From Publishers Weekly
Hay-on-Wye, a Welsh town of 1,500, is heaven on earth for people who love books, especially old books. It has 40 bookstores, and if you can't find what you want in one of them, you can fork over 50 pence and visit the field behind the town castle, where thousands more long-forgotten books languish under a sprawling tarp. McSweeney's contributor Collins moved his wife and baby son from San Francisco to Hay a few years ago, intending to settle there. This book is Collins's account of the brief period when he organized American literature in one of the many used-book stores, contemplated and abandoned the idea of becoming a peer in the House of Lords, tried to buy an affordable house that wasn't falling apart (a problem when most of the buildings are at least a century old) and revised his first book (Banvard's Folly). Collins can be quite funny, and he pads his sophomore effort with obscure but amusing trivia (how many book lovers know that the same substance used to thicken fast-food milk shakes is an essential ingredient in paper resizing?), but it's hard to imagine anyone beyond bibliophiles and fellow Hay-lovers finding enough here to hold their attention. Witty and droll though he may be, Collins fails to give his slice-of-life story the magic it needs to transcend the genre.
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The McSweeney's gang may be the closest thing we have to a genuine literary circle; if its members have produced smug, postmodern chapter titles, such as "Chapter Two relies on the travelogue cliche of a garrulous cabdriver," they've also written some books that whistle like fresh air through the bookstore. Collins' travelogue/memoir is a book lover's delight, minus the pretense you might expect from someone schooled in obscure eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. With his wife and young son, he moves to Hay-on-Wye, Wales, a village with one bookstore for every 37.5 residents. The narrative is structured around his house-buying attempts and the impending publication of his first book, but the meat of the work lies in his meandering asides and bookstore discoveries. His intellect changes focus often, but crisply, and it's a pleasure to observe him in the act of observation: Who would have thought there was still new ground to cover on the topic of Anglo-American differences? Collins muses often on the impermanence of books, but this one will grace shelves for years to come. Keir Graff
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