve their books, to “the ones [the professor] had finished reading but not yet shelved somewhere,” as I have only just the other week cleared down four tall piles of books in this category from my own desk! There are many other little chimes of recognition for the booky person in the book, even though we’re only talking about books as objects here.

A major theme of the book is “the strange tenacity of the paper book”, as Mole seeks to explain just what books mean to us and how we relate to their form. I also loved his parallel discussion of the way a book can mean different things to different people (something that echoes my own interest in the way the text of a book can be read in so many different ways): an 300-year-old textbook with scribbled annotations can become a collector’s centrepiece, a paperback novel read on a flight and discarded a treasured possession of a child with few books. Many people love to see the signatures of the previous owners of a book in that book and to imagine the path it’s taken to reach them, and Mole and I have that in common, too. Other physical traces can include underlinings, notes, cracked spines leading to a book falling open at a particular passage or a seemingly pristine, unread copy (I’m quite good at leaving books looking unread and unnerving people I lend them to!).

The chapter on Book/Future returns to the e-book debate and mentions a point I’ve not seen raised elsewhere, that readers of genre fiction are more likely to use e-books, as the books they consume, often in great quantities, aren’t ones they tend to re-read, and were probably passed on to charity shops, etc., once they were finished with in print form. I certainly read more light novels on my Kindle these days, not needing indeed to keep them afterwards (especially when it’s harder to donate physical books at the moment). He also points out that buying physical books now, when e-books are so easy to buy and store is “gaining new kinds of significance” and also continuing to serve, as books always have, as an indicator of what kind of person we consider ourselves to be and wish to be considered to be.

I enjoyed the section on book clubs and circulating libraries (including his small daughter and her friends’ shared book collection) as well as the discussion of the other relationships that books foster through recommendation, debate, book sharing, book giving and lending, and even inheriting, in the chapter on relationships. Another fascinating area is the arrangement of books, in people’s homes through bookshops up to huge and even national copyright libraries, demonstrating what people, organisations and even states find to be important or less important.

Shelving books might seem like the lowliest task for the most unassuming librarians, of the humblest assistants on the bookshop’s staff … But shelving books is actually the mundane iteration of an ambitious project to organise our understanding of reality. It makes some ways of thinking about the world easier and others harder.

This section also touches on the places where classification systems have had to be updated as times, attitudes and cultures have changed.

Notable in the book are the three sections on three different art works, all featuring books, and one delineating a woman’s life through her books; these add a very different and interesting touch:

Walk into a library, and you find yourself in the middle of an argument about the shape of knowledge itself.

I’ve added personal touches to this review, and Mole does the same in his book, lamenting that now his wife has a Kindle, he has to ask her what she’s reading instead of just seeing it, and wondering what kind of books his daughter will collect and read over her lifetime. 

There are of course decent, full notes with bibliographical references and a good index – something I’ve come to expect from this careful publisher of high-quality books.

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Liz Dexter is an ex-librarian who used to shelve the M surnames in the local public library and likes books as objects while not objectifying extremely pretty ones. She’s certainly got enough of them to make an impact on anyone who enters her house, but also reads e-books from NetGalley and for lighter novels. She blogs at

Tom Mole, The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More than Words (Elliott & Thompson, 2020). 978-1783965298, 241 pp., paperback.

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  1. I got given this for Christmas last year, must now read it this year! Sounds utterly delightful.

  2. Ooh, I’m very interested in the idea of books as objects and enjoy thinking about the many different topics you mention, such as organization and why people still like paperbacks. Adding this to my to-read list.

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