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British bookshops suck (mostly)

Some time ago, Michael Jennings of this parish caused a stir by suggesting a way of subverting the leftist intent of the staff who decide what sort of books they recommend to customers at Britain’s high street bookstores. While strictly against the rules of property, I totally sympathised with Michael’s intent and his annoyance that the bookstore seemed to be run this way.

It has not got any better in the bookshop world, as far as I can tell (at least not in Britain. Things may be different elsewhere). Earlier this week I spent a quick lunchbreak wandering around the nearby Books Etc. store in Holborn High Street. After browsing through a fairly sparsely-stocked crime and general fiction section, I took a peek at the current affairs and history section. The history bit was okay, if not particularly impressive. But the current affairs section was in a different class. It might have been stocked by the sort of folk who write for the Democratic Underground or who think Michael Moore is a sort of latter-day saint. Books by Chomsky, Gore Vidal, John Gray (a pet hate of mine); Michael Moore, of course; then various authors I have not heard of before but the titles give the general gist: “George W. Bush and the Arrogance of Power”; Why Do People Hate America?”, and blah, blah, blah. Apart from one slim volume by noted scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis, it was a total washout.

Now what is going on here? Clearly, the folk who decide what books to sell and what books to publish presumably want to make money. I tentatively offer a few explanations: the impact of higher education and direct bias from bookstore staff. Dealing with the latter point first, I have found, while chatting to the folk who work in the stores, that most tilt to the statist left. Maybe they directly get to decide what is put up in certain parts of the store. With popular fiction, they have to stock Harry Potter and Nick Hornby like everyone else, but when it comes to politics, they get freer rein. That is my take anyhow.

But I also believe higher education has an effect on all this. The serious, non-fiction parts of bookstores cater for a perceived ‘high-brow’ market. Given that humanities departments, such as political and history ones, tend to tilt to the left in my experience, it follows that the main market for such books will tend to shift the same way. There is not – yet – a big market for non-fiction with a clear libertarian and conservative leaning.

In the Internet Age, of course, this may not matter so much. But as a bibliophile it bugs me to see the biggest high street bookshops stocking so much crud.

36 comments to British bookshops suck (mostly)

  • Gazaridis

    Went into my local Waterstones a few weeks back, went to the politics section (which was the smallest section there) to have a nose around and faced the same thing. Five or six copies of each Moore back, several more other anti-american books, with only a few individual copies of seemingly pro-american/globalisation/capitalism books there. I ended up buying Kagan’s Paradise & Power, which isn’t so much opiniated as an explanation of the differences between Americans and Europeans.

    And while I was looking around, I saw someone in a certain T-shirt behind the counter – naturally, it was a Che T-shirt. I now wish I went up to him and asked for “Michael Moore is a big fat stupid white man”. Going shopping again tomorrow, so I’ll see what I can see. Any recommendations while Im there?

  • It isn’t just a lean to the left. Try going to find the two pro-war left wing books in UK shops – Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman and the Christopher Hitchens can’t be seen for the huge mounds of Michael Moore.

  • Hmm.

    My experience of British bookshops is a bit different. Whilst I’ll acknowledge a bias towards “left” publications exist, I’ve usually seen (at least in the bigger bookshops) a reasonable range of more right wing material. Not enough to achieve numerical balance, but enough that people would realise that such books exist and might look at them out of curiosity (as I did!).

    Going back to my undergraduate days at Edinburgh Uni (1990-94), I remember seeing many of Hayek’s works at James Thins and Waterstones. I bought a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” (I wasn’t impressed, I’ve seen much better arguments for capitalism, including laissez faire, put forward than she manages) from one of those shops. NB this was at a time when I was a convinced green and bought lots of books on environmentalism. I also saw various works by Julian Simon at that point though I didn’t buy any.

    In my postgrad days in Birmingham, I found a similar balance of left/right books continued both at the Uni bookshops and the larger bookshops in Birmingham city centre. During this time I bought David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom and some books critical of “green” politics, e.g. Ronald Bailey’s “The True State of the Planet”, amongst ohers. I also saw various books of Robert Nozick’s, including Anarchy, State and Utopia.

    Most recently, in Glasgow (I’m back in my home town after leaving in 1990), I’ve perused the large politics/current affairs section in the enormous bookshop “Borders” on Buchanan Street, and the smaller but still decent sized section in Waterstones on Argyle Street. Again whilst there was a bias to the left, there was nevertheless a decent smattering of more rightwing books.

    And I’ve rarely seen a bookshop that didn’t stock classics such as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, or the autobiographies of the likes of Thatcher, Tebbit et al, in addition to autobiographies from lefties.

    And most bookshops these days do stock some pro Iraq war books in my experience, albeit usually outnumbered by the antis.


  • lindenen

    You know how there used to be lots of little communist bookshops, why can’t there be more right-wing libertarian bookshops?

    I’ve seen the same phenomenon in my local Borders and Barnes and Noble. I sometimes wonder if they get paid to put these books out. I’ve read some interesting stuff about how or why Barnes and Noble extensively displays certain books.

  • Errol

    I just heard Bernard Lewis interviewed on NZ (State!) Radio – sounds like he is worth reading.

    Hash: SHA1

    I for one don’t think that the biases of bookstore staff have anything to do with the distribution of books that are available in them, not in the chain stores at any rate. The fact is that all of the chain stores keep a careful eye on their inventory, and as such what you see on the shelves is a fairly accurate reflection of what the local buying audience wants to read; were it not so, they wouldn’t be able to afford the pricy rents charged for commercial space in places like Holborn. Supply-chain management is no longer a cutting-edge idea in the retail business.

    As uncomfortable as it may be for some to accept, the plain, ugly truth is that the likes of Michael Moore and Naomi Klein have a huge (and spectacularly uninformed) audience, while pro-globalization books by authors like Jagdish Bhagwati never have and never will, for obvious reasons of intellectual sophistication. One might as well ask why Tom Clancy novels outsell those of William Gaddis by 100 to 1.

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  • Julian Taylor

    From experience I find that many bookshops, especially Books etc , Borders and Waterstones have a tendency to customise their book sales according to the area they are based in. Often I have been informed that a certain book would not be in stock in that branch, but that I might try another certain branch of the same chain since it is ‘more their sort of thing’.
    Given the abundance of barristers and bureaucrats (Holborn is a close second to Whitehall for the weight of numbers of the faceless masses) in proximity to the shop you refer to, I would somehow expect it to be slightly leaning to the left.

  • Shawn

    I hate to admit it but I think Abiola is right. It is unlikely that the big chains have such cunningly biased workers, though it can seem as though they do.

    In all the larger book chains I have frequented here in Christchurch NZ, the political/current affairs sections are well stocked with Pilger, Moore, Klein and so forth. Those books are always prominently displayed with the covers facing out, while any of a dissenting nature are difficult to see.

    But I dont think this is a conspiracy of bias, but a simple function of the market. The fact is these books are selling, and selling big. Both anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism have a huge and growing market. I have lost count of the number of times in the last week alone I have been asked if I’m going to see F/911, and often by the sort of working class, playstation obsessed young people who would never think of going to see a documentary, let alone actually paying to see one at the multi-plex.

    Friends, we are losing the culture war, and losing it big time. I had once hoped that when the generation of baby boomers passed then there would be a chance to reclaim the youth, and there are at least some hopeful signs: http://rightgoths.com/ and http://www.conservativepunk.com/, but on the whole I think that we are up against it.

  • Julian Morrison

    Bjorn Lomborg’s book is a typical example of one the left hates but any bookstore will display prominently.

    I think really, a major biasing factor is as follows: leftists buy books full of politica rants; libertarians buy “start a business for dummies” and “learn C++”.

  • I’ve seen the same phenomenon in my local Borders and Barnes and Noble. I sometimes wonder if they get paid to put these books out.

    Yes. Most definitely yes. Almost ever major display you see in a store is bought and paid for. I’m lucky in that I work for a company where *all* new books get a turn on the front table – at least, all new books where we get at least five copies.

    It’s twofold, actually: the premium spaces near the entrances are paid for, and the number of books in the store helps determine what gets displayed – the chain I work for has an unofficial policy that we’re going to make displays out of stuff we have (of course, this is mostly because our corporate office has a really bad habit of not sending us the books we need for our mandatory displays.)

    However, this can be offset by someone being scrupulously fair, such as my general manager. He currently has an election display up with GWB books on the right, Kerry books on the left, and Ralph Nader kind of shoved in between. (The visual effect is hilarious and is as close to “forcing himself into the election” as you can get with a display.) Plus we have a wide variety of political leanings on our staff, so we tend to be gentle so as not to piss each other off.

  • Richard

    Considering the economic slant of this website I thought the phenomenon could have been explained away by forces of supply and demand. Perhaps institutions are directly distorting market forces.

    Anyway, I was wondering the same and actually began to think that there weren’t any sensible books out there to be bought. Politicos sometimes have a good mix though.

    And what’s all this about how studying a humanities course affects ideological outlook? I studied politics and have actually become more right wing so I do dispute that.

  • Guy Herbert

    Politicos only exists on line now, I believe. Even the traditional “radical” political bookshop is a vanishing phenomenon. In London I can only think of Judd St books (which verges on being a general bookseller), and Bookmarks (geddit?) at the bottom of Gower Street. Maybe there are more hidden away in traditionally lefty locations. They’ve been squeezed out partly by the likes of Waterstones and Borders (the wicked capitalists) providing what were their best selling materials on every high street.

    The other trouble is young people today don’t read books and magazines so much. The activist press that remains has moved online where production costs are cheaper and distribution easier.

  • Andrew

    I think the phenomenon is mainly due to the more left-wing books being better marketed. There isn’t an equivalent of Michael Moore on the right for example, so his books will always outnumber others in their own section. I’m not sure there is as much of a market for ranting, non-factual, incoherent ‘right-wing’ non-fiction.

    I don’t think people on the political ‘right’ get as wound up and ranty as those on the left. After all, the left wants to ‘save the children’ and bring peace the world. We’d rather leave them to save themselves.


  • klu01dbt

    If you think the political section of bookshops is biased have you been in a public library recently.

  • Johnathan

    Thanks for the comments. Do any of the readers remember the old Alternative Bookshop in Convent Garden, which ran in the 80s? It flogged mostly libertarian/liberal material on economics, everything from Miss Rand to Roger Scruton, although it later closed largely for financial reasons. The shop is essentially how I got involved in the UK libertarian activist scene nearly 20 years ago since Brian Micklethwait used to work there and kept nagging me to write for the LA!

    I fear Shawn is right about the culture war issue. The sad truth is that a lot of young folk think the sun shines out of Moore and Chomsky’s rear ends.

  • GCooper

    Intresting thread with some informed comments. I’m surprised, though, that no one has indicted the book publishers. That trade comes a close third to the BBC and teaching in being populated by Left-leaning windbags. It is massively more difficult to get a Right-leaning or libertarian book published and, even if it is, given the same sort of marketing clout as is provided both by the publishers and their fellow trvellers in the reviewing media.

  • I find British bookshops to be pretty good on the whole, actually. (Certainly they are much better than Australian bookshops). Disregarding what they display at the front of the store, and disregarding what the staff recommend, I don’t usually have any trouble buying the types of books I actually want to buy. It is a little annoying that British bookshops do not usually stock much in the way of books for which there is an American edition but no British edition, but this is more the fault of how the publishing businesss works than the bookshops themselves. (However, the British branch of Amazon seems to stock pretty much everything that is in print in the US, so these days it is utterly trivial to get American books if you genuinely want them).

  • Verity

    G Cooper’s comment is very apt. Consider the source of the books: the publishers.

  • Peter Sykes

    I’ve had this same experience in all the bookshops in London.

    Ask for Hayek and they look at you in a strange manner because the realisation hits them that you are not one of them. (i.e. believe in free markets rather than state controlled ones).

    I can’t wait to fight the anti globalisation mob at UCL this Autumn…….

  • Guy Herbert

    GCooper: That trade comes a close third to the BBC and teaching in being populated by Left-leaning windbags.

    As someone who has worked in the book-world in one way or another for 20 years, I can verify that it is default-lefty. But my contact with BBC-folk and teachers (who are much more varied in their opinions than the official line suggests) leads me to believe that actually it ranks #1.

  • R C Dean

    There isn’t an equivalent of Michael Moore on the right for example, so his books will always outnumber others in their own section.

    I’m sure the right has many lying sacks of crap.

    Actually, books by righty media personalities typically sell pretty well – Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh leap to mind.

    I hear the book by Kerry’s swift boat comrades is posting pretty good pre-release numbers at Amazon. Doubt it will have good week on week sales, though.

    I think Julian nailed it. Non-leftists have better things to do.

  • Gazaridis

    I went into Ottakars and Waterstones today looking for something to make me think, and I ended up going into GAME instead and buying Railroad Tycoon 3.

    The thing I realised today is how miniscule the politics sections are. Half the store is non-fiction, yet politics sections have seemingly extra-small bookshelves, which means there isnt much room for anything. Note I live in a small town, so there isnt a university nearby to influence things, but it seems that people just don’t want to buy these books. It’s unsurprising, seeing as the left does have a kind of monopoly. Not through shady dealings or anything, but as Julain Morrison said earlier a libertarian is much more likely to start their own business than become an artist. When I go back to uni in the autumn, I’ll take a closer look at the shops there, but I still think that there’ll be a leaning to the left not by ‘crushing of dissent’, but that no-one is making the case for libertarian views.

    Friends, we are losing the culture war, and losing it big time. I had once hoped that when the generation of baby boomers passed then there would be a chance to reclaim the youth, and there are at least some hopeful signs: http://rightgoths.com/ and http://www.conservativepunk.com/, but on the whole I think that we are up against it.

    Yeah, we are up against it. That’s because no-one knows who ‘we’ are. For example, as I was growing up, from say age of 16 I started developing political views. Comparing the Britain of today with the britain of the 70s (three day week and everything) it seemed pretty clear the free market did a great deal of good for us, and looking at Eastern Europe it was clear Communism was an awful thing. And at the same time, I thought discriminating against people based on race or sexuality was just plain stupid. However, none of the political parties or newspapers really seemed to fit that combination. So at 18, I went to university and still nothing there. I had the misfortune to end up in a college whose student union is controlled by private school communists, and the right seemed to be “up the arse with the working class” tories. It was only last year, aged 19, when randomly clicking on the Instapundit blogroll, that I found this site and started being able to put a name and coherent ideology to the abstract ideas I had.

    What’s surprising is when you talk to people my age there is a large body of people with similar views. A lot of people know moore talks out of his arse, and have a bunch of loosely associated political views but seeing as there’s no groups out there reflecting those views, they give up on politics. The problem is our ‘right wing’ is still trying to fight the 60s. The left of course is still fighting the 60s 80s and Cold War. There are a lot of people who think the government shouldn’t tell us what to do in our bedrooms, and who see that capitalism brings jobs and prosperity. But they feel that they’re on their own so don’t do anything about. Somehow the message needs to go out. Im not sure how.

    A libertarian Rage Against The Machine?? No idea. But we need to push the message of freedom as opposed to the left’s statism. It’s a good, strong message. But at the moment we’re shuffling around staring at our feet. We need a megaphone and a big pair o’ lungs.

  • Verity

    R C Dean – from your comments and the instances you cite, I think you are American, and book stores are one area in which the experiences of our two countries diverge. American bookstores are full of self-help, how to succeed in business, think positive – you, too can be a millionaire type books.

    British (and I think European) booksellers in general are lefties and firmly disapprove of striving capitalists.

    There is no British equivalent of Ann Coulter and no British equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. I doubt whether either of them could find a publisher in Britain, even if they bothered to try. Ann Coulter, who I adore, would be regarded as a raving lunatic. And the fact that she is terribly witty would also militate against her (trivial, you see; not serious enough to be commenting on the weighty matters of inequality and identity politics). The fact that she is also gorgeous, and wears make-up and clothes that emphasise her long legs would signal, to the lefty mind: lightweight. Never underestimate the power of spite and envy in the lefty mind.

  • Dale Amon

    After reading the interesting comments by our ever faithful and interesting readership (this is why blogs are better than newspapers!) I have a few disconnected comments to make myself.

    The Culture Wars. This is why Samizdata exists and why we are the way we are.

    ‘right wing and libertarian’. I shudder whenever someone says that. We’ve perhaps a 50% overlap in beliefs with the right… the other 50% overlaps with the left. Both ‘halves’ have to do with individualism and being left alone.

    British publishers. I know the SF author Jim Hogan fairly well. He’s a top hard SF writer in the US market but hardly known over here. Although British and living in Ireland, he was deemed not right for the UK market because of his rather libertarian views, views which show up in his novels.

    British bookstores. I remember one day I went looking for something interesting to read while I was on the staff at Queens University Belfast. I dropped in the campus bookstore and made a bee-line for the economics section. I swear I could not find a single book withouth “Marx’, “Lenin’ or “Engels’ in the title… oh, except for a handful for diversity which voiced opinions of the other side: Trotsky!

    ‘We have no Michael Moore’. Well, true. But we do have PJ O’Rourke, an hilariously witty guy whose books I have found in the most left of households. ‘Every joke is a tiny revolution.’

  • Susan

    I stopped going to bookstores since I discovered
    Amazon and Bookfinder.com (for used and rare books). You can always find what you are looking for, the reviews section is useful, and you can often pick up slightly used hardbacks from Amazon’s “used” book service for $10-$11 plus shipping. A total bargain when many non-fiction hardbacks run $35-40 apiece.

    For counter-trend reading, I heartily recommend Jean Francois Revel’s best-seller “Anti-Americanism.” Well-written and he makes a good case that irrational anti-Americanism is inextricably intertwined with anti-liberalism (which he defines as individual rights, liberal democracy and free market economics.)

    Bernard Lewis has written many excellent books about Islam and Islamic history. My favorite one is “The Muslim Discovery of Europe.” Another good read is “Race and Slavery in the Middle East” and the “The Political Definitions of Islam” (which lays out, in a round-about fashion that may not be the author’s intent, why Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy.)

  • Susan

    with anti-liberalism (which he defines as individual rights, liberal democracy and free market economics.)

    Sorry, I meant that Revel defines liberalism in those terms, not anti-liberalism.

    A lot of his conclusions, at least those regarding the Euroepan academic, political and media elite, are ones that I reached independently myself, simply by reading the BBC, The Independent and al-Guardian over the past two or three years.

  • matthew

    Come on… right wing people have jobs, (not public domain make it up occupations), so don’t read as much, demonstrate as much, winge as much , as the bearded book buyers. No sexism intended

  • One of the hobbies that enlivens my trivial existence is taking all the copies of the Ecologist out of the Science magazines section in Borders and putting them with the comics instead.

    One thing that I notice is that the “politics” section tends to be something of a lowest common denominator. One can find Monbiot’s Age of Consent there, but if you look across the aisle in “Economics” you find the serious material like Martin Wolf’s new book. Similarly, with Michael Moore – the more detailed and accurate recent work by the likes of Fukuyama or Ash tend to be in history or international relations instead.

  • Adrian

    G Cooper raises the highly relevant issue of the publisher being the one to decide what book will make it to market under his imprint. Perhaps this is why Theodore Dalrymple had to go to Chicago to find a publisher for ‘Life At The Bottom’ despite its British themed content.

    Additionally, the local public library system in my old ‘hood (the N London People’s Republic Of Haringey) had a clear out of all non-left literature in the early 90’s…great bargains to be had on sale but it makes one wonder about the ‘balance’ no longer available.

  • David Mercer

    My wife worked this last Christmas in a Borders here in Tucson, AZ. The overwhelming majority of the staff had the lefty bent that would be expected in a university town, but the shelving sections and what’s ordered are mostly determined by Corporate and their number crunchers.

    You should have SEEN their reactions when a “Military History” section was created post-9/11, they went barking mad over it! It was delicious indeed for my wife to remind them of it’s existence and watch the veins pop out.

  • These books are successful mostly because they are fun and easy to read. It’s lazy stuff. It doesn’t require thinking; it’s just another story. Moore’s books are like his movies, his movies are like the books. Intellectual fast-food simply sells. Populism is popular in a way Bjorn Lomborg will never be; yes his prose is clear but it still requires a lot more active neurons than a Moore rant or yet another western self-loathing tirade from Chomsky. The darn book comes with data, graphs and 3,000 notes and references for crying out loud. Never mind that not a single page tells you anything that agrees with conventional wisdom. Nothing you want to hear if you want to feel like you are well informed; never mind it can actually make you feel somewhat dumb for believing all that other stuff. Who wants to shell money and time for that ?

    Another thing these books are exceedingly good at is emotional pretense; they understand what emotion best conveys and supports their intent. Anger means you are serious about what you mean; that you are ‘genuine’ and, quite possibly, honest. Dismissal means you are controversial, ‘engaged’, daring, secure and also honest. Humor is a sign of sincerity and the ability to use it implies trustworthiness and approachability. And so on.

    Now compare to Lomborg’s patient yet fairly flat prose. Or Bagwati’s work. There is no comparison here : in this market, Moore and co. are Hollywood, Lomborg et al. are avant-garde elitists.

    There are a few rare exceptions. Steven Pinker, for instance, can write fun entertaining yet very serious stuff but the ambitious topics he chooses prevent him from keeping it short.

  • llamas

    Ann Coulter has an extensive analysis in her book ‘Slander’ about how the major publishing houses invest extensively in books with left-leaning themes, which are often commercial failures, while studiously avoiding books with right-leaning themes, which are often commercial successes for the smaller houses which do publish them.

    So the bias may not be at the bookstore, but rather one or two steps up the food chain.



  • And I’d expect Ann Coulter to say exactly just that. Everything is a conspiracy.

    See the argument above. If I was a publisher, I’d go with what sells too. And the fact is, this stuff sells. It’s just easier to market what people want to hear, period.

  • llamas

    Well, I wouldn’t expect Ann Coulter to be non-partisan, either. But the really interesting tales she tells are of those books with right-wing themes which were repeatedly turned-down by major publishers, only to be runaway best-sellers for minor-league publishing houses. The Regnery imprint is a repeated theme.

    And, of course, the converse – books with left-wing themes which were hyped to the rafters by their major-league publishers, only to bomb at the check-out line.

    The best tale is of the book ‘Fortunate Son’, which the author alleged contained proof – proof! – of President Bush’s past use of cocaine. The publisher gave a five-figure advance to the previously-unknown author, who had never met with his editors. The book was on its way out the door before gross factual errors and the author’s felony criminal record popped onto their radar, and it was hurriedly withdrawn.

    So, apparently, major-league publishers are not concerned with just what sells – or not so concerned, that is, as to take on a major right-wing author with a track record of success. Bernard Goldberg, anyone? Or Ann Coulter herself, for that matter? I particularly like the story of David Brock, who couldn’t get arrested when he wrote a book critical of Anita Hill, but who is today the darling of the publishers – now that he’s writing books with left-wing themes.



  • llamas

    And just today, we have the announcement of Michelle Malkin’s new book, which casts a critical eye upon the received wisdom that the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during WW2 was a civil-rights horror based solely in racism. Apparently (I have not read the book) Ms Malkin uses new intelligence data and other history to make the case that there was a very significant Japanese intelligence operation among the Japanese-American community at the time and that their internment may, in part at least, have been based in a prudent regard for national security.

    This argument, of course, is anathema to the mainstream Left, for whom this story is a signal mark of institutional racism which is often held up as the example which we must avoid in our dealings in the War on Terror. “We locked up 100,000 US citizens for No Reason!”, they cry. ‘Never Again!”.

    Well, turns out that there may have indeed been some very good reasons for doing this. Maybe President Roosevelt actually did what he did with the best interests of the nation at heart, and not mere racism or short-term political expediency.

    Could she get a main-stream publisher interested? As she says, ‘not with a 100-foot pole’. Who is publishing the significant analysis of a dark period of US history, which may cast doubt on a sacred cow of the ACLU and its fellow-travellers? Why, Regnery, of course. I’ll be watching for it in the ‘New non-fiction’ section of my friendly local Borders. Bet you a beer it won’t be there, and that I’ll have to go searching for it.



  • Julian Taylor

    Trying to find out information relating to the Indian Mutiny I shunned the bookstores mentioned so far in this post and tried Hatchards (Link) in Piccadilly. Not only was I dealt with by someone who actually had knowledge about the subject (try that in Books etc), but I was offered the choice of 3 books currently in stock, of varying political and historical opinion, and told that they could obtain a further number of relevant books within a matter of days, should I require it.