#MondayBlogs Small Good Places: On Bookshops – Prof Andrew Thacker

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Issue 5 of Dawn of the Unread saw Byron Clough address the closure of independent bookshops

In this guest blog, Professor Andrew Thacker explores the challenges faced by contemporary bookshops. The rise of online selling and the ease of reading on digital devices paints a pretty bleak picture for print media. But then in 2015 something strange started to happen in America…  

On a recent trip to Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham my conversation with Ross, the owner, was interrupted while he got on with the proper business of selling books. First up, someone who wanted the book companion to BBC’s television’s Blue Planet. Ross found the book she wanted.  Then there was a guy who brought a couple of slim volumes of poetry to the counter: ‘I’m not sure you’ll want to buy that one once I tell you the price’, said Ross.  Sure enough, the high cost of this slim volume imported from the US put the buyer off, but he picked something else up instead and then a conversation was held between the two about a future reading by the said poet.  Finally, a man with a holdall laden down with what seemed to be second-hand books came up to the counter, his arms stuffed full of left-wing pamphlets and magazines: ‘Have you got the latest Socialist Register?’ he enquired.  Not yet available was the reply, but Ross did furnish him with a tote bag for his purchases with the hammer and sickle upon it, a freebie that delighted the customer. A short conversation about the radical bookshop, Housman’s, in London then ensured.

This is the culture of the modern independent bookshop that I love, the experience of which you cannot get with one-click buying on-line. Recently I was lucky to be at an academic conference in Boston, in the US, and took time out from the papers and panels to visit a bookshop.  This was the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located just off the campus of Harvard University, and a shop that has been supplying poetry alone since 1927.  The shop was beautiful, a small place which treasured books as material objects and which exuded a calming presence, wonderfully suited to the somewhat rarefied pleasures of slim books of verse.  I browsed and soaked up the atmosphere, admiring the numerous photos of visiting poets, as well as the broadside poems printed on a wall, a tradition going back several centuries.  I bought a tiny book of obscure poems and left, recharged by the cultural aura of the shop as much as by the pleasure in purchasing the actual book.

How much longer, however, will such places as the Grolier – the independent bookshop devoted to the culture of books, poetry and otherwise – continue? I suspect all academic bookbuyers of a certain age (which is what I am) will have memories of a favourite bookshop, whether on campus or nearby, or a secondhand store in which bargain copies of textbooks could be snapped up. For me the musty smell of an old bookshop is a sensory pleasure akin to Proust’s madeleine. But does the bookshop still hold a special place in the hearts of all academics?  And do the obscure pleasures of the bookshop still appeal to our students?  With the disappearance of many independent bookshops often staff and students just don’t live anywhere near to one of the ‘small good places’, as the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, described certain bookstores (along with cafes and bars) that formed the heart of particular urban communities.  We might well give our undergraduate reading lists to our campus bookshop, but do we – like 72% of our students according to a recent survey by market researcher Nielsen’s – then purchase our own books online, aware that time spent browsing away from our office in a physical bookshop for the latest monograph recommended by a colleague is time away from attending meetings?  Isn’t it just quicker to order via Amazon’s ‘one-click’ service on the app on our phone, then turn back to our emails? On the Berkeley campus of the University of California the central student union now has an Amazon pick-up point for students (and presumably staff) to order online and collect on campus: with around 40,000 students enrolled here I am sure they are doing good business, even though the spartan book-free space does not resemble anything like the glorious labyrinth of a traditional bookstore.

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I have been carrying out research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on the history of the modern bookshop, exploring how independent bookshops such as City Lights in San Francisco (publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) or Shakespeare and Company in Paris (publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses) have been important institutions in the development of modern literature and culture.  But I have also been interested in the wider culture of the contemporary bookshop, challenged as it has been over the last two decades by the rise of online selling and digital reading devices, as pioneered by Jeff Bezos with the founding of Amazon in 1994.  A few years ago it appeared that bookshops were in a state of terminal decline. According to an article in Daily Telegraph in 2011 nearly 2000 bookshops had closed in Britain since 2005; while The Bookseller reported that independent bookshops closed at the rate of one a week in 2012, leaving just over 1000 such premises. Even the big chain booksellers, partly responsible for the closure of many independents in the 1980s and 90s, were threatened, and the closure of Borders in 2011 was taken to be a sign that the days of physical bricks and mortar bookshops were coming to a close.

However, in 2015, Oren Teicher, the head of the American trade organization, the American Booksellers’ Association, announced a rise in the number of new independent bookshops, and boldly claimed that “We are engaged in decoupling the word ‘endangered’ from ‘bookstores’.” While in the UK, the Publishers Association this year revealed that sales of print books were rising, while sales of e-books fell for the first time since 2011.  Of course, some or much of this rise in sales of print books could have occurred online rather than in physical locations, but the decision of Amazon in 2015 to open its first bricks and mortar store in Seattle seemed to indicate that the times were changing for bookselling.

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Foyles bookshop appeared in issue 7 of Dawn of the Unread

The endurance and (partial) revival of the bookshop is due to more than simply the sale of books: bookstores for many years now have been places where other activities have proliferated, such as drinking coffee, listening to authors reading, attending a book group, or viewing an exhibition.  Many of these practices have been around since the early twentieth century: Harold Monro’s famous Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury opened in 1913 and hosted weekly readings for many years; it also rented out rooms above the shop to poets and artists such as Robert Frost and Jacob Epstein.  The current manifestation of Shakespeare and Company in Paris has carried on this tradition, with Jeanette Winterson writing in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), of a recuperative period spent within its booklined walls. The lure of a well-designed spatial environment for a bookshop, as seen in the revived Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, shows that what continues to attract people to the physical bookshop seems to be more than simply its new or used contents.  The Last Bookstore, in downtown Los Angeles, is perhaps the last word in what might be called a ‘destination bookshop’, ones visited by tourists for the experience of their interiors more than for the quality of their stock.  The Last Bookstore offers a fascinating use of interior space and dimmed, noir-esque lighting to creating an atmosphere of the bookshop as purveyor of quirkiness.  Some traditionalists might blanch at the use of books as architectural features, as in the hundreds used to support the cash-desk or those that carve out its impressive ‘book tunnel’. But for anyone who has ever been entranced by the quiet charms of a bookshop, it is certainly worth a visit.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that Blackwells, one of the oldest and most established academic booksellers in the UK, announced in The Bookseller recently that it was trialling two ‘enhanced concept stores’ on the university campuses of Cardiff and Liverpool, integrating their online selling into the physical location and creating a more ‘spacious’ and ‘social experience’, according to Blackwell’s head of sales, Scott Hamilton, that combines a café, seating, and digital display screens. “The big thing I wanted to change was the look and feel of the shops,” said Hamilton. “They are more modern, the ceilings are more open.’  It might only be a matter of time before the styling of The Last Bookshop has an impact upon a new campus bookstore, hoping that students will rediscover the pleasures of bookshop browsing as part of metropolitan hipster culture, along with craft beers and vinyl records (The Last Bookstore has a very good vinyl section).

The Nielsen’s survey suggests that bookshops, of all varieties, retain an important function in the student experience: of students buying new print titles during last academic year, 41% bought from a physical bookseller, with 25% from a campus bookshop, and 18% from a high-street shop.  Not surprisingly, however, Amazon still dominates the selling of books to students, with 70% of respondents having brought from the online giant, although the share of total volume sales had grown in campus bookshops. Small, good places might have a long struggle ahead of them, especially if Amazon move onto more university campuses, but there are at least the glimmers that the pleasures of physical bookshop culture will endure and the interactions between bookseller and customer that I witnessed recently in Five Leaves will continue.

Andrew Thacker is a Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University. As part of the Being Human Festival he will be giving a talk on ‘The rise, fall and revival of the modern bookshop’ 7-8pm, Tuesday 21 November, Five Leaves Bookshop, FREE. You can book your place here

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#MondayBlogs Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

burning-photograph dhl

A friend of mine recently splashed out on a painting by the Nottingham-born artist Paul Waplington. Naturally, this gave me an excuse to photocopy a short essay by Lawrence called Pictures on the Wall and post it through her letterbox. ‘The human race loves pictures,’ declares Lawrence, ‘barbarians or civilised, we are all alike, we straightway go to look at a picture if there is a picture to look at’. This is perfectly true, although my first port of call for distraction and stimulation is the contents of a bookshelf. I remember once being shown around a house I was interested in buying, and being put off by the seller’s book collection. I just couldn’t bring myself to live in a space that had housed such a shabby collection of fiction. My partner at the time was appalled by what she perceived as my lack of sincerity. But I was deadly serious. The space had been polluted and I didn’t want to catch anything. We split up a year or so later.

Lawrence is fascinated by the pictures we hang on our walls. But needless to say they bring as much pleasure as pain. He takes particular offence at painting that have been hanging around for a long time as they represent ‘sheer inertia’ and a ‘staleness in the home is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. He uses an analogy of fashion to explain these sentiments. Fashion in clothes changes because ‘we ourselves change, in the slow metamorphosis of time,’ consequently it is hard to imagine ourselves in the clothes we bought six years ago because we have since become different people. This is true, although fashion is also a process of aesthetic obsolescence that keeps the greasy wheels of capitalism turning.

Our reason for buying paintings, he argues, is that the painting somehow reflect or respond to some feeling in us. But as we grow (or age) these feelings change. If our feeling for a picture are superficial, our feelings for the picture wears away quickly. This is definitely true and I witness this every year when there’s a poster sale outside Nottingham Trent University for the latest batch of students. There’s only so long you can have a poster of a ‘doh’ing Homer Simpson, Bob Marley toking on a joint, or Tupac ‘God rest his soul’ Shakur on your wall before you feel a bit silly.

Lawrence, as subtle as a flying brick, has a simple solution for dealing with unwanted unfeeling pictures: Burn them.

Now this might seem extreme at first, and it is, but that’s because Lawrence doesn’t like art that’s reduced to materialism. ‘It is fatal to look on pictures as pieces of property. Pictures are like flowers, that fade sooner or later, and die, and must be thrown in the dustbin and burnt’. A picture, therefore, is only useful when it is ‘fresh and fragrant with attraction’. Once the aesthetic emotion is dead, the picture is no more than ‘a piece of ugly litter’.

And there’s more…

It’s a fallacy to see a picture as part of the architectural structure of a house, as somehow opening up the walls and functioning with the same purpose as say, the fire. Oh no. ‘The room exists to shelter and house us, the picture exists only to please us.’ Pictures are decoration, nothing more.

It’s at this point that a lot of readers probably pack in reading this six page essay. Life is too short to be scalded for having a painting on your wall for a decade. Some, good to his word, may even set Lawrence’s essay on fire. But try to have the one thing that Lawrence lacks, patience. He’s toying with you. He’s slowly building up to a bigger idea on how to make art more accessible to the masses. And to do this he brings in the example of public libraries.

In the 18th century books were very expensive. If you asked a gentleman whether he had read so and so he would most likely reply ‘I have a fine example in folio in my library’. Books being expensive rendered them a form of property, thereby overwhelming ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was only the development of the lending library system that changed the direction of the conversation to the contents of the book, the pleasure of reading for readings sake. ‘The great public was utterly deprived of books till books ceased to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.

FirstFoliosFolgerShakespeareLibrary-banner

Lawrence argues that the same principles apply to art as long as a ‘picture is regarded as a piece of property, and not as a source of aesthetic emotion.’ He suggests that we need a Circulating Picture scheme that follows the principles of the library, where we can hire pictures as we hire books until we’ve ‘assimilated their content’. Obviously he doesn’t offer any practical advice on how to implement such an arrangement, but the sentiments are honourable.

LORD-BIRO
In 2010 Lord Biro and me created a ‘recession-busting’ Hirst skull covered in jelly tots. You can read about that here.

Money is always a corrupting influence for Lawrence, and he suspects that a man who pays a hundred pounds for a canvas is doing it in the secret belief, or hope, that one day it will be worth thousands of pounds. The world of modern art supports these accusations, not least the vulgarity of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. But I think Lawrence’s arguments don’t necessarily apply to my friend. She hasn’t purchased her Waplington painting for financial reward, she’s bought it because he’s a local artist and, perhaps, it helps her feel a sense of home, within her home. And she certainly wouldn’t burn it because that’s wasteful and she’s someone who thinks about her impact on the planet. I’m quite sure she didn’t bother to read Lawrence’s essay on paintings but this doesn’t matter. If we’re still friends in ten years and the Waplington is still on her wall, I’ll post another copy through her door.

In 2019 Paul Fillingham and me will be creating a DH Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will include artefacts that address aspects of Lawrence’s life. Perhaps ‘Pictures on the Wall’ will be one of these artefacts. If you’d like to get involved and have any suggestions,  please submit your ideas here.

Source: #MondayBlogs Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

#MondayBlogs #Readablackauthor

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On Saturday around 40 or so people gathered in Market Square for #readablackauthor as part of #blackhistorymonth. It was originally meant to take place outside the Council House but we were moved on because there was a wedding and presumably the bride and groom didn’t want a bunch of eager readers’ photo bombing their special day.

I love events like this because they force me to think about my reading habits. Although I am increasingly listening to books on audio (I have to get a lot of buses) and reading on electronic devices when researching (because I can underline passages and then magically export these as a word document) physical books are still my favourite means of reading. Therefore my bookshelves are a good indicator to my reading habits.

The bookshelves in my front room are in alphabetical order. But they’re also classified according to genre. In addition to this I have two sections on Nottingham authors and one on Booker winners. So I was quickly able to gauge not only how many Black authors I had but where they fell in terms of these categories. In terms of the Booker prize there have been three Black authors who have won the prize since it was launched in 1969. These are Ben Okri (1991), Marlon James (2015), and Paul Beatty (2016). Of these three winners I have read and own a copy of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Killing. In terms of Nottingham authors I have three Black authors on my shelves. These are Panya Banjoko No Tears For Me My Mother, Norma Gregory Jamaicans in Nottingham and a couple of Arthur Ness collections by Wilf Morgan.

My access to wider Black literature has largely come about through the book group I’m in. It’s a real diverse mix of people and at one point included members from Italy, Germany, Scotland, France, Russia, and America. Consequently, I’m not only encouraged to see books from different perspectives but the books that I’m introduced to tend to be authors I’ve not heard from. But I should point out that none of the members of my book group are black.

Our selection for October is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) which deals with complex representations of homosexuality and bisexuality and was written before the Gay Liberation Movement. But before reading this I’ve started on another of his novels, Another Country (1962), which deals with race, nationalism, sex and love in an era of ignorance, aggression and hope. There’s a real energy to it and I can’t put it down.

The minute I googled Baldwin I immediately recognised his face but I was completely unaware of how much he’d written and what a pivotal role he played in the Civil Rights movement. This then led me to watch the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. He died before completing it and his publishing house McGraw-Hill took the unprecedented step of suing his estate to recover the advance they’d paid him for the book. The lawsuit was eventually dropped although the damage was done.

Baldwin is such an eloquent talker and frames the civil rights movement in terms that make most sense to me: The history of Black America, of slavery, is the history of America. You can’t separate the two. But getting people to recognise this is difficult and requires courage: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

When I created Dawn of the Unread my intention was to celebrate Nottingham’s literary history and to get people reading about their home town. However, this raised many issues, one of which was the lack of Black representation. This wasn’t through choice. It was a fact of history. There are very few Black Nottingham authors. Therefore our last issue was dedicated to George Africanus and George Powe and ended on a positive note, celebrating the contribution of organisations such as Nottingham Black Archive (NBA) who are helping to address this balance. The NBA were also responsible for the flash reading mob on Saturday.

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#ReadaBlackAuthor was at 2pm on October 21st in Old Market Square, Nottingham.

#Mondayblogs: The oldest library in Scotland

kirk entrance

The Orkney Islands are made up of roughly 70 islands with 980km of coastline to keep you suitably distracted. The archipelagos are home to a ridiculous number of Neolithic sites that span back over 5,000 years and are lit up in the winter months by the Aurora Borealis. But I’m not here for that. I’m here for the oldest public library in Scotland.

Kirkwall is the capital of the mainland and home to the library. You know you’re getting close when you spot the tip of St. Magnus Cathedral and its red sandstone which has been worn away by fierce winds over the centuries. According to David M.N Tinch, the Cathedral possibly held the first collection of books as far back as 1544 for use by the clergy. But as these were all written in Latin they didn’t serve much use to the general public.

William Baikie, a local gent and bibliophile, was persuaded to bequeath his ‘eight score’ volumes to Kirkwall given that he was a confirmed bachelor. He agreed, and by his death in 1683 the first Publick Bibliotheck of Kirkwall was formed. His collection contained mainly theological and polemical works which make for a bit of a dry read but were indicative of reading habits of the time. At first they lived in the home of Reverend James Wallace, but were later transferred to the Cathedral where the collection began to grow. In 1740 the books got their own space thanks to revenues from a recently built Tollbooth. During this period libraries of an ‘improving’ kind had also started to develop, supplying books to the Highlands and surrounding islands.

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St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

By the 19th century there was a greater demand for a broader range of books and after a public meeting on 17 March, 1815, an appeal led to a donation of 200 books and £70. This resulted in the formation of the Orkney Library, intended for use by the entire country. Baikie’s Biblitheck was incorporated into the library.

Although it originally used the Subscription Model, the library was flexible, allowing strangers to borrow books without charge. Lending times were determined by your postal code, with those living on the periphery of the mainland given three weeks to loan a book. Gradually public libraries started to pop up across the islands in Stromness, Sandwick and Birsay. In Westray, Thomas Belfour started a free library for people unable to buy books and in 1903 Andrew Carnegie, who had made previous donations to the community, offered £1,500 for the erection of a Free Library Building on condition that Kirkwall Council guaranteed an annual sum of £80 to ensure the libraries continual development. Many of the older books, including the original Bibliotheck, were deemed unsuitable for a modern library and sold to raise funds. These were purchased by Archdeacon Craven and now reside in the University Library, Aberdeen in the collection Bibliotheck of Kirkwall. The library at Aberdeen featured in a previous post.

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The library was completed by 1909 and Andrew Carnegie attended the opening, declaring ‘It is the mass of the people who will benefit by it, and who must consider it as their special institution.’ But it wasn’t until 1946 that the library service really started to develop with the appointment of Orkney’s first County Librarian, Mr. Evan MacGillivray. MacGillivray was a real force of nature with a strong vision for library provisions that were delivered with military precision up until his retirement in 1973.

By 1954 he oversaw the amalgamation of the County Library and Kirkwall Free Library. This was followed by the appointment of three full-time assistants who helped him implement his vision of regularly supplying books directly to homes, no matter how isolated or hard to reach, known as the Family Book Service. The Family Book Service was in effect a personal door-to-door service that saw book borrowing in the outer islands grow from 3,846 to 57,752! The service was introduced by MacGillivray himself and resulted in 54 out of 56 households in North Ronaldsay giving it a go. In 1963 a similar scheme of mobile libraries provided service to mainland readers. The incredible impact of this personalised and professional service is worth bearing in mind today as volunteers are gradually replacing professional librarians across the UK as a result of government cuts.

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Me reading in Stromness with Hoy in the background. Bust of George Mackay Brown in Kirkwall Library.

When I started Dawn of the Unread I put forward the question as to whether it was possible for libraries to remain a focal point of the community in the digital age. In the Orkney Islands, perhaps because bandwidth is pretty poor and internet connections are intermittent, the library is at the heart of the community. During my visit I witnessed a celebration of Scottish Pen’s 90th birthday. This included readings in Orcadian dialect from Orkney Stoor, the latest publication from Duncan McLean’s small press. There was also a duet by a local songwriter and poet that was absolutely magical. Upstairs in the Archives is a collection of juvenile manuscripts known as ‘The Minervian Library’ created by 12 year old Maria Cowen and her 10 year old sister, Clara in 1864. This beautiful hand drawn collection is worthy of its own blog which I’ll publish next Monday.

The library itself saw a constant flow of people of all ages and I spent a good couple of days with the poet Aly Stoneman (author of our Ms. Hood issue) reading everything from the diaries of an Orkney farmer from the 1700s, to the poetry of George Brown Mackay, to the brilliant memoir The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. The librarians were fantastic, offering support and guidance to our endless questions, continuing the fine work started by Mr. Evan MacGillivray. But everything you need to know about the ethos and function of this library is in the motto on the County Library bookplate: “Faill not to keep your sone diligent reading and wreating, yt he losse not what he hes attained” William Baikie

Source: The Orkney Library, David M.N. Tinch

Orkney Library and Archive website

FURTHER READING

The best way to support libraries is to use them. Here’s my Orkney-inspired reading list.

  • David M.N. Tinch (1983) The Orkney Library: A Short History 
  • Duncan McLean (1994) Bucket of Tongues
  • Duncan McLean (2015) Orkney Stoor
  • Maggie Fergusson (2012) George Mackay Brown: The Life
  • George Mackay Brown (2014) Beside the Ocean of Time
  • George Mackay Brown (2014) Selected Poems 1954 – 1992
  • Amy Liptrot (2016) The Outrun
  • Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards (1981) Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney (Classics)

#MondayBlogs Joining up the dots…

In this guest blog, Izaak Bosman explains why he’s been fannying about on his laptop doing arty stuff to get you lot reading.  

dotu new

There is a spectre haunting the city of Nottingham – the spectre of Dawn of the Unread. I find this phenomena fascinating, especially as a literature student who grew up in and around the town itself. But before I began studying at the University of Sheffield last September, I had largely neglected my local literary heritage. D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Alison Moore and Mary Howitt were names I recognised, of course, but not writers I had read myself. This has gradually begun to change, as I have since started to recompense for my negligence of Nottingham’s finest.

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And so I welcomed the opportunity to get involved with the project itself, as I was commissioned to devise a series of digital artefacts by James to help promote local literature and its corresponding establishments. In essence, I was commissioned to create a set of spoof advertisements centred on the Pop Art of the 1960s. Collages, in effect, compiled from old cartoons, commercial posters, and other assorted items. In creating the images, then, I followed a methodical process. I began by creating a polka dot backdrop layer, playing with the hue to create different colour pallets, before imposing characters I had cropped out of advertisements or artworks onto it. Then I added the text. Speech bubbles and captions added literary twists as businesspersons spoke with the Nottingham dialect and schoolchildren looked up to D. H. Lawrence as though he were a superhero. These punchlines replaced outrageously sexist remarks, as women went from being hung up about hair and makeup to being far more interested in their personal book collections. Satirising convention, then, was essential to the creation process.

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I suppose there are parallels between the digital artefacts and the Dawn of the Unread project itself. Both are reminiscent of bygone days, and both seek to explore the past from a modern perspective. This reimagining makes literature accessible, relatable even. And that is the way it should be.

dotu on computer

@IzaakBosman