Book Towns Beyond Hay-on-Wye

Sure, we all know Hay-on-Wye, but how many other book towns can you name? How about forty-four more? In his new book, Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word, author Alex Johnson outlines the world’s biblio-havens, from Hobart, New York, to Featherston, New Zealand, to Borrby, Sweden. This copiously illustrated guidebook offers travel tips and insightful details about each location -- taken as an itinerary, it could make for one heck of a biblio-tour!  

9780711238930 Book_Towns copy.jpgJohnson, also the author of Bookshelf, Improbable Libraries, and another new book, A Book of Book Lists, chatted with me about Book Towns and some of his favorite literary spots around the globe.    

RRB: How did the idea for this book come about? Are you an avid ‘literary tourist’?

AJ: I’ve written several ‘books about books’ and each time I did the research, I kept coming across more and more book towns around the world that were doing really rather well. But nobody had written anything substantial pulling the various parts of the movement together, other than an occasional article online. So basically I wrote the book about them that I wanted to read, which I realize is a bit selfish.

Yes, I’m afraid my sons would confirm that our holidays tend to be a bit book-dominated. That’s partly my upbringing. My father was an English teacher and librarian, and my mother ran a mobile bookshop, so wherever we went on holiday we spent about half of it in secondhand bookshops and always came home with our titchy car crammed with new purchases. I still make a point today of looking up where the nearest good bookstores are once we’ve booked wherever we’re going (though I do it quietly when nobody is looking to avoid my family’s hurtful scorn). There’s also an element of literary pilgrimage too to our vacations, so, for example, when I dropped my son off at an activity camp near Dorchester recently, I made an immediate beeline for the cottage where Thomas Hardy grew up and then the house in which he lived in later life. I think a lot of people are like this though. Well, I hope so.

RRB: How many of these book towns have you been to? Where to next?

AJ: I’ve been to the ones in the UK and a couple in Spain where my in-laws live. They’re remarkable places, spots in the world which give you a bit of hope for the future of civilization after all the terrible stuff in the news grinds you down. The people who have set them up and kept them going are so impressive - none of them have massive funding and they all rely hugely on volunteers. I’d like to go to a lot more but I’ve still got young children to look after so it’ll have to wait until they’re off the payroll and I can escape. I think the likeliest next one will be Hobart -- we’ve got various friends living in that part of the world that we’re planning to visit in the very near future. Obviously, I’ve not told my kids the real reason for going. I have to say that I’m not short of invitations to visit these book towns -- without exception, everybody I spoke to about what they were doing was extremely friendly and insisted that I come to see them, and indeed stay in their houses. That’s quite something to offer a stranger from a different landmass who’s interrupted their day with some idiotic questions.

RRB: Which is your favorite -- or, if that’s impossible to answer, perhaps your top three?

AJ: I’d really like to visit Fjaerland in Norway. The photos of it look absolutely spectacular and one of my best friends who went recently said it was amazing. It was also the book town which really gave birth to the book as it was the one I used to convince the publishers that it would be a subject worth going into in depth. It’s a bit of a cheat, but it would be very pleasant indeed to do a slow mini-tour of all the French ones and compare how different each one’s take is on the concept. And finally, Paju in South Korea. It’s not the typical book town which is usually very rural and beautiful, but there’s something magnetic about a town which is 100% devoted to the production of books.

RRB: I particularly enjoyed reading about Bellprat, Spain, and its Sant Jordi celebration. Tell our readers about it.

AJ: Sant Jordi is marvellous. My father-in-law lives in Catalonia so I’ve been privileged to see plenty of regional celebrations (I nearly broke my glasses taking part in a human pyramid a few years ago), but this is certainly one of my favourites. Every World Book Day on April 23, couples exchange gifts, or more precisely, books (historically it’s a book for the men and a rose for the women, but now it’s books all round really). It’s like a literary Valentine’s Day with bookstalls everywhere, in tiny villages as well as Barcelona, and a lot of literary events are held. A huge number of books, well over a million, are sold in the days running up to it. Booksellers in other countries would do well to copy it! It doesn’t surprise me that Catalonia is home to perhaps the most up and coming book town organization. Within a few years, I think there will be lots more dotted around the region.

RRB: Another surprise was Wunsdorf, Germany, the former headquarters of the German Armed Forces, now dubbed the ‘book and bunker’ town. It sounds intriguing!  Have you visited?

AJ: Sadly not, but my German mother-in-law was amazed to see it in the book when she was reading it because while it has a remarkable military history, it gets very little coverage. That somewhere which was the centre of the Nazi war machine, and then became a virtual enclave of Russia after the second world war could just disintegrate into near oblivion and then be reborn as a book town feels like a plot for a novel that nobody would believe. My eldest son is very keen on German so perhaps I should suggest we all go there for a holiday...

Image courtesy of Quarto

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