Review: Once Upon a Tome, by Oliver Darkshire

Russ Allbery eagle at
Wed Apr 12 19:21:48 PDT 2023

Once Upon a Tome
by Oliver Darkshire

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Copyright: 2022
Printing:  2023
ISBN:      1-324-09208-4
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     243

The full title page of this book, in delightful 19th century style, is:

  Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, wherein
  the theory of the profession is partially explained, with a variety
  of insufficient examples, by Oliver Darkshire. Interspersed with
  several diverting FOOTNOTES of a comical nature, ably ILLUSTRATED by
  Rohan Eason, PUBLISHED by W.W. Norton, and humbly proposed to the
  consideration of the public in this YEAR 2023

That may already be enough to give you a feel for this book. Oliver
Darkshire works for Sotheran's Rare Books and Prints in London, most
notably running their highly entertaining Twitter account. This is his
first book.

If you have been hanging out in the right corners of Twitter, you have
probably been anticipating the release of this book, and may already
have your own copy. If you have not (and to be honest it's increasingly
dubious whether there are right corners of Twitter left), you're in for
a treat. Darkshire has made Sotheran's a minor Twitter phenomenon due
to tweets like this:

  CUSTOMER: oh thank heavens I have been searching for a rare book
  expert with the knowledge to solve my complex problem

  ME (extremely and unhelpfully specialized): ok well the words are
  usually on the inside and I can see that's true here, so that's a
  good start

  I find I know lots of things until anyone asks me about it or there
  is a question to answer, at which point I know nothing, I am a void,
  a tragic bucket of ignorance

My hope was that Once Upon a Tome would be the same thing at book
length, and I am delighted to report that's exactly what it is. By the
time I finished reading the story of Darkshire's early training, I knew
I was going to savor every word.

  The hardest part, though, lies in recording precisely in what ways a
  book has survived the ravages of time. An entire lexicon of
  book-related terminology has evolved over hundreds of years for
  exactly this purpose — terminology that means absolutely nothing to
  the average observer. It's traditional to adopt this baroque
  language when describing your books, for two reasons. The first is
  that the specific language of the book trade allows you to be
  exceedingly accurate and precise without using hundreds of words,
  and the second is that the elegance of it serves to dull the blow a
  little. Most rare books come with some minor defects, but that
  doesn't mean one has to be rude about it.

You will learn something about rare book selling in this book, and more
about Darkshire's colleagues, but primarily this is a book-length
attempt to convey the slightly uncanny experience of working in a rare
bookstore in an entertaining way. Also, to be fully accurate, it is an
attempt shift the bookstore sideways in the reader's mind into a
fantasy world that mostly but not entirely parallels ours; as the
introduction mentions, this is not a strictly accurate day-by-day
account of life at the store, and stories have been altered and
conflated in the telling.

Rare bookselling is a retail job but a rather strange one, with its own
conventions and unusual customers. Darkshire memorably divides rare
book collectors into Smaugs and Draculas: Smaugs assemble vast lairs of
precious items, Draculas have one very specific interest, and one's
success at selling a book depends on identifying which type of customer
one is dealing with. Like all good writing about retail jobs, half of
the fun is descriptions of the customers.

  The Suited Gentlemen turn up annually, smartly dressed in matching
  suits and asking to see any material we have on Ayn Rand. Faces
  usually obscured by large dark glasses, they move without making a
  sound, and only travel in pairs. Sometimes they will bark out a
  laugh at nothing in particular, as if mimicking what they think
  humans do.

There are more facets than the typical retail job, though, since the
suppliers of the rare book trade (book runners, estate sales, and
collectors who have been sternly instructed by spouses to trim down
their collections) are as odd and varied as the buyers.

This sort of book rests entirely on the sense of humor of the author,
and I thought Darkshire's approach was perfect. He has the knack of
poking fun at himself as much as he pokes fun at anyone around him.
This book conveys an air of perpetual bafflement at stumbling into a
job that suits him as well as this one does, praise of the skills of
his coworkers, and gently self-deprecating descriptions of his own
efforts. Combine that with well-honed sentences, a flair for brief and
memorable description, and an accurate sense of how long a story should
last, and one couldn't ask for more from this style of book.

  The book rest where the bible would be held (leaving arms free for
  gesticulation) was carved into the shape of a huge wooden eagle. I’m
  given to understand this is the kind of eloquent and confusing
  metaphor one expects in a place of worship, as the talons of the
  divine descend from above in a flurry of wings and death, but it
  seemed to alarm people to come face to face with the beaked fury of
  God as they entered the bookshop.

I've barely scratched the surface of great quotes from this book. If
you like rare books, bookstores, or even just well-told absurd stories
of working a retail job, read this. It reminds me of True Porn Clerk
Stories, except with much less off-putting subject matter and even
better writing. (Interestingly to me, it also shares with those
stories, albeit for different reasons, a more complicated balance of
power between the retail worker and the customer than the typical
retail establishment.) My one wish is that I would have enjoyed more
specific detail about the rare books themselves, since Darkshire only
rarely describes successful retail transactions. But that's only a
minor quibble.

This was a pure delight from cover to cover and exactly what I was
hoping for when I preordered it. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-04-12


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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