Sixpence House by Paul Collins
Sixpence House certainly has an arresting subtitle–Lost in A Town of Books. While that might conjure up more fantastical images (am I the only fantasy geek who gets disappointed when she discovers that, say, Crescent Dawn is not a fantasy novel?), it’s a slim little memoir in the “year in the life” vein, albeit without any wacky experiments. It came to me by way of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, as many of my books do. After the dizzyingly wonderful ride of The Sundering, I needed some nonfiction to bring me back down to earth and cleanse the palette.
Sixpence House follows its author, Paul Collins, as he and his family move to Hay-on-Wye, a small village in Wales that boasts forty antiquarian bookstores. As Paul and his wife look for a place to put down roots, Collins works for Richard Booth, the “King of Hay” who turned the town into the antiquarian book capital of the world, finishes work on Banvard’s Folly, his first book, and contemplates his British and American heritage.
Collins’s bibliophilia, while focused on books published previous to 1920s, will be familiar to many readers who pick up this book. While he’s fine with leaving San Francisco and settling down in a rural Welsh town, he panics over having to move at least two thousand books overseas. He loves discovering obscure gems that will never be reprinted; his favorite bedtime reading is Recreations of a Country Parson, an unassuming collection of thoughts and sermons from the 1860s. Collins is full of literary anecdotes that make for great fun, such as the history of I Was Hitler’s Maid and the first glimpse behind the scenes for a book (by Harriet Beecher Stowe, no less!). But Collins can be a bit biting about the States and especially about writing–he scoffs at the idea that characters can be willful and take over a book. Perhaps it’s because my characters are certainly willful (I’ve had one character escape on a boat on me), but I found it quite flippant, especially since Collins is a nonfiction writer. While Collins’ wit is delightful (such as his tirade on book “dust jackets” and the active chapter titles), there’s an edge to it that I’m not quite sure I like–it can be used well, but it can also be used poorly.
While the length and subject might convince a reader this is is something light and fluffy, there’s something a little deeper under the surface. Collins hasn’t come to terms with the whole concept of mortality quite yet (in this book, anyway), and he reflects on it a great deal–naturally, as he’s often rifling through books older than he is, and his grandmother passes away during his year in Hay. It’s reflected very naturally in the work and can be downright interesting, but it may also explain his more cynical outlook. I also found Collins’ failure in his quest interesting–he never finds a place to settle in Hay, and comes to the conclusion that, despite his heritage and love for the UK, he makes a poor Briton. It gives Sixpence House a a nice gravity that other books of a similar structure and premise often lack, in my experience.
I often fault nonfiction books for not having more of a focus, but Collins manages to make a fairly wide focus work–perhaps because he’s so comfortable in Hay that he never needs to stray outside of it in his narrative for long. He and his wife have visited so often they know their landlady, Diana, quite well, and Collins has family in the area. As they try to find a place to set down roots, Collins has plenty of time to ponder books, the differences between the United States and the UK, and the town of Hay. There’s definite movement to Sixpence House; it’s definitely not meandering, but a nice saunter instead. There’s plenty of variety in Collins’ narrative of his year in Hay and the various literary anecdotes he pulls out constantly to keep things fresh. For nonfiction without a clearer purpose, that’s crucial–it means that this book is engaging while still retaining an open-ended charm that makes it delightful to read.
Bottom line: While advertising this book for all book lovers is a bit silly (Collins’ bibliophilia focuses solely on antiquarian books), it’s still a “year in the life” memoir improved with a dollop with gravity. While Collins can be a bit cynical and biting, his wit is usually delightful. Worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.