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Kate Johnson

Top Picks from the Borrowing Place

Virginia Woolf's Garden Non-fiction

A lot of books came home from the library with me in 2019. Many of them were lugged back, unread or skimmed. But there were a few I could not put down. Turn off the bedside lamp, even though my eyes were refusing to stay open? Almost impossible! Permit me to brag up three of my favourites.

Home with the Woolfs

In the non-fiction department, there were two books I fell into and had a hard time climbing out of. Caroline Zoob’s Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of the Garden at Monk’s House, was one of them. Bursting with colourful photos and illustrations of the garden and yard mostly tended by Woolf’s husband Leonard, the story also includes sweet details about the relationship between these two illustrious people. While the title is misleading — as much as Virginia loved the garden, it was really Leonard’s baby — this book took me home with the Woolfs to their luxuriant green Eden.

Humorous confessions of a bookseller

The other non-fiction book, The Diary of a Bookseller, drew me straight into the life of the owner of a used bookstore in Scotland. I chuckled at Shaun Bythell’s descriptions of his quirky customers and employees, and the highs and frequent lows of buying and selling second-hand books. Who knew that booksellers have a reputation for being as owly as the star of that British sitcom, Black Books? I took Bythell’s humorous confessions with the proverbial grain of salt, but oh how I hope he writes another such tongue-in-cheek memoir, if he hasn’t already. I was sorry to turn the last page on this one.

A uniquely crafted novel

Then there is fiction. The Course of Love, by Alain de Botton, is a love story that doesn’t shy away from the personal challenges and failings that can be anything but loving in a lasting relationship. This tale, from courtship to lengthy marriage, goes as deep as any psychology textbook, and may well be more enlightening. It touched a nerve — more than one if I’m honest. At times I could see myself in de Botton’s characters; I could see my own spouse too. De Botton is an author with incredibly detailed insight into intimate human connections. I dare you to read this uniquely crafted novel and not recognize yourself anywhere in it.

Of the dozens of books I read last year, these are my top recommendations. None of them are new, but they were new to me, and maybe they are new to you too.

Do you have any book recommendations?


Previous post from Kate Johnson: No Perfection Unless You’re a Sunset

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5 Comments on “Top Picks from the Borrowing Place”

  • Gael Spivak


    As a former bookseller (that was my career for many years), I feel sad to be stereotyped as “owly.”

    • Anita Jenkins


      When someone objects to the images they create, graphic designers like to say, “Made you look.” No use writing something that nobody wants to read.

  • Thanks for the recommendations, Kate. I’m reading Kate Atkinson’s marvellous A God in Ruins. I also highly recommend The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine and Helen Phillips’ The Need. The latter seems to be one that readers seem to either love or hate, so heads-up!

  • Thanks for this, Kate. You and I use the library in similar ways. This past year, I returned more books unread than not. Skimmed at best. I have become a reader who doesn’t read every book to the end, let alone every word.

    Here’s one book that had me reading every word, many of them aloud: A Gentleman of Moscow.

    As a perennial fan of novels about bookstores, I appreciate your recommending The Diary of a Bookseller, in the non-fiction category. I imagine I would also enjoy its sequel, Confessions of an Owly Bookseller. After all, there’s very little to be believed in a diary of a relentlessly nice bookseller!

  • Gael, I still find it hard to believe there ever could be an owly bookseller! Susan and Virginia, I’ve already visited my library’s webpage and put a hold on some of your recommendations. Happy hours of reading, coming up!

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