Here at ABBA we usually talk about children’s books, and sometimes about children. But what about adults? Not many people realise that adults have books written especially for them, too, and that it’s a thriving market. In order to learn about the world of adults’ books, I’ve asked Moira Skidelsky of The Square Grey Bookshop in Hampstead, a shop specializing in books for grown-ups, to say a few words about the often-mysterious world of adults and their reading...
Buying books for adults – it can be a puzzle, can’t it? Adults have such strange, changeable tastes. Things that seem hugely interesting to you may be matters of indifference to them, and vice versa. They’re passionate about the LIBOR rate one week, and before you know it they’ve moved on to the next “very important subject”. No wonder, then, that when it comes to birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I have so many children consulting me about what and how to buy.
The first thing to remember is that adults are at an age when they’re trying to establish and maintain their own place in the world. They may like to give the impression of being independent and mature, but they always have one uneasy eye on what the next adult is doing, scared of standing out (too much!) from the crowd. So, it's a good idea to find out about the latest buzz books amongst the adults around you. Take a peek at what your adult’s friends are reading, or look at the posters in bus and railway stations. A word of warning, though. Crazes can be very intense, but they can also disappear with baffling rapidity, never to be seen again. Your adult won’t thank you if you buy them The Bridges of Madison County or The Da Vinci Code when the “in” crowd is reading Fifty Shades of Grey!
One question I always ask customers is: are you buying for a man or a woman? It’s important to understand that men and women like quite different things, which is why in my shop I have separate sections marked “Books for Men” and “Books for Women” – just as children's publishers sometimes have separate lists of Books for Boys and Books for Girls. Naturally, the Men’s section features a lot of guns, cars, money and sex; while the Women’s section is dominated by clothes, make-up, sex and money. Sometimes a child will complain to me about “reinforcing tired old gender stereotypes”, but believe me, I’ve been working in adults’ books for many years now, and you can’t fight nature. It’s just the way God made them! Vive la difference!
Occasionally children say to me: “My parents are in the middle of a messy divorce”, or “My godfather has just lost a close relative – what books can you recommend to help him understand and cope with the unfamiliar emotions he may be feeling?” Well, I believe there’s no more noble or worthwhile use for literature than as a form of amateur psychotherapy, and to this end I have compiled lists of books to meet most of the common adult dilemmas and crises. For adults dealing with issues of infidelity I always keep some handy copies of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. For those struggling with the loss of a parent, what could be more helpful than Hamlet? While those facing issues of self-worth or pressure at work will no doubt draw immense comfort from reading Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glen Ross.
The last thing I’d stress is that every adult is a unique individual. It’s easy to lump all adults together and assume they must have similar tastes and ideas, simply because they are at the same "adult" stage in their lives. In fact, however, the problems of a twenty-five-year-old are quite distinct from those of someone aged seventy, while an adult living in an affluent Surrey suburb may have a very different experience of the world from one living in a small village in Mali. Every adult, rich or poor, man or woman, has their own hopes, dreams – and, increasingly, regrets. And that, as I always say, is what makes working in adults' books such a rewarding and interesting specialism.