Bookshop news and events

The Hidden Pleasures of Life: An evening with Theodore Zeldin on Thursday 11th June


Theodore Zeldin, the astonishingly intelligent and highly esteemed philosopher was, unsurprisingly, wonderfully profound – he talked for about 25 minutes to kick proceedings off and he explained his thinking behind the search for a meaningful life. Sitting on a tall coffee shop stool and speaking into the microphone, he radiated thoughtfulness and wisdom – he talked about (and I’m paraphrasing a little here as I stupidly wasn’t taking notes) our minds being like antique shops, full of – whether we realised it or not – ways of thinking from many different disciplines and centuries – the result being a rather cacophonous babble of different voices.

He said that he didn’t want to try and summarise his entire book in a short time because to do so would be glib and that all thinkers were distorted in the way people interpreted them. (He also said that he really couldn’t understand why people want to meet authors, given that books are so different from talks. If this talk was a book, he explained, then he might take a day to write a sentence. And that day which led to the single sentence might have been preceded by ten days of research whereby the author would have read other authors who had written on the subject, none of whom agreed with one another!)

He explained why, from his point of view, the search for happiness was not an especially fruitful one since, even if we found personal fulfilment and satisfaction – there were surely too many appalling things going on in the world for anyone to declare themselves happy. Instead, he said, what he found interesting was the pursuit of a meaningful life – and that meant a life characterised by empathy and understanding, aimed ultimately at making the human lot an improved one. ‘Truth is beautiful’, he said, going on to say that he would rather be insulted to his face (if the insult was motivated by truthfulness rather than mere unkindness!) than be told something soothing but without sincerity.

Then we went into the discussion part of the evening and ultimately we ended up in pairs for our ‘conversational supper’. We were provided with menus outlining questions to ponder and discuss, and these included such ones as ‘How have your background and experience limited or favoured you?’, ‘Which parts of your life have been a waste of time?’, ‘How have your opinions and behaviour changed on the way the two sexes treat one another?’ and ‘What have you learned about the different varieties of love in the course of your life?’ All in all, there were twenty such questions from which to choose.

It might sound like a terrifying ordeal, but actually, the way it had been introduced – with gentleness and lucid explanation of what we were being encouraged to do – lent it a much calmer and unintimidating ambience than might otherwise have been the case, and it is true to say that the entire room of people entered into the exercise with great diligence. I was paired with a woman called Laura, we had never met before, but we both experienced a sincere and meaningful exchange of thoughts and views. We did not tread into areas that we felt uncomfortable about, but equally we traversed challenging terrain and we took seriously the process that Zeldin had suggested, namely that the person who chose the question should answer first to demonstrate that they were willing to answer it truthfully, then the other partner should answer the question, then the answers should be discussed further, and we should end by discussing how the conclusions we had reached would benefit wider humanity (people gasped with an understandable sense of near-overwhelmedness when he said this bit!)

Towards the end of the evening, Laura leant close to me (she knew I worked for Blackwell’s) and said ‘I don’t know how influential you are, but please make it so that Blackwell’s organises more evenings like this!’ The expressions and body language of around sixty other people in the room suggested that they would echo this feeling.

Then Zeldin gave a brief conclusion to the evening, took a few questions and ended with a book-signing and perhaps the chance to ask one or two questions more quietly while getting your book signed.

Empathy Week, of which this was the final event, seems to have been a thoroughly worthwhile experience. Many people would agree that there is far too little compassion, kindness and understanding in this world and that a good and humble starting point to redress that is simply to get to know better the people around us. By extension of that, how well do we really understand people from radically different cultures, or geographical locations, or experiences?

Imagine if, en masse, all of us earthlings cultivated our abilities to empathise further than they currently extend. If that immense pang of love we may sometimes feel for a loved one or a close friend was extended to fellow humans generally, would that not be a worthy achievement for twenty-first century humankind?



Happy 3rd Birthday Short Stories Aloud

Tuesday 28th April sees the third Birthday of what has become one of the most successful, most joyful, regular literary event in Oxford, Short Stories Aloud. We at Blackwell’s have been a part of it from the start so have a fair idea of why it has become so successful but to get the real (short) story it is best to hear from the founder, the energy and the inspiration of SSA, Sarah Franklin. Here she shares with us three of the unusual, perhaps unique, features of this fabulous event:

Three things you won’t get from other literary events

SSA_Logo_400x400Short Stories Aloud, Oxford’s friendliest literary night, is turning three! To celebrate outgrowing our old venue, we’ve moved our monthly shows to our new home in Blackwell’s Broad Street. If you like hearing short stories read by professional actors, you’ll love Short Stories Aloud. If you’re keen for this to be followed up by a rambunctious Q&A session with award-winning authors (including Catherine O’Flynn, Charlotte Mendelson, Margaret Drabble and Jessie Burton), you’re in luck. And (as) if you need other reasons, here are three more. There’s a reason the Huffington Post billed us as ‘unlike any other literary event’:

Reunions. More than one person has been serendipitously reunited with a long-lost friend at Short Stories Aloud. Many, many more have made lasting new friendships at our monthly evenings. This makes me nearly as happy as the next point:

Marriage. We have our first Short Stories Aloud wedding in the offing! Their eyes met over a crowded room full of people telling stories. There is no better grounding for a long and happy life together.

Cake*. Bring a cake (yes, or other baked goods) and you get in for free. There is always a LOT of cake. This is good, if financially insane.

The guest authors for our birthday show on April 28th at 7pm are Daisy Johnson and Tim Clare, with stories read by wonderful Steve Hay and Shelley Harris. Our May 19th show features Lissa Evans and Stuart Evers. If you’re not cake-inclined, this cornucopia of delights is yours for only £5 (£3 for concessions). Hope to see you there!

*in fairness, you could get cake first from our friends at Windsor’s Firestation Bookswap, but they are alas no longer running.

Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook or join us tomorrow at 7pm at Blackwell’s, Broad Street – you will be most welcome

We Have The Loveliest Customers – part 1,005,932…

The bookshop is blessed in having so many wonderful customers who many of our booksellers class as friends now. Every so often one of these lovely people does something that melts our heart. Here is a recent example.

A wonderful woman is a regular visitor to the shop and she approached us to talk about the lack of a mirror in our disabled toilet. She said that she wanted to provide one and would not hear of it when we said that it was something we should do. She had the idea of a bookish quote being engraved on the mirror but was not sure what quote would be appropriate. Her suggestion was that our booksellers should vote on the quote to use. So we did. Groucho Marx won.

Here is a picture of Ulric, manager of the Norrington Room receiving the mirror from this customer who has touched all our hearts. Sometimes the world can appear to be a very lovely place…


“Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend. Inside a dog it is too dark to read.” GROUCHO MARX

A Year at Blackwell’s Teen Fiction Reading Group

Want to join a reading group but don’t know how or where? At Blackwell’s we host three reading groups every month. If you are interested in knowing more information about any of these groups please feel free to email or visit their websites listed below.

• 1st Monday of the month- Books on the Broad, a fiction reading group

• 2nd Friday of the month- Blackwell’s Teen Fiction Reading Group

• final Wednesday of the month- Non Fiction Reading Group

Blackwell’s Teen Fiction Reading Group

We’ve been running a teen fiction reading group in the bookshop for four years now and every year the books we read together are as varied as the next. We’ve had fantasy with reading the classic Eragon by Christopher Paolini, historical fiction reading Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Weir and dystopian with Patrick Ness’ More Than This.

What is so great about being part of the group is that everyone has different thoughts and opinions on each novel. Sometimes we all loved it, with no one challenging the views but other times we’ve had disagreements which is great for discussion. The group is made up of teenagers from 13+ and adults who enjoy reading teen fiction; the group is for everyone who enjoys picking up a teen fiction book. We decide what we read together fairly, by putting forward suggestions, five being pulled out, these are then put on our blog and voted for. The one with the most votes is the book we read for the month.

Our meeting is on the second Friday of the month at 6:30pm-7:30pm in Cafe Nero on the first floor. We are always looking to welcome new members, so if you’re interested in knowing more about us please visit our website

Recommending books is what being part of a reading group is all about, so I’ve written little reviews on the books we chose to read together last year.

Click to Buy

January: Every Day by David Levithan

I really enjoyed reading this book. David Levithan, who is supposedly best friends with ‘it’ man of teen fiction John Green, has a great style of writing. In this novel the main character ‘A’ wakes up every day in someone else’s body. For that day only A has to live the life of this person, trying to follow through the norm so that no one really notices the changes. Until one day A meets a girl, one it wants to be with and to fight to get to know. So with determination A every day wakes up in a body, a boy or a girl, and finds Rhiannon. The novel looks at the importance to not judging people by how they look but what is inside, the difficulties of overcoming the times when A ends up in a girls body, the understanding of loneliness and sacrifice for love. It’s a really warming story and one that should be read. The only thing I will say is it is for a mature teen readership, there is content of a sexual nature so be aware of this.


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February: The Kissing Game by Aiden Chambers

Our meeting fell on Valentine’s Day this year and did we pick a nice fluffy romance? No we picked The Kissing Game by Aiden Chambers. This is the second book I’ve read of Aiden and I love his style of writing, he could write about anything and you’d want to know all about it. In this collection of short stories there are 16 to get your teeth round which made it both fun to discuss as a group but also difficult! As quoted on Aiden Chambers website from a quote by School Library Journal: “These 16 stories focus mostly on dangerous or awkward difficulties that can underpin a burgeoning relationship.” Some of them were sad, where we all sat there saying “It made me nearly cry” with others being shocking (I wont reveal which one I’m talking about, but, ew). It’s not one for the lighthearted but definitely worth a read, especially as the stories are short so can jump in and out as little or as often as you want to.


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March: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Book number one of the Old Kingdom trilogy, Sabriel by Gareth Nix is the perfect read for anyone who likes a fantasy adventure. Sabriel has been living in a boarding school, working hard and getting good grades. Her Dad comes to visit every few months and everytime he comes she is thrilled. Sadly, she gets note that her father has died and it is now her time to take over his role in the kingdom beyond the wall, as Abhorsen, the keeper of the dead, making sure they pass to the other side. With the help of her fathers talking cat, Sabriel must try to fix the kingdom that is turning inside out and at the same time work out who killed her father and make them pay.

Also the good thing is a series, so perfect to get your teeth into.


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April: Maze Runner by James Dashner

What I can I say, James Dashner created a great series when he wrote the Maze Runner. At times they are grossly disturbing but that is the charm of this series. What would happen if a group of teenagers were stuck in a maze with mechanical creatures set out to kill them… erm. But this series is honestly the perfect read for anyone who loved The Hunger Games, it’s fast paced with lots of unexpected twists in the series a whole and it’s guaranteed after reading the first book you’ll want to finish the series.


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May: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

I loved this series. A few years ago I read this book, to have something in common with someone I was sharing it with at the time and I honestly struggled to get through it and didn’t continue with the series. This time though I gobbled the story and went on to read the other three books in a short period of time after finishing Eragon with the reading group. If you love reading fantasy novels, this is one you have to read. A world with dragons, dragon riders, elves, bad kings, fight scenes, what more does a great fantasy novel need to have?! One of the best parts of it is the relationship between Saphira, the dragon and Eragon. Don’t be put off by the size of each of the novels, the extra content is needed and don’t judge it by the film… the book is a million times better.


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June: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Weir

Sometimes a book leaves a mark on you after you’ve read it and Rose Under Fire promises to do just that. It is based in the Second World War and is the story of a young women who bravely flies planes from England to France after they have been repaired for the soldiers, with no weapons. One day she ends up being captured by the Nazi’s and taken to a concentration camp, and this story is her survival in that camp. It looks at the obviously horrific treatment of the people there, the friendships that the girls formed in their bunk rooms and how these characters kept trying to be strong through this horrific experience. Elizabeth Weir is a research writer so the story has been told close to the true facts. Not a great book to discuss as a group but definitely one to be read.


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July: Half Bad by Sally Green

If you struggle with violence, this one may not be the book for you. Half Bad by Sally Green deserves being part of the Telegraphs top Teen fiction reads of 2014 ( but it is at times worryingly violent in a physical violent way. Nathan is a half witch, which means he is half white witch (good witch) and half black witch (bad witch). Half bads are treated as though they are dirt and Nathan, he is the lowest of the low because not only did his mother, who was the white witch, commit suicide and leave him, his father is the worst black witch of the lot, notorious for killing white witches and eating them… On a witches 17th birthday they must receive three gifts from someone in their family, which defines what type of adult they become, or they die, Nathan must find his father to save his life. In the meantime, there are hunters after him and with the help of a few he must defy all.


Click to Buy

August- Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Dystopian fiction at its best, Uglies is set in a world where beauty is the most important thing. Everyone lives the first 16 years of their life as an ‘Ugly’, where they are normal human beings with wonky ears and frizzy hair. When they reach the age of becoming an adult, they become a Pretty, where they are made to be perfect, given designer clothes and live the life of parties and happy fun. The government set in place that every person would go under intense operations to fix the imperfections of the human race, including their ability to think for themselves. They are told they must be this pretty person and spend their whole lives living for the day they become pretty and Tally is no different. Until she meets Shay. Shay fills a void that her best friend left behind when he turned pretty months before she was due to. Shay however tells her that there is a way of living without being turned and a whole new adventure starts.


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September: More Than This by Patrick Ness

I would highly recommend reading Patrick Ness if you haven’t read his Chaos Walking Series. More Than this is a weird but exciting read. Seth in the opening chapter is drowning and thinks he is dying. The next thing you know he wakes up in a deserted town with no one around. You learn about where he is, why he tried to commit suicide, how he survives. I can’t really explain more than this as it would reveal too much of the plot and the joy of this book is learning information as you read along.


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October-: Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas

This has to be my favourite read of the year. Set to be huge in teen fiction Throne of Glass I feel could be the next Hunger Games/Divergent/Maze Runner. There are three books out in the series already, technically four with a prequel written about Celaena’s life before Throne of Glass when she was an Assassin. Celaena is living in a prison where they are treated badly by the king. She is offered an ultimatum, she can continue living in the prison where she is going to die or she can represent the prince in a tournament to become the Kings Assassin. If she becomes the Kings Assassin she can be free in years, the only issue is, the King is the one man on the planet she detests and would rather she killed herself. In the meantime there is romance and the competition. You find out more about her as the book goes along, Caelena is feisty and funny and a character you really do love as she has lots of different layers. A must!


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November: Paper Towns by John Green

John Green. I don’t think this book needs a review because everyone must know about John Green and this book. Currently being made into a movie set to come out next year, Paper Town looks at the life of Quentin, the good hard working boy next door to Margo. Margo and him used to be the best of friends. One day she knocks on his door and they have this epic adventure, the next she has vanished and only Quentin can work out where on earth she is. Insert two brilliant best friends and you have the start of an epic quest to find where on earth Margo has vanished to. John Green is very good about writing friendships and I think this is done well in this novel.


Click to Buy

December: Let it Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

A nice little festive read, Let it Snow is a novel made of three stories which intertwine together. It’s fun to find the links and be like “Oh he was in the story before”. There isn’t enough Christmassy stories for Teen fiction so I think it’s great for that alone. Mixed feelings with the group for all of the stories but I think overall its a solid 7/10.



Want to join us?

Tariq Ali launches Karim Miské’s debut novel ‘Arab Jazz’

On Monday 9th February at 7pm, We are thrilled to be hosting the Oxford launch of Karim Miské’s debut crime thriller, ‘Arab Jazz’. Joining us to host the evening’s discussion will be journalist, author, radical thinker and the inspiration for the Rolling Stone’s ‘Street Fighting Man’, Tariq Ali.


Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Parisis a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse. The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm? In this his debut novel, Karim Miské demonstrates a masterful control of setting, as he moves seamlessly between the sensual streets of Paris and the synagogues of New York to reveal the truth behind a horrifying crime.

The novel has just been awarded France’s most prestigious award for crime writing and has been described by Tariq as ‘Intelligent and Gripping’. Join us for what is likely to be an extremely passionate and thought provoking talk where art begins to imitate life.

Tickets cost just £3 and are available to purchase from the customer service department of Blackwell’s Oxford or by calling 01865 333623.

Five Minutes with Samantha Shannon

To celebrate the publication of ‘The Mime Order‘, Samantha Shannon’s follow up to ‘The Bone Season‘, we will be hosting a very special afternoon event, on Saturday 31st January at the Sheldonian Theatre. Joining Samantha to discuss her books and the wonderful world that she has created will be Andy Serkis, best known for his acting roles as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar from ‘Planet of the Apes‘. Andy is also the founder of Imaginarium Studios which has purchased the rights to Samatha’s ‘The Bone Season‘. 

Samantha was kind enough to answer a few questions for Broad Conversation, in order to whet your appetite for the event…

Let’s start with an easy one – are you reading anything good at the moment?

I’ve got a few books on the go at the moment. The first one is Stone Mattress, the new collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood, which is full of her wonderful, dark wit. I’m quite a long way into an early translation of The Key, the final book in the Engelsfors trilogy by Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg. It’s a gritty, complex urban fantasy set in a small town in Sweden, following the struggles of six young women who discover that they’re witches. I’m also looking forward to starting The Chimes by Anna Smaill, a dystopia based around music.

The Mime Order comes out in the UK on 27th Jan. How was writing the second book different to the first? Are there any sneak peeks you can tease us with?

Unlike the first book, The Mime Order isn’t based in Oxford at all – it’s solely set in my home city of London. It follows Paige as she returns to London after her ordeal as a prisoner, determined to bring the truth about Scion to light, but it’s more of a challenge than she could ever have anticipated. It’s nerve-racking to have a second book coming out, but it was fantastically good fun to write, as I was able to show the reader much more of the Bone Season world – including some new characters – and delve deeper into the relationships between Paige and her fellow gang members.

You’re one of the most contactable authors I’ve seen, and are always answering fan questions and interacting with readers on your Tumblr. Has answering these questions had an impact on your view of the world you’ve created? Does it make you consider aspects of the books that you maybe hadn’t thought about?

It hasn’t affected the way I write the books, but it’s definitely thought-provoking when someone asks me a question about something I hadn’t thought about.

Has there been any scene in particular that was the hardest to write? What do you do if something just isn’t coming together?

The dénouement of The Mime Order was tough to write, as it’s a very long, action-heavy scene, spread over several chapters, and involves a large number of characters. The ending also took a few tries to get right, but I’m pleased with how it turned out.

And one really obvious question – how did you feel when Imaginarium Studios took on ‘The Bone Season’?

I was over the moon. A few studios were interested in acquiring the film rights, but as soon as I heard that Andy Serkis was one of the co-founders of Imaginarium, I was intrigued. I admire Andy’s dedication to developing his particular field of interest within the film industry, and I was certain that if any studio was going to make The Bone Season look amazing on the big screen, it would be this one. I’ve really enjoyed working with the Imagineers so far. They’ve since teamed up with Chernin Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox to make the film, and they now have a double Oscar-nominated screenwriter on board.

If you’re a fan of ‘The Bone Season’, and can’t wait for ‘The Mime Order’, book now to see Samantha and Andy in conversation! Tickets for the event cost £5. You can also pre-order ‘The Mime Order’ (published 27th Jan 2015) and get a free ticket to the event.

Simply visit the Customer Service Desk in the Broad Street shop, or phone them on 01865 333623. For enquiries email:

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest info.

Inspired By Blake Festival

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I am delighted to announce the upcoming Inspired By Blake festival, which will be taking place from 18th-31st January. A celebration of the genius of William Blake’s work, and his continuing relevance to so much art and culture today, the festival will run in conjunction with the Ashmolean Museum’s major exhibition, William Blake: Apprentice and Master.

Inspired By Blake is  absolutely chock full of fascinating events – we have a pretty fab website with tons of information about the festival, what’s on, and why Blake is so brilliant. The Blake blog, on the site, will be filled with exciting behind-the-scenes content from our booksellers, and exclusive pieces from bestselling authors. We’ll be posting on Tuesdays and Fridays, all the way up to and through the festival. Of course, Broad Conversation won’t be forgotten, so keep your eyes peeled on both sites!

We would love to hear from you, too, especially if you take any photos at the events! We’ll be using the hashtag #inspiredbyblake, so do join in!

Don’t forget, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest info.