A shortage of Christmas books could lead to a literary adventure


A charming, if slightly threatening, sign has appeared at our local butcher: an owl with a calendar on the front, counting the days left until Christmas (54, or so). Orders for Christmas turkeys, the shrewd bird announces, will be taken from November 2.

Personally, I’m not that bothered about the turkey for Christmas: I would be just as happy with a pheasant and a crumb of Stilton. But the other half of the household is a turkey traditionalist, and there are grim warnings from farmers about shortages, so tomorrow will find me at the butchers early, buying a turkey with 53 days to spare.

Other predicted Christmas shortages that I can contemplate with serenity. My tourniquet is relaxed by a shortage of Paw Patrol toys and Barbie dolls. But here’s a seasonal shock: a warning that books could be in short supply. Paper shortages and shipping issues mean publishers can struggle to meet demand for popular titles, and Waterstones cautiously stocks bestsellers such as JK Rowling’s The Christmas Pig, Nigel Slater’s A Cook’s Book. and the fiction of Sally Rooney and Kazuo Ishiguro.

If your heart is set on Rooney’s latest column on Millennium Anguish or Slater’s alluring essays on culinary nostalgia, finding them out of stock can seem like a bitter disappointment. Instead, it could prove to be the start of an exhilarating journey of discovery. Because if there are gaps on the shelves where the new books must be, a treasure of words of an infinite variety can be found at the nearest bookseller.

The randomness of second-hand bookstores is one of their special charms: quirky shelving systems, understood only by the owner who designed them, reveal old, half-forgotten favorites stacked with enchanting new finds.

Nor is the appeal of second-hand books purely literary. Old books are the depositories of a floating memory: an affectionate inscription, a bookmark, an ex-libris plaque. My 19th century edition of Corinne de Mme de Staël belonged to a Cecil F. Crofton, whose wood-engraved ex-libris depicts an enviable scene: a guy reading in an armchair, glass in hand. In front of him a lattice gate, opening onto a sea view of cliffs and gulls.

Then there is the inimitable and intoxicating smell of old books. Author Jude Stewart devotes a glorious passage to it in his new book on smell, Revelations in Air. The infinitely complex pong of old books, she writes, “suggests elements of peaceful civilization.” Well, absolutely. And we could all do with more of that as the end of the year approaches.

Better use of pumpkins

Alex Taylor from Thame, Oxfordshire, writes to the Daily Telegraph lamenting the wasted pumpkins to make Halloween lanterns.

In his lovely book, Eating In (published in 1987 and available in good second-hand bookstores), food writer Fay Maschler suggests an equally spectacular, but far more delicious, use of a pumpkin as a receptacle and ingredient for cooking. Cinderella soup. Cut off the top of a pumpkin, remove the seeds and fill the cavity with layers of fried bacon, croutons and grated Gruyere. Add 1/2 pint of liquid cream and milk to fill the “soup tureen”. Season, replace the lid and cook at 180 degrees for 2 hours. To serve, allow a moment of admiration before mixing the now soft pumpkin flesh into the soup.

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