As a bookseller faced with so many books to read, there are often books which don’t quite make it to the top of your TBR (To Be Read) pile, not because they don’t deserve your attention, but simply the pressure to read other books means they get usurped by the latest prize winner or the ‘must read’ debut! However, hosting author events often provides that opportunity to switch focus and pick up those books, which if it were not for the event, you just might not get round to reading. Luckily for me, hosting recent bookshop events with Andy West for his memoir ‘The Life Inside’ and Anna Jones for her book ‘Divide’ provided the impetus. Also, I find that my reading has become so ‘fiction heavy’ of late and it was great to be able to change tack and read both of these thought provoking, conversation starting books back to back!

The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy by Andy West was published on 3rd February. Andy teaches philosophy in prisons. He has conversations with people inside about their lives, discusses their ideas and feelings and listens as the men and women he works with explore new ways to think about their situation. Uniquely, when Andy steps into jail, he also confronts his own inherited guilt and shame: his father, uncle and brother all spent time in prison. Thankfully, Andy was able to find a different life for himself. Elegantly written, the book blends memoir, storytelling and gentle philosophical questioning giving the reader an insight into our justice system, our prisons and the plurality of lives found inside – not something I suspect many of us will have given much thought to.

We welcomed Andy to Booka for an event on 24th February, his first event following publication and I got the chance to chat to him about The Life Inside. Not knowing much about the prison system other than seeing it portrayed on our TV screens, I was fascinated by Andy’s book and found it a really engaging read. Given the prison context, the philosophy is accessible and necessarily so. Andy is clearly skilled at self-reflection, continually posing himself questions as well as the prisoners he works with. The reader is also given room to pause, absorb and reflect on the themes of each chapter.  As the event host it was rewarding to see the breadth and depth of the questions from the audience when afforded the opportunity to engage with the author ‘live’ and in person. Having met and listened to Andy I feel we all came away a little more aware. The Life Inside is well worth a read!

Before becoming a bookseller I had a 20 year career as a Town Planner working for Local Planning Authorities in both urban and rural areas. Rural affairs journalist and broadcaster Anna Jones has just published her first book ‘Divide’ which looks at the relationship crisis between urban and rural areas – not surprisingly this book was on my radar! In addition, there was added local interest as Anna is an ‘Oswestry Girl’ having been raised on an upland hill farm near Llansillin, just outside the town before leaving to pursue a career in journalism covering rural affairs at the BBC; directing BBC One’s Countryfile, producing and presenting Radio 4’s Farming Today, On Your Farm and Costing the Earth and reporting on agricultural issues for BBC News and the World Service. On 16th March we welcomed Anna to Booka to celebrate the publication of ‘Divide’, as with Andy, this was Anna’s first event talking about her book, with me asking the questions.

‘Divide’ can be seen as a call to action. It warns that unless we learn to accept and respect our social, cultural and political differences as town and country people, we are never going to solve the chronic problems in our food system and environment, faced with the challenge of climate change. Each chapter, from Family and Politics to Animal Welfare and the Environment, explores a different aspect of the urban/rural disconnect, weaving case studies and research with Anna’s personal stories of growing up on her family farm. We clearly need to create a healthier food system and bring back nature in diverse abundance to our countryside. How we farm is clearly central to this. ‘Divide’ is a really well written and thought provoking read. I loved chatting to Anna who is a brilliant speaker and a joy to interview. Having had time to read her book I feel much more informed and ready to start a conversation about the issues raised, whether that be in the bookshop, at the kitchen table or over a pint in the pub!

Although ‘The Life Inside’ or ‘Divide’ might not be on your reading radar, both are perfect examples of the joy and benefits to be had from reading more widely. They will certainly last longer and hopefully be more satisfying than chocolate this Easter! (These are the words of a chocoholic!)

  • Tim