Who can resist a brown paper package tied up with string? Okay, so the string is actually a lovely, blue, Heywood Hill ribbon, but you get the idea. Was the packaging the only reason I signed up for one of the bookshop’s subscriptions services? Being a reader, the answer is no. But it sure didn’t hurt. In fact the aesthetic experience of a Heywood Hill subscription is a delight from start to finish. Take a look at their webpage, it’s a perfect blend of old and new. And it just gets better from there.
For those who don’t know, Heywood Hill is an independent bookstore in Mayfair in London that opened in 1936–back when one didn’t need to insert the word independent to describe it. From 1942 to 1945 Nancy Mitford worked there (a writer whose letters I like more than I like her fiction). With all the time I have spent in London over the years I have never actually made it to the shop. I thought I was going to get there at the end of August, but I had so little time I only managed about an hour at the original Daunt Books which was near our hotel.
When I got back to the U.S. I decided to take the plunge and sign up for Heywood Hill’s “A Year in Books”. One book a month for 12 months. I chose the paperback option because I prefer to read paperbacks and it was less expensive. The store claims to offer a bespoke service, choosing books specifically for you based on a “consultation” with one of their booksellers. But would they really get me and my reading tastes? Since I didn’t manage an in-person visit, my consultation happened via a web form. There were 8 questions in total:
- Would you like to receive fiction, non-fiction or a mix of both?
- Which three books have you loved?
- Do you have a favourite author(s)? If so who?
- Is there a particular genre or area of interest you would like to explore?
- What are some of your interests beyond reading?
- Is there any genre/author that you really don’t like?
- Are there any particular books that you know you would like to receive during the course of the year?
- Is there any other information that you would like us to know about your reading?
I wish to heck I had saved a copy of my answers. I mean, I know in general how I answered, but I wish I had the details at hand. I’m pretty sure I threw Ali Smith under the bus and indicated that I really didn’t want something that was too clever with hard-to-follow narratives.
On the positive side, I said that I wanted to get UK published novels that were on the newish side that would be harder for me to get in the US. Since I asked for paperbacks I knew I wouldn’t be getting things hot off the press, but I’m okay with that. Gives a chance for the wheat to separate from the publicity chaff.
When I got the first of my 12 books this month, after being delighted with the packaging, I was a little put off by the cover of the book itself. Stock-photo covers are close to my least favorite type of cover. Couple that with the title and I was more than a little worried that I had been given a fluffy clunker that misinterpreted my predilection for books by and about women. However, I knew I could never write this blog post and share these great pictures without being able to comment on the book that was specially chosen for me. So, unlike my usual modus operandi of not reading anything that was purchased recently, I sat down to read it as soon as I finished the book I had been reading at the time.
Much to my surprise, I ended up loving Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak, proving the adage about book covers. It had time shifts in the narrative–which can really trip me up and which I am pretty sure I warned them about–but the shifts were the kind I like, clearly labeled and easy to follow. The story itself was right up my alley. It was kind of a retrospective coming of age tale about a non-practicing Muslim woman in Istanbul who had gone to Oxford to study. It wasn’t a work of art necessarily–probably why I liked it–but it was smart and well-written, and improved my limited understanding of life in Turkey and the Muslim world in general.
So what is my verdict on the capabilities of Heywood Hill’s book whisperers? I would have to say that I am cautiously delighted. They definitely hit the nail on the head with their first selection, but was it just a fluke? It was newish (2016), unknown to me, took me out of my typical reading milieu but in a way that was totally enjoyable and in a way that I asked for. But will they be able to follow it up 11 more times? We shall see. Stay tuned for the monthly updates.