If I Could Only Have One Bookish Adventure in My Life, I’d Choose This One

If you were around last time, you’ll remember that I promised a life-altering post about bookish Bath, a town that smelled terrible a couple centuries ago but is fine now. I’m delivering on that promise today.

A year or two ago, my friend Anna mentioned a bookstore in Bath that offers what they call a Reading Spa. It was the coolest thing I had ever heard of, and I vowed to follow in her footsteps at the earliest opportunity.

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The best bookstore name since Shelf Indulgence

When you arrive at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for your Reading Spa appointment, you begin by sitting down with a staff member in the “bibliotherapy room” to have a one-on-one chat about your favorite books, authors, genres, themes, and so on. The bibliotherapist feeds you cake and tea and then disappears for ten minutes or so.

Scenes from Tintin grace the staircase.

Why hello, Tintin. Didn’t expect to see you there

When they return, it’s with a huge stack of books specially selected for you based on the chat you had. The bibliotherapist then talks you through each book, one by one, offering a plot teaser and the reasons it’s recommended for you. That done, you’re left alone to make the agonizing Sophie’s Choice of which books to take home (the voucher comes with £45 toward purchases), all the while stuffing yourself with tea and cake.

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The preciouses

My husband (let’s call him Spiderman) quickly jumped on board my Reading Spa bandwagon, because:

a) it sounded ridiculously cool, obviously,

b) we bought a new bookshelf recently and decided it was time to grow our book family, and

c) we both struggle with the age-old conundrum “don’t-want-to-waste-time-reading-books-we-don’t-like-but-can’t-possibly-know-if-we-like-a-book-until-we’ve-read-it.”

When I called to reserve a time slot, I was asked whether we wanted to share a spa session or book separate ones—in other words, is our taste in books similar or different? I LOLed and said our favorite books would scoff at each other if forced to use the same sidewalk or elevator. Separate spas was the way to go.

My bibliotherapist’s name was Nic, and he is someone I’d happily share a canoe or a bunker with. I came prepared with several lists and specified that classics should be avoided at all costs. (This seems like the appropriate time to mention my rosy-cheeked glory at being 2/3 of the way done with The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.)

My lists looked something like this:

Likes:

  • Contemporary and historical fiction
  • Travel writing
  • High-quality YA
  • Intelligence, insight, and wit
  • Lots of humor and a little bit of romance

Dislikes:

  • Poor/lazy writing
  • Weak female characters
  • Dark/depressing themes

I included an utterly incomplete index of my favorite authors:

  • Nick Hornby
  • Bill Bryson
  • Jane Austen
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Mhairi McFarlane

And a quick briefing on a few of my least favorite authors:

  • John Steinbeck
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • John Updike
  • Veronica Roth

I told Nic that I would especially love to find another Nick Hornby and/or Bill Bryson, and his reaction was a well-masked but resounding “Duh.” He said that Bill Bryson is, frankly, in a class of his own—a huge talent who is often underrated because his books are funny instead of S.E.R.I.O.U.S. I inched toward mild anxiety (Has Nic given up on me already???), but by the time our book chat was over, he claimed to have, if anything, too much information to go on. Plus I’d eaten a whole cake by that point.

Deep in discussion on crucial book matters

Deep in discussion on crucial book matters

When he returned from his quest, a tower of 22 books was cradled in his arms. He picked them up one by one and told me about:

  • The son of a drug baron who desperately wants, for his eighth birthday, a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia (Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos)
  • A blind French girl and an orphaned German boy who cross paths during World War II (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr)
  • Hiking adventures in Afghanistan penned by a literary “ancestor” of Bill Bryson (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby)
  • A series of interconnected short stories that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

And much, much more:

  • Almost Heaven by Martin Fletcher
  • What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
  • How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
  • The Vacationers by Emma Straub
  • Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman
  • I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
  • Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
  • May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
  • American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
  • The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
= happiness

= happiness

I took home the ones in bold above and began reading The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first installment of Patrick Ness’ YA trilogy Chaos Walking) on Sunday. I finished all three books in the series by midday yesterday, having put work and social life on hold until I’d reached the heart-stopping finale. Gripping and superbly written, Chaos Walking turned out to be the very definition of un-putdownable, if un-putdownable were an actual word. If it’s possible to read a book ferociously, then that is what I did. I could hear the pages shouting “Ow!” in protest as I tore through them.

So I’d say Mr. B’s is a tentative success.

My husband, Spiderman, arrived with enthusiasm for his own Reading Spa and left with a crush on his bibliotherapist, Ed. His prep looked like this:

Likes:

  • Fantasy and sci-fi (especially post-apocalyptic)
  • Historical fiction
  • Well-paced plots with unpredictable twists and conclusions
  • Rich, in-depth world building in new settings

Dislikes:

  • Long, tedious descriptions
  • Plot points that are “too easy”/any sort of deus ex machina

Some favorite books/series:

  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Lion of Macedon by David Gemmell
  • Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
  • ASH: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Ed and Spiderman, stroking a nonexistent goatee

Ed with Spiderman, stroking a nonexistent goatee

And his eventual book tower looked like this:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • City of Stairs by R. J. Bennett
  • The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  • A History of Histories by John Burrow
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
  • The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
  • Pastoralia by George Saunders
  • The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
  • The Red Knight by Miles Cameron 
  • The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon
  • Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
  • The City & the City by China Miéville
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In case you were wondering how Spiderman spends his time when he’s not out saving NYC from itself

The most exciting find for Spiderman was Ancillary Justice, winner of every major science fiction award in 2014 and written by a woman.

So there. I hope I’ve done my book advising duty for the day and paid Mr. B’s its proper tribute. Nic and Ed are largely to blame for our titanic suitcases on the way home, and for this mammoth blog post. Also my friend Anna. But let’s all stop pretending I minded for even a second.

YOU'RE WELCOME.

YOU’RE WELCOME.

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11 thoughts on “If I Could Only Have One Bookish Adventure in My Life, I’d Choose This One

  1. Eric Newby is an odd partner for Bill Bryson – Id never have thought of putting them in the same bucket. But I could be completely wrong so will look forward to hearing your thoughts when you get to read Newby

    • Interesting to hear. I believe what he said was that Newby is someone Bill Bryson would have read in his early years (and a potential influence on his work). He added that Newby is more adventurous than Bryson, so for me it will be a fresh take on travel writing.

  2. You had me at “book spa”… Because seriously, books+spa = what can go wrong with that? I had never heard of this place before, but now I can’t wait to go. Also, it’s great to see Spiderman in real life. I was sure he loved books and often traveled to the UK.

    • My friend said when she heard the term “book spa,” she thought someone might read a book soothingly to her. :) And yes, I always thought of Spiderman as a bookish Anglophile…

  3. Oh… Oh my god… I MUST DO THIS!!

    This sounds so amazing and fun and combines all of my favorite things: talking about books, discovering new books, taking home books, and cake.

    I’ve heard very good things about Ancillary Justice. Not only was it written by a woman but all the character pronouns are “she” (regardless of their actual sex). That’s so fascinating to me and can’t wait to read it myself.

    Best line: “our favorite books would scoff at each other if forced to use the same sidewalk” :D

    Okay this note’s long enough. Time to go look up airfare to Bath.

    • I am seriously already planning my next Reading Spa. And yes, Spiderman mentioned the use of “she” in Ancillary Justice, so I know exactly what you’re talking about! Very cool, and an interesting step forward (or… laterally?) in larger cultural conversations about feminism.

  4. That sounds like an experience I need to make. There are so many books on my to read list, but I also absolutely understand that “I don’t want to read books that I don’t like….” dilemma.

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