22 March 2024

Review: Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince book cover

Here's what I know for sure after reading this book. Robin Ince is extremely well read. Robin Ince knows a LOT about books. Robin Ince buys an extraordinary amount of books. Robin Ince is a bibliomaniac.

In his aptly titled book Bibliomaniac - An Obsessive's Tour of the Bookshops of Britain, author Robin Ince sets out to visit more than 100 bookshops in 100 days. The year was 2021 and bookshops were welcoming authors back for events. Reading this travelogue of sorts about his experiences along the way was interesting.

My introduction to Robin Ince came courtesy of attending the Professor Brian Cox Universal World Tour in June 2019 and a few years later, the Professor Brian Cox Horizons - A 21st Century Space Odyssey in October 2022. Robin Ince was the award-winning comedian and warm-up act for Cox and finding out he was an obsessive book lover piqued my interest.

Ince declares early on that books define him, books are the reason he stopped drinking heavily and that he sleeps with books piled on the bed and I'll admit I began to worry a little. In the Introduction he lays his bibliomania bare:
"At one stage my house became so swamped with books that I donated more than 1,000 of them to Leicester Prison and got rid of a further 5,000 more to charities. And yet I know that my house is still overrun, always on the cusp of being justifiable grounds for divorce." Page 4
This was another dual audio and print reading experience, and the occasional mention of an interesting sounding book or anecdote motivated me to put this down and head off to find out more. Here's one in reference to Charles Darwin in Chapter 6:
"There are no new tattoos to see after the show tonight, but I have a happy conversation with a shy young person who has recently become inspired to study horticulture. This leads to yet another conversation about Charles Darwin, this time about his earthworm experiments - any excuse to bring up the bassoon." Page 160
There were many in jokes along the way like this one about the bassoon* but I didn't understand many of them because I lacked the broad depth of knowledge on a variety of subjects required to chuckle along and marvel at the author's treasure trove of interesting and engaging facts.

Ince readily confesses that he doesn't read books end to end or sequentially, and instead he dips in and out of them in a fashion that started to stress me out. I have a completely different approach to reading and acquiring books, and despite our shared love of books and reading, I couldn't relate to his reading style:
"I am sometimes asked how I read so much. I commit the cardinal sin among some bookish people: I leave books unfinished. I hop in and out of them, grabbing an anecdote, an idea or a philosophy and then putting them on the teetering 'to be continued' pile." Page 4
I don't mind leaving a book unfinished, but I don't understand how a reader can grab an anecdote or philosophy in any detail with this approach and Ince readily confesses that in his desire to know everything, he ends up knowing nothing. Here's a taste of his reading style, can you relate?
"I have half a bottle of red, a packet of pistachio cookies and solitude. I spread out my books and read five random pages from each one. Short of focus, I decide not to focus and read erratically, bouncing in and out of books until, exhausted by other people's ideas, I fall asleep with a book across my face." Page 266
While that might sound like absolute heaven to some book lovers, it sounds haphazard and chaotic to me and I found it hard to relate to his specific type of bibliomania.

Some of the conversations Ince has with customers, event attendees and booksellers sound truly fascinating and I bet meeting him in person would be a stimulating experience. I love hearing how he curates a different pile of books in each bookshop and uses them to inform the topic of his speech. This is a terrific way to ensure his presentations are always unique and never become stale, they also enable a last minute, ad hoc approach to the event that made the organiser in me feel uneasy.

Often rushing for the train or running overtime during his events - albeit with permission, but honestly, who's going to say no? - Ince relies on lifts from friends, booksellers and agents to get him to and from train stations and the more than 100 bookshops visited; often staying the night wherever he can.

The author is the kind of guy who buys his own books (Page 194) and in one chapter, he recalls taking a half full bottle of wine from his event to drink on the train trip home (Page 203) while reading a new acquisition. Barely mentioning his wife or family, Ince does tell us his wife doesn't want him bringing books back from the book tour, so he sneaks home at one point to offload a tonne of books and then stealthily leaves again. What a guy!

Despite considering myself somewhat well read and reasonably knowledgable about books, I could probably count on one hand the number of books I'd actually heard of or read myself from the hundreds mentioned throughout the 300+ pages. While I focus on non fiction and relatively recent fiction, the author's interests seem to orbit around non fiction (so many memoirs) and horror novels.

Aspects of my reaction to Bibliomaniac reminded me of my experience reading Back Story by David Mitchell, in so far as I think I'd have been better off admiring the work of both authors and comedians from afar, rather than delving deeper and reading their memoir.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince wasn't the TBR expanding experience I hoped it would be. I didn't add a single book mentioned to my TBR although I did do some serious Googling. I never found myself looking forward to the next chapter, wondering, "oooh, I wonder what he’ll find in Leeds" or "I wonder what obscure title he'll discover in the 37th Oxfam charity shop of the tour."

I've concluded Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince has a somewhat limited reading appeal, so readers familiar with the bookshops on the tour and who are extraordinarily well read, love collecting rare and valuable books, enjoy horror and find almost any topic fascinating will love this. I find many topics interesting too, but I don't buy books with a plan to never read more than a few pages.

* Apparently Darwin tested the hearing of earthworms by having his son play his bassoon really loudly to prove they don't have ears or a sense of hearing.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. I enjoyed this more than you it seems, though I agree his method of reading is chaotic.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it more than I did Shelleyrae, although you also read more than I do so I wonder if there's a correlation?


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!