A mix of memoir and narrative non-fiction, White Spines is a book about Nicholas Royle’s passion for Picador’s fiction and non-fiction publishing from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s.
It explores the bookshops and charity shops, the books themselves, and the way a unique collection grew and became a literary obsession.
Above all a love song to books, writers and writing.
Like most book bloggers, I love a book about books – and I’ve reviewed a few on this blog since its inception, with Cathy Rentzenbrink’s Dear Reader being a recent favourite. So when a bookish memoir blurbed by Cathy (she “didn’t want it to end and would like a gargantuan infinite edition”) crossed my blogging doorstep, I wasn’t going to say no to giving it a read!
White Spines is, as its subtitle suggests, about books and book collecting. A mix of part-memoir and part narrative non-fiction – with occasional detours into bookshop conversations and various surreal dreamscapes – the book details Nicholas Royle’s love of (obsession with?) his collection of white-spined Picador fiction and non-fiction. Like all good books about books, however, White Spines is more than the sum of its apparent parts. Whilst Royle’s passion for Picadors and love of book collecting provides the backbone of the book, White Spines is also a love letter to literature more widely, and to the power of books to captivate, enthrall, and transform.
Royle talks with wit, charm and intelligence about the joy of discovering a good secondhand bookshop, or the exhilaration that the bookworm feels at discovering a pristine edition on a charity shop shelf. He also captures perfectly that bookish obsession with presentation – the frustration of a publisher changing cover design mid-series, the horror of the TV tie-in cover, and the desire to curate shelves of matching, beautiful spines. In his conversations with author and publishing friends, he brings across the inherent exuberance of conversations about books, from the discovery of new authors to the joyful dissection of a shared read.
Anyone who has ever lost themselves having a rummage through a second hand bookshop, accidentally fallen into a charity shop for a ‘quick look’, or contemplated how to fit several new purchases onto already bulging shelves, will find themselves in White Spines. Although my own reading taste is quite different to Royle’s, I found myself nodding along or smiling in agreement with so many of the incidents and experiences that he recounts.
White Spines also provides some insight into the business of publishing. Royle talks to a number of former and current Picador authors, illustrators, and staff to consider how the ‘white spine’ paperback list was built, how the covers were chosen, and why the list (which includes an impressive collection of both authors and titles) became the cultural force that it did during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
That said, the book is not a ‘publishing memoir’, nor is it a documented history of Picador or an account of all of their titles. It is, as I said at the start, a love letter to books and, more specifically, to book collecting. To the physicality of books – to the desire to hold a physical object in your hand before putting it on your carefully curated shelf with its fellows, or the intrigue that comes with finding a letter or note left in a book by a previous reader.
White Spines is a book that spoke to the part of me that loves seeing the stripy spines of my Penguin English Library editions next to each other on the shelf, as well as the part that’s a sucker for a beautiful cover or stunning endpapers. It made me think about the times I’ve found receipts or train tickets in books and wondered about the people who put them there – and about the times I’ve given books with my name or ephemera in away and wondered what will become of them. It is, in short, an ode to the book and a journey of delight through the pleasures of being a bookworm.
White Spines by Nicholas Royle is published by Salt and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. You can also support the publisher by buying from them directly on their website.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!