A Brief History of Communication:  Chat, Reading Aloud & Reading Silently

At the classical library.

Women have always known the value of chat. They know the value of chat as a primary means of communication. Their husbands may grunt over football and yell at the TV,  but women prefer to talk and exchange information.  Think of Martha Mitchell and the problems she unleashed when she ratted out her dishonest husband during Watergate.. She was a bit of a chatty heroine,  but I view her with affection.

My mother was chatty and prodigiously well-informed.   She  chatted for hours on the phone and then made a point of going to stores so so she could chat with sales clerks or cashiers.   And reading aloud to her children was a form of chat: we may not have been good conversationalists, but we loved our little Golden Books, fairy tales, and Dr. Seuss books.

Even a trip to Walgreen’s with my mother took an hour while we considered buying identical university t-shirts (“Go, team!”) and searched for a special brand of support hose she liked.  And then we chatted to the pharmacist about her medication, until we could rattle off all the side effects, by which time no sane person would dream of taking those pills, though my mother took her chances and lived to be very old.

In the ancient world, my mother would have had plenty of opportunities to chat: she might have haggled over greens at the market, dithered over the Saturnalia gifts,. or complained about potions she bought from quack herbalists.

There were certainly diversions in the ancient world:  holidays, festivals, shops, the games, feasts, and fine wine. Sadly, there was little reading except among the upper classes, and a few of us women might have started a feminist movement in order to read the books.  In W. V. Harris’s book, Ancient Literacy, he calculated that the maximum literacy rate was 20-30% – and that was in Hellenistic cities.

The actual method of reading in ancient Greek and Rome might strike one as anomalous.There was no silent reading till the Middle Ages, writes  Irene Vallejo in her superb book, Papyrus:  The Invention of Books in the Ancient World.  In ancient Greece and Rome, readers spoke the words out loud as they read them, whether they were reading to themselves or others.  And writers spoke the words aloud as they wrote.

How did ancient writers manage?  Cicero dictated to  his secretary, Tiro. And he had a chance to practice his oration as it was transcribed.

 I cannot imagine the impulsive Catullus reading aloud as he scribbled his charming poems to Lesbia, even though he based some of them on Sappho’s (in one case, almost word for word.) More likely he’d be mussing his hair up, making faces in the mirror, crossing out lines with a stylus, calling for pocula of wine, and damning Lesbia’s infidelity.  I do love Catullus.

The intellectual Virgil would have weighed his words with pietas (honoring his duties to the gods, his country, and his family) and with allusions to Homer’s epics .  Intellectual Virgil blended history, myth, nationalism, and religion into his Roman epic, the Aeneid, based on Homer’s  Iliad and Odyssey. (T. S. Eliot wrote an essay, “What Is a Classic?”, claiming that the Aeneid is the best poem in not only Latin but in any language.) As for wild Ovid, author of Metamorphoses and Amores, he broke so many rules that I can only imagine he was the first rebellious silent reader.

I am generally a silent reader, but my husband and I have rediscovered the joys of reading aloud. We are currently reading Conrad’s Victory. If you’re interested, you can start your own group or check out Sharing Reading groups online and Reading Aloud groups at public libraries. Or simply pair up with a friend: you can read a play and change the voices to amuse yourselves.

Reading Aloud Outdoors

Captain Omen and I reading outdoors, November 10

Captain Omen and I love to read aloud.  We used to read aloud the summer we got married.  We read in our yard, or at a table in an urban park. And then life got busier, or we forgot the pleasure of reading to each other.

This year we have resumed this charming habit.  In September and October we read Alice Thomas Ellis’s Pillars of Gold, written mostly in dialogue, so it is perfect for reading aloud.  (Here is my review.) And last week we began Joseph Conrad’s Victory, a tense novel set in the tropics. The hero, Heyst, a charming, courteous Swede, establishes and manages a coal company that goes broke.  No one understands why Heyst stays behind. And Schomberg, a gossipy, vicious German hotel owner, is intent on ruining Heyst’s reputation. Later, they struggle over a girl, Lena.

Conrad is a thrilling storyteller and a pitch-perfect stylist.  

I asked Captain Omen why he likes reading aloud. “I enjoy hearing the words spoken.  It somehow makes the descriptions more vivid.  I like sitting outside while we read.  I like being with my wife.”

Reading aloud is an intimate act.  It is a change from the world of electronics and audiobooks, which are entertaining, but not entirely necessary. And to echo Captain Omen, “I like sitting outside. I like being with my husband.”

A Cult Classic: Irmgard Keun’s “After Midnight”

Irmgard Keun’s poignant novel, After Midnight, is a comedy of despair, set in Germany in the 1930s. It reminds me slightly of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, in which  a subculture of young people flout social conventions under the shadow of fascism.   In Keun’s novel, the narrator, Sanna, is a party girl who wants to drink in peace.  She tries  to ignore politics, but they permeate every aspect of life. A Nazi parade seems vaguely sinister, but she enjoys looking at the shiny big cars. Many in the crowd are thrilled to spot Hitler.

Free speech becomes more and more difficult. Everyone informs on everyone else. Sanna’s Aunt Adelheid, a fervent Nazi, waves swastika flags and informs on anyone she dislikes.  Sanna observes wryly that the enemy aircraft needn’t drop a bomb on their building to kill the residents, because Aunt Adelheid will do it for them.   And Aunt Adelheid is shocked when Sannia admits that she dislikes Goring’s speeches on the radio.

She simply cannot understand what is going on.

Goring and the other ministers often shout over the radio, very loud and clear and angry. “There are still some who have not understood what it is all about, but we shall know how to deal with them.”  I hate hearing that kind of thing, it’s creepy, because I still don’t know what it is all about, or what they mean.  And it’s far too dangerous to ask anyone.

Sanna is naive partly because she is incredulous about the narrowing of her life. When her aunt informs on her to he Nazis for “subversive” comments about Goring., the Gestapo drag her away and interrogate her. After her release, she is more indignant than terrified and leaves Frankfurt to live with her brother and his wife, believing that she will resume her active social life.

But she cannot escape politics. Her brother, a writer, is depressed because he is forced to write historical romances if he wants to publish.  And her sister-in-law has a crush on a blacklisted journalist who commits suicide at a party at their flat. Finally Sanna feels the terror: her fiancé commits a crime.  The gentle comedy of Sanna’s life has been wrecked.

Although I found Keun’s early work very slight, After Midnight  is a sharply-observed depiction of the terror of life under the Nazis. Keun was blacklisted and her books banned and burned.  She boldly tried to sue the Germans for robbing her of her income. That did not work out, as you can imagine. She left Germany in 1936, but returned  in 1940 and lived under a false name. So bold!

Why Classicists Don’t Need Gym

I recently read in The New Criterion  (November 2023) that students at Princeton can get a degree in classics without taking Greek and Latin. This startled me:  classics is by definition the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature. If Princeton whimsically lowers its standards, where does that leave the rest of us?  Does  Princeton intend to phase out classics?  There can be no other explanation.

In a  short story I wrote, a classics student at a small liberal arts college refuses to take required classes outside her major.  She takes pride in her resistance to science and gym. At the end of her sophomore year, she is summoned by the Dean. 

“There must be some misunderstanding. Did you know that you need these classes to graduate?”

She says that she has neither the time nor the energy to study subjects outside her major. “I’ve already done physics.  I’ve read Lucretius in Latin on physics and Epicurean philosophy. That should count for physics and philosophy.”

He compliments her on her versatility but reminds her that she needs the required classes anyway.  “And I’m sure you’ll enjoy the modern take on physics.”

The student quits and transfers to a state university where  she is also required to take core courses. She doesn’t mind: it was the principle of the thing at the posh college, where elite  students from the east coast had essentially taken college-level-courses at prep schools, which gave them an advantage over others, whether or not they had understood the subjects in their adolescence. On the other hand, the egalitarian state university gave bright, occasionally under-prepared students a chance to catch up and bloom.

I threw out this story because it was basically a treatise on education.  I, too, grumbled about core requirements. Fortunately, Drama in Western Culture proved to be my favorite class for two semesters, though I was bored by the Physics of Something or Other, and have blocked all memory of gym.

These days articles in newspapers and magazines frequently describe the confusion and anxiety in humanities departments. Enrollment is declining. They’re trying everything they can to survive.

But the description of the undergraduate classics program at Princeton is depressing.

 Five of the eight courses counted toward requirements must be taught by Department of Classics faculty ….. Of the eight courses, one must deal primarily with ancient literature, whether read in the original or in translation.

Photo from the Princeton website.

In the photo at the Princeton classics website, there are no books in Greek or Latin, except the green Loebs, referred to by my professors as the Low-ebbs, because they have the English translation facing the Greek or Latin. Loebs are useful if you want to read an obscure author, because it is sometimes the only text in print.

Here’s the good news: state universities still have traditional classics programs. And I’m sure the faculty at Princeton would like to restore tradition.

I am saddened by the desperate changes in the humanities.

O brave new world!

O tempora! O mores!

Why I Like My iPad:  It Cannot Text

My ancient iPad is an exasperating machine. Try Googling; it has a too-vigorous spell-checker. It transforms words into nonsensical antonyms, or, at best, pop culture references I do not know.

It also has difficulty loading email.  Loading…loading…loading….  Some days the e-mail does not come through. It does not share the post office motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

 It could be worse.  It would be worse with a phone. People bow their heads in reverence to their phones. I do not revere my tablet. They walk while they text, read, or play Scrabble. They don’t seem to fall down, thank goodness.  Drivers recklessly text as they drive. They do have accidents.  And all of us suffer from “text neck,” formerly knows as “dowager hump.” 

My husband’s phone has a strict spell-check program which cannot be turned off.  It changes the names of our cats, Dulcie and Polly, to Dulcimer and Pollyanna. 

Should we knuckle under and change their names?

“Dulcimer!  Pollyanna!” 

They stare. 

 Lately the iPad has reached a crossroads.  To text or not to text? It refuses to text.  There is no text function.

“Can’t be done.  I don’t text,” I say.  

I know the limits of the iPad.  I love not texting or receiving texts. Occasionally I give the iPad a break by turning it off. You push a virtual slide from one side of the screen to the other.   But is it actually off? 

The ways of the ancient iPad are mysterious.

Weird Fiction or Fiction for Weirdos?

Happy Halloween?

I am a hauntress of bookstores.
I shudder at ghost stories and weird fiction.
I shun 12-foot skeletons on lawns.
I buy candy on sale on All Saints' Day.



Ghost stories and tales of the supernatural are labeled weird fiction.   But weird fiction to me is fiction for weirdos.

I do enjoy some traditional weird fiction.  I recommend Night Terrors: The Ghost Stories of E. F. Benson.  Benson is well-known for his witty Lucia novels, and the two superb TV series based on these charming books. This prolific writer also wrote tales of the supernatural.   

His most fascinating ghost stories wrestle with the concept of home and haunted houses.  In “Bagnell Terrace,” the narrator loves his quiet neighborhood in London, but he is jealous of his neighbor’s house. The addition of a huge room extends into the yard. How he wishes he had such a room! Finally he has a chance to buy the house, and things begin to go terribly wrong.  In this suspenseful, entertaining ghost story, friendship is the key to survival.

Then there is weird fiction for weirdos. Olga Ravn’s short, moving, poetic novel, The Employees, was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021.  It is at first puzzling. Written in the form of employees’ “statements,“ the novel gradually reveals the import of their statements. The crew are on a spaceship, reporting their reactions to objects they have brought on board from the New Discovery planet.  in the dedication to the book, Ravn reveals that she was inspired by Lea Guldditte Hestelund’s installations and sculptures.

The crew is manned by humans and humanoids: are the humanoids also objects? The relationships between them are touching and affectionate. and their observations of the objects are in sync. But the humanoids get upgrades and uploads and re-uploads and begin to surpass the humans. They begin to avoid the humans. And the humans are saddened by their separation, by their own mortality, and the end of friendship and possibly their race.


Humor will cure the sense of imbalance. I recommend Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Soap Behind the Ears. one of her best collections of humor columns. It is worth buying for her satire of For Whom the Bell Tolls, which she calls For Whom the Gong Sounds. How I wish I’d read this satire when I plowed through Hemingway’s ghastly novel!

A New Biography: “American Classicist: The Life and Loves of Edith Hamilton”

“To know Greek is to know yourself.” -A Professor of Classics

Victoria Houseman’s new biography, American Classicist: The Life and Loves of Edith Hamilton, is sparkling and compelling.  The first half reads like a particularly exciting school story.  Homeschooled by her parents,  Hamilton (1867-1963) became obsessed with Greek and Latin, which she continued to study at Miss Porter’s School with other equally intense, well-educated girls. Later at Bryn Mawr College, which she entered at age 24 due to financial problems, she found rapport with a community of women with similar interests, who worked 10 hours a day, but still found time to socialize. Finally she studied in Germany on a European travel scholarship. 

Hamilton was determined to have an academic career. But instead of going on for a doctorate after she finished her B.A. and M.A. simultaneously in 1894, she accepted a position as headmistress at Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. Whether by design or default, many women of Hamilton’s generation, and our own, became teachers, but Hamilton had hoped to teach at Bryn Mawr or some other college. She was reluctant to sign on at a mediocre primary and secondary school for girls. 

Edith Hamilton

But she had to shore up the family finances:   her father had become an alcoholic after his company went bust, and her mother and a sister were frequently ill.  Edith made the best of the situation by shoring up the reputation of the school among the elite of Baltimore.  And she developed a supportive  school community, inspired partly by the culture of Bryn Mawr College and partly by philosophy, which encouraged teachers and students to pursue individual talents.

After 25 years as headmistress, she was exhausted, bored, and often ill. She resigned (for the third time: they didn’t want to let her go) in 1922.  As she told her partner, Doris Reid, she looked forward to getting back to Greek. And she finally had time to translate Greek tragedies. A film version of her translation of Euripides’s Trojan Women was released in 1971, starring Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Pappas, and Genevieve Bujold.   

It is as a twentieth-century writer and “influencer” that  we remember Edith Hamilton. Her popular books, The Greek Way (1930) , The Roman  Way (1932), and Mythology (1942), created a sensation. Hamilton especially admired the Greeks, and inspired the post-war generation, who were struggling in a financially unstable society and a changing culture, to respect Greek philosophy, history, and the arts.

She tried to explain the Greeks’ ability to rise above their problems.

The Greeks knew to the full how bitter life was but also how sweet. Joy and sorrow, exultation and tragedy, stand hand in hand in Greek literature, but there is no contradiction thereby.  Those who do not know the one do not really know the other either.  It is the depressed, the gray-minded people, who cannot rejoice just as they cannot agonize.  The Greeks were not the victims of depression.

Her style is a bit sentimental, but The Greek Way and The Roman Way were Book-of-the-Month hits when they were published in an attractive two-volume set.

Victoria Houseman, the author of this brilliant biography, regards Hamilton as a pioneer among women classicists.  Though Hamilton was a classics superstar at a time when few women had college educations, she may not have been as well-respected among classicists as the biographer implies.

In my undergraduate years, I noted the lack of women’s translations. I asked my Greek professor if Edith Hamilton’s translations were any good.

He took the question seriously and addressed me as an equal. “There’s a lot of Edith Hamilton there, but perhaps not much Euripides.”

I intend to read Edith Hamilton now that I have read the biography. But whatever I may have to say, there is no denying that she influenced generations of common readers and that her books are still in print.

A Neglected Literary Novel: Alice Thomas Ellis’s “Pillars of Gold”

This fall my husband and I read aloud one of my favorite novels, Pillars of Gold, by Alice Thomas Ellis. I was thrilled to have a chance to introduce him to this English writer; he admired and enjoyed the witty dialogue, though he complained about the adverbs.

“I love the adverbs,” I insisted. “It’s an English thing.” I’m not sure it is an English thing but I tire of spare American prose stripped of adverbs and adjectives.

Alice Thomas Ellis (1932-2005) is respected in the UK, though I get the feeling that she is seldom read there, either. Ellis, a novelist, newspaper columnist, book editor, publisher’s wife, and mother of seven children, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982 for The 27th Kingdom, a gently offbeat novel set in Chelsea. The Booker went to Thomas Keneally that year for his brilliant Holocaust novel, Schindler’Ark (Schindler’s List in the U.S.). I loved Keneally’s book, but how could two such radically different novels compete for the same award? It is exasperating.

Alice Thomas Ellis

But Ellis’s best book is Pillars of Gold, published in 1992, a tour de force written mostly in dialogue. Two neighbors, Scarlet and Constance, are constantly in and out of each other’s houses in North London, gossiping, complaining, eating, drinking, and dissecting the female experience.

When Scarlet reads in the newspaper that the corpse of a woman has washed up in the nearby canal, she wonders if it could be their neighbor Barbs, who hasn’t been around lately. Constance admits it’s possible, and they consider telling the police, but Constance doesn’t like dealing with the police, and they decide it is better to mind their own business.

The thing is, they don’t like Barbs. Barbs is unpopular, because she poaches husbands and boyfriends. She may have philandered with Scarlet’s awkward husband, Brian, an advertising man, and definitely with Mamet, Constance’s Turkish boyfriend, a speculator and shady businessman.

Constance, who lives alone and travels around selling bead necklaces and arty jewelry, is sensible and stable, despite having been raised in a quasi-criminal working-class family. But in her large, close family, the siblings all have each other’s backs. Middle-class Scarlet has fewer relatives: she dislikes her flamboyant mother, has a difficult husband, and worries about her daughter. She is grateful for Connie’s friendship.

Scarlet’s sulky, rebellious teenage daughter, Camille, is also worried about Barbs. It does not, however, prevent her organizing a party in Barbs’ deserted house. Camille and her friend Sam (a girl) think Barbs probably was murdered, but what can they do about it? The two generations of women have the same attitude: avoid the police. Don’t involve the patriarchy.

In this lively novel, the women hang around together, talk endlessly about their lives, the important and trivial details, believe in government conspiracies and washing apples, and do nothing about Barbs because they don’t want trouble.

There are many memorable quotes in this book. For instance, when Connie and Scarlet discuss Barbs, they are irritated by her claims to feminism, by which she means promiscuity. And men are not threatened at all by her professions of feminism, because they like a woman who is sexually available.

Scarlet crossly thinks,

…a woman free of coy inhibition must be a gratifying gift to the male, whatever she herself thought her motives might be. Silly bitch, thought Scarlet. Constance said she couldn’t stand feminists, because they reminded her of men. Just as if there weren’t enough of them around already.

This neglected novel is so much fun to read. You may also like The Summer House Trilogy, which was adapted for a 1992 film starring Jeanne Moreau and Joan Plowright among others.

Expanding the Definition of Horror: Shirley Jackson’s “Biography of a Story,” Aldous Huxley’s “Ape and Essence,” & Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”

Are “Ape and Essence” and “Crime and Punishment” horror novels?

The truth is I do not read horror. I do not read Stephen King, who used to be appraised as a popular writer of horror, but is now considered a great American novelist. Years ago I made it through half of King’s The Shining, but was so terrified I threw it in the trash. It made me ill – I was-disturbed by the brutality of the antihero, Jack Torrance, a violent, alcoholic writer who is possessed by ghosts and terrorizes his family in the hotel where he is caretaker. Even after throwing out the book, I kept checking and rechecking the locks.

Mind you, I am a fan of several cross-genre novels which, in recent years, have been re-labeled horror in a kind of academic democratization. I have long admired Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but her true horror writing is to be found in an essay, “Biography of a Story,” which is published in the appendix of the Library of America volume of Jackson’s work. In the essay, she documents the public response to “The Lottery,” her underwheming short story about an annual stoning ritual at an American village. The New Yorker was surprised by the volume of phone calls and letters. Some canceled their subscription to the magazine, while others wanted to know where the stoning ritual was.

Jackson shares excerpts from the letters.

(Kansas) Will you please tell me the locale and the year of the custom?

(New York) Do such tribunal rituals still exist and if so where?

This year I am expanding my definition of horror to include dystopian and psychological novels. I am stretching a metaphorical rubber band – or perhaps a piece of bubble gum – with which to contain my new canon.

I have rifled through piles of near-classics and even junk in my expansion of the horror canon. Yes, I love Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and I am loving some traditional ghost stories.

But I doubt that Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Ape and Essence, or Dostoevsky’s psychological novel, Crime and Punishment, have ever been categorized as horror.

The literati seem not to have discovered or parsed Huxley’s dystopian novel Ape and Essence (1948), written in Hollywood after the disillusioned Huxley’s stint as a screenwriter. Hollywood seems to spoil all its writers, and Ape and Essence, part satire of Hollywood, part post-apocalyptic novel, is a deliberate attempt by Huxley to satirize the crudeness of Hollywood films. Written in the form of a film script rescued from an incinerator by two desperate screenwriters, it is mostly set in a post-apocalyptic California which was destroyed in the Third World War. The society has reverted to a Puritanical form of devil worship, and the average men and women are kept ignorant and obedient. Their culture is simian and crude, almost as if they have reverted to cave men and women.. The whole world – except New Zealand, which was forgotten because it was so tiny – was destroyed during the Third World War. The remaining population in the U.S. is tiny and deformed from radiation.

Are you ready to be disgusted? Not only is Apes and Essence deliberately crude, but it portrays a terrifying society which, without the surveillance technology of the 20th and 21st centuries, still seeks to control all its citizens. The women are especially oppressed, forced to wear patches that say NO on their breasts and buttocks, and to give up their deformed babies to be killed. Four nipples is acceptable, six are not. And there are only a few weeks every year when they are allowed to ‘mate’, and then it is a frenzied orgy.

Enter Dr. Alfred Poole, a botanist from New Zealand on a “rediscovery” mission 100 years after the destruction. The first L.A. residents he meets are gravediggers who dig up corpses for clothing, because the society has no means of making new cloth. Poole is astonished to learn that Belial (the devil) is believed to be the force that caused man to despoil the earth with technology and end the world with military weapons. Everyone disconcertingly makes the sign of the horns.

“Yes, He got control,” the Chief explains. “He won the battle and took possession of everybody.That was when they did all this.”

And the anti-woman philosophy is horrifyingly repellent.

“What is the nature of women? Answer: Woman is the vessel of the Unholy Spirit, the source of all deformity, the enemy of the race, the…”

Huxley’s brilliance shines through, even when he is sabotaging his own talent in this broad satire. Huxley is so intellectual and far ahead of the curve that he has the Arch-Vicar of Belial criticize man’s history of pollution and destructive technology

“Conquerors of Nature, indeed! In actual fact, of course, they had merely upset the equilibrium of Nature and were about to suffer the consequences, Just consider what they were up to the century and a half before the Thing. Fouling the rivers, killing off the wild animals, destroying the forests, washing the topsoil into the sea, burning up an ocean of petroleum, squandering the minerals it had taken a whole geological time to deposit. An orgy of criminal imbecility.”

Can the world be saved? Well, there is romance, as there is in all Hollywood films. Poole hooks up with a voluptuous gravedigger, Loola, and the two fall in love and share knowledge that helps them survive. And so the horror ends in hope, at least for Poole and Loola. And looking at their names together – double o’s – oo – is that sexual? Huxley is so clever. Honestly, this novel is fun to “deconstruct.”

Huxley is a brilliant writer, best known for his dystopian novel, Brave New World, but his real talent lay in his witty, satiric, realistic 1920s novels, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point.

I am currently rereading Dostoevsky’s classic, Crime and Punishment, as a work of psychological horror. The raging 23-year-old hero, Raskolnikov, a former student, deliberately commits murder for philosophical reasons – and is so depressed and terrified by the consequences that we get into his head and are horrified. Not my favorite Dostoevsky – that would be The Devils, sometimes translated as The Possessed – but Crime and Punishment is by far his most popular book. I don’t find it “relatable,” and yet it is impossible not to understand every thought, every feeling, of the doomed Raskolnikov. This is one of the bleakest, most horrifying of Russian novels.

Tune in soon for my thoughts on Gothics and ghost stories.

Last Trip to London: Spoiled by Extraordinary Bookstores

Daunt Books

If I lived in London, I could pop into fabulous bookstores every day.

It was (possibly) my last trip to London. Mission: to explore extraordinary bookstores and stock up on a year’s books. These glamorous spaces are as beautiful as art galleries, stocked with new and backlisted titles I seldom find in the U.S.

Although many great secondhand bookstores have closed since the pandemic, notably at Cecil Court, an alley of shops near Trafalgar Square, there are still many exciting shops.

We did not go to London only for the bookstores, of course. We did the proper tourist things, traipsing through art galleries and gawking at cathedral domes, occasionally glancing down at a guidebook in emulation of our favorite traveling heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, in Forster’s A Room with a View. (Lucy had a Baedeker, I think.)

And yet one always ends up in a bookshop after one has posed for the obligatory selfie in front of Whistler’s portrait of Joanna HIffernan, “The Woman in White.” (I love Wilkie Collins’s book, though Whistler claimed it had nothing to do with his painting.)


Daunt Books, an Edwardian bookshop, located in the chic Mayfair area, is surely one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. The wood paneling, skylights, oak galleries, and dome impart a hushed, cathedral-like ambiance. Originally a travel book store, Daunt Books still showcases a creative travel section stocked not only with travel guides, but with each country’s classics, fiction, histories, and travel books.

Hatchards, London’s oldest bookstore, founded in 1797, is located in Piccadilly near the Royal Academy of Arts. Almost as elegant as Daunt Books, it has beautiful displays of books on tables, a winding wooden staircase to keep eclectic readers fit, a rather elderly carpet with a comfy pattern, and a strong selection of books of all genres, from ancient history to science fiction to offbeat reissued memoirs.


Waterstones. This huge, stunning chain bookstore, located in Piccadilly, has seductive displays of paperbacks on the ground floor, and the fiction section devotes several shelves to Penguins, Oxford World Classics, and Persephones. Over the years, I have discovered unusual books by the likes of Vita Sackville-West as well as authors new to me. As I staggered to the cash register clutching several paperbacks, a passer-by commented, “That’s a lot of books.” Can’t say this observer was wrong. This is my favorite bookstore in London.


Foyles. This enormous, gorgeous bookstore, located on Charing Cross Road, has a distinctive, varied selection or books that is competitive with its rival Waterstones. To quote from their website: “Built around a central, skylit atrium, with winding stairs and three accessible lifts, this book lover’s paradise flows down across eight mezzanine plates and offers over 200,000 different books across a range of specialist departments, from Fiction to Children’s to Art to Military History to Education, all run by friendly, expert booksellers.”



Uh-huh, do you think I’ll get the job?

What are your favorite bookstores in London, or