There are very few confessions in “Confessions of a Bookseller,” Shaun Bythell’s second memoir. He entertains, but he keeps things close to the vest.
Structured as a journal, the sequel to his bestselling “Diary of a Bookseller” (soon to be a U.K. television series) picks up shortly before the first book leaves off, and it is, mostly, more of the same.
“Confessions” will feel comfortably familiar to readers of “Diary.” The windows of Bythell’s used-book store in Wigtown, Scotland, continue to leak in the rain. Customers continue to mess up his books without buying anything. Nicky, his outspoken employee, continues to bring him disgusting dumpster-rescued food (until — shock! — she quits).
This is, however, a darker book than Bythell’s first. He portrays customers less as figures of fun and more as petty people who want to bargain down prices. His romance with his American life partner is ending, and he feels regret. He would like a family, he says almost plaintively, but “I find it hard to see a future except as a cantankerous curmudgeon, living alone.”
As he turns 45, Bythell worries that he has not accomplished much. By that age, he notes, his father had married, bought a farm and started a family. “I can’t compare my own achievements favorably.”
On his drives to Glasgow, he is just as likely to pass a car crash — including one that killed his neighbor — as he is serene wilderness. Customers tell him that they have seen a ghost on his bookstore’s back stairs.
Definitely, darkness underlies these diary entries. Which makes me feel almost churlish to question their veracity.
Bythell’s “Diary” begins in February 2014 and concludes in early February 2015. “Confessions” begins in January 2015, and so the two books overlap by about five weeks.
But diary entries for the same days don’t match — Bythell notes different numbers of customers, different amounts of money in the till, different weather. Was Jan. 29, 2015, a “wet, dull day” or did it snow “from about 3 p.m. onwards”? Did he have 12.99 pounds in the till and five customers on Jan. 26, or 133.49 pounds and eight customers? Was there heavy rain and freezing cold on Jan. 23, or was it sunny?
I know this won’t matter to many readers. They want to be entertained, and Bythell is definitely entertaining. But it will matter to anyone who takes memoir seriously. If he is fudging these details, what does this mean for the accuracy of everything else?
In response to my question, Bythell explained (in an e-mail forwarded by his publicist) that the chronological discrepancies are due to his editor asking him to rearrange the text. “Everything that’s in the book actually happened,” he wrote, “but not necessarily in that exact order, and with a little embellishment to make things sit more comfortably together.” This seems to me to be a rare case of an editor being dead wrong. Playing with facts turns nonfiction into fiction.
And then there’s the question of that life partner (who he inexplicably calls “Anna” in both books, but whose name is actually Jessica). Halfway through “Confessions,” Bythell drops the rather stunning information that she is not his girlfriend, but his wife — they wed in 2010, “overriding my every instinct,” he says, because she was having immigration difficulties. “That event — more than any other — is the root of the problems we later faced in our relationship.”
What does that mean? Hard to say — he never returns to the topic, just leaves it rather obliquely there, and Anna heads back to the United States.
Still, Bythell is a skillful writer. Through these brief entries, he creates a full, appealing world populated with colorful characters. The annual Wigtown Book Festival seems raucous and fun. (And will we ever have an in-person book festival again?) The Scottish landscape — geese flying over the salt marsh, the meandering river where he likes to fish — is gorgeous.
Though darker and marred by those odd discrepancies, “Confessions” is, like “Diary,” an endearing and thoughtful book. We cannot browse bookstores right now, but we can read about browsing, and that will have to be enough.
Confessions of a Bookseller
By: Shaun Bythell.
Publisher: David R. Godine, 323 pages, $25.95.