Sixpence House by Paul Collins: B+

From the book jacket:
Paul Collins and his family abandoned the hills of San Francisco to move to the Welsh countryside—to move, in fact, to the little cobblestone village of Hay-on-Wye, the “Town of Books,” boasting 1,500 inhabitants… and forty bookstores. Antiquarian bookstores, no less.

Inviting readers into a sanctuary for book lovers, and guiding us through the production of the author’s own first book, Sixpence House is a wonderfully engaging meditation on what books mean to us, and how their meaning can resonate long after they have been abandoned by their public.

Books, Britain, and buildings are three of my favorite topics, and when one tosses them together in one book, odds are that I’m going to like it. Even if, as in the case of Sixpence House, there is no real plot to speak of. Seriously, this family moves to Wales, tries to buy a house, fails, then moves back to the United States. Despite the title making one think that they’ll be buying and renovating a particular house, that never actually comes to pass.

I couldn’t really get into the book at first, because the style of writing is incredibly tangential. Collins will be relating a story in which he has just gotten off the Tube in London, and will suddenly switch to a description of a rotunda built in San Francisco in 1915. He never really stops doing things like this, but I got used to the side trips and even came to enjoy them.

On books—Collins very clearly loves them, and delights in quoting passages from obscure publications. I enjoyed all of the excerpts from these forgotten tomes and felt a momentary stirring of desire to hunt for such abandoned treasures myself. He also talks a good deal about the capacity of books to live on far beyond the span of their author, leading to different reflections upon mortality. That’s not a subject I prefer to dwell on, but he handles the topic thoughtfully, and with a practical bent seemingly influenced by the practices of the Brits themselves.

On Britain—More than any other source, Sixpence House has provided me a good idea of what life in Britain can really be like to one coming from an American perspective. Some things are better—television and print media assume a far greater level of consumer intellect than their American equivalents, for example—and some worse, like the lack of right to privacy laws in the UK. My one complaint is that sometimes I couldn’t be sure what was actually true and what was just dry humor. For instance, when I looked up a thoroughly silly-sounding practice called gazumping, I found that it was genuine, but I’m still about 95% sure that a comment about Welsh pronunciation isn’t.

On buildings—now I understand why some people I have known who tried to move to the UK have ended up returning to America! I could never grasp it before; it seemed such a wonderful place! But it turns out there are no agents to look after the buyer during the sale of a property, no contract to keep all of your work from being for naught, and no requirement for the seller to share information about the property, forcing the seller to pay for an expensive survey for any house in which they might be interested. To an American, this seems crazy!

Collins does an excellent job in describing all of the quaint old buildings around Hay, as well as the village and its denizens. I appreciated that he and his wife wanted a home with a lot of history, but understood completely when they eventually gave up their search after being stymied by outrageous asking prices, weird stipulations about proceeds from land sales, and daunting renovations. My desire to visit the UK is as strong as it ever was, but I’m also left with the impression that I really wouldn’t want to live there. Even if their TV is awesome.

Collins has written several other works of nonfiction, including one called Banvard’s Folly (subtitled Thirteen Tales of People That Didn’t Change the World) that gets mentioned a good bit in this narrative. It seems he also is instrumental in bringing forth some of the lost gems that he loves so much, like English as She is Spoke, a phrasebook written by men who didn’t actually speak English. I hope to read both of these at some point, if the library is successful in acquiring them on my behalf.

Additional reviews of Sixpence House can be found at Triple Take.

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