An Extraordinary Reading List That Finds Magic In Everyday Life

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Welcome to It’s Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who’s reading what.
With more than 20 years of experience working with books in almost every field imaginable – as a publicist, agent, bookshop owner, literary scout and books editor – publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove still has an unbridled affection for the formative years she spent as a bookseller. "There is nothing quite like that pleasure of helping someone choose something to read and knowing they’re going to spend all that time with it," she says.
Just 16 years old when she started selling secondhand books under Waterloo Bridge, Lovegrove has worked at "every type of bookshop you can think of: Foyles, The London Review, Waterstones – I even worked at a WHSmith in Wimbledon," she laughs. In 2009, she opened an English language bookshop in Berlin, Dialogue Books.
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"I didn’t speak any German and I didn’t really have any money but I did have a very strong idea and a massive amount of conviction in my ability as a bookseller," says Lovegrove, who spent seven years in Berlin before she moved back to the UK. When I ask her why she moved back, she replies simply that it was time. "As I’ve become more of an activist, I’ve become more aware of certain hypocrisies, like does it really matter that there’s a thriving English language lit scene in Berlin? Or should we put our energy into the Turkish-German population who’ve been told for the last 25 years that their German isn’t good enough and they’re not supposed to be there?"
Asking what she calls "the bigger questions" is central to Lovegrove’s current role as publisher at Dialogue Books, an inclusive imprint that champions writers from BAME, LGBT+ and disabled backgrounds. "I’m constantly thinking about who books and stories are for and how we can make storytelling more accessible," she explains.
We visited Lovegrove at her Bristol home to find out more about her work as a publisher, why book clubs get a bad rep in the literary world and discovered that once a bookseller, always a bookseller.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
What are you reading right now?
I’m rereading American Spy, which is coming out in hardback in July. I’m reading it while watching Deutschland 83 because it’s just so fascinating how this part of the cold war is focused on Africa and it’s not something that people know about. I’m also rereading Cygnet by Season Butler and Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail, which is nonfiction and is based on her podcast. It’s a really interesting look at what it means to fail and I think she’s a really inspirational person. Lastly, I’m reading Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams about a young woman and modern dating, modern living and modern London. The woman in it is Jamaican and it’s set in south London and it’s very reminiscent of my 20s – it’s making me feel really homesick reading it.
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What were you reading as a young woman?
I was reading a lot of Milan Kundera, I read everything he wrote. I was maybe 16 but I still remember those stories really clearly. I read Camus and Jean Genet; I was working in bookshops so I had access to incredible literature and I was spending a lot of time in Battersea and Chelsea with really clever people. The thing about old posh white men is that they’re really well read and they can tell you about books that other people can’t because that’s the virtue of having a really good education: you’ve read a lot.
I was never into 19th century classics, I never read Hardy or Austen. I’ve never been interested in British class in that way, or Victorian posh people falling in love. It’s not my thing. I think that’s why I like Max Porter’s work so much because I’m interested in everyday lives and how people propel themselves forward in the face of adversity. The extraordinary in the ordinary. That’s what I love about fiction and the writers who are trying to work that stuff out.
When and where do you read?
I sit on that sofa, I spend a lot of my time reading there. Also on the London to Bristol train. It feels so unbelievably indulgent – there’s this beautiful countryside and the light is so good and you can just sit and read. I can’t read in bed anymore because I just fall asleep. It’s different now I have to think about what I want to publish: it’s a new way of reading.
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
How do you find authors to publish?
Through submissions parties – they’re sort of like open mic nights but more organised than that. I tend to go to a lot of different things and read a lot of different things; in magazines, on Twitter even – I find people that way.
What about Instagram?
Yeah, I think it’s interesting; framing people who have already framed themselves. You need to be careful though because some people aren’t ready even if they have a platform and they already have a book, they need a certain maturity. Look at someone like Sally Rooney: she just arrived on the scene and is such a brilliant writer so I don’t think it’s about age, it’s about focus. I think you have to be really quiet as a writer and spend a lot of time by yourself and be a really good listener. I’m not sure that the celebrity influencer thing goes hand-in-hand with that. And that’s not to say it couldn’t, it’s just there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to that who we’re missing.
A lot of debut writers will say: "Do I need to have a platform before publishing?" I tell them that you just need to write a lot and read a lot. There’s definitely writers who haven’t read enough.
Have you ever been part of a book club?
Yes. One way I’ve been making new friends in Bristol is going to different book clubs. I still can’t believe it’s the only way I could come up with to meet other people but I really enjoy it; we read a lot that I would hear about but not have the time to read. Like Tara Westover’s Educated, which I had wanted to read for so long, and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. I like finding out why people chose them – this idea that readers are somehow separate to us in the industry is just bizarre. The industry can be so snobby and pretentious sometimes. What’s wrong with sitting around with a group of people you don’t know, or do know for that matter, and talking about books?
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I also host 'Rewriting the Canon' book club with gal-dem at Liberty once a month. It’s like a course and we look at the canon which is male, stale and pale and come up with 12 alternative books. It’s my favourite thing I do.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
Because I was a bookseller that’s a really hard question for me. I always want to know what people love and what they don’t like. Shall I do it for you? I can do a book doctor session of sorts! Tell me three books you’ve read recently that you loved and one you didn’t.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
I’ve just read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty for the second time and My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which was actually a bit disappointing but usually I love her. Before that, the last thing I really enjoyed was probably Sharlene Teo’s Ponti. I’m struggling to think of a book I didn’t like that I read recently, though – I usually move on to something else if I’m not enjoying it after a few chapters. This is a huge generalisation but I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, I guess.
Okay, so I’d say you’re quite literary in your tastes but you also look for authors that are experimental with their writing. I think all the books you just described combine musings of the everyday with a little bit extra something else that makes them magical and I think that you like the depth of character as well. I’d go for My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh because you like Elizabeth Strout. It’s a beautifully written collection of short stories written in the vein of Lydia Davis and Anton Chekhov. And then because you like On Beauty I think you’d enjoy Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. It’s a totally different type of book so this would be like your wild card. This book is about a young woman in Jamaica who’s not happy with herself or her life. If you like Zadie Smith I think you’ll like this. Finally, I’d recommend The Leavers by Lisa Ko if you liked Ponti.
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How do you find out about what to read next?
I don’t read many reviews unless they’re work-related. They’re only important when they’re good! I really like recommendations from readers, or if an agent or an editor that I respect says something was really good and they didn’t publish it, I pay attention. But readers from outside the industry are the most important. If you look at some of the biggest selling books in this country, they don’t actually get reviewed in newspapers. Like Clare Mackintosh, she’s always a Sunday Times bestseller but I don’t think she ever gets reviews.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I love the bookshop that has just opened around the corner from me that’s called Storysmith. The atmosphere is great and I really like the selection. There’s lots of things I’ve seen in there that I would otherwise forget about. It’s small and perfectly formed. I really love Libreria just off Brick Lane. They have the most incredible selection and it’s hugely imaginative. I like the fact that they’re very nonfiction-focused as well, it’s very inspiring and they’re always blurring the lines about what books are and what narratives are. I also love Pages of Hackney, I think they’re really important, and New Beacon Books; they’re a bookshop focusing on black writers in north London and I think they’re really culturally relevant. Also I think there should be more activist bookshops like Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh – they swing from being super avant-garde to right-on and relevant, and I just think they’ve got a really great ethos.
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
When you opened Dialogue Books in Berlin, what was your starting point?
The thing I really wanted to do was have 2,500 books that were representative of the best collection you could have: If you had your own home library, what would it be and what would it look like? That was a really interesting challenge to set myself and obviously it just keeps evolving and changing.
What was the first book on the list?
I think The Shape of a Pocket by John Berger was probably really high up there. I may have started with nonfiction because I studied anthropology and politics. I think nonfiction helps us understand how we see the world and gives us answers to how everything works – I find that deeply fascinating and very important. It’s so funny now to think about it because I remember I wanted the fiction section to be really international and because we were in Germany, it was really important to me to have lots of translations. But now people don’t want you to organise books by country or culture, they think it should all fall under fiction, but I was really interested in where books come from.
How do you organise your own bookshelves?
I have a whole bay dedicated to people of colour, which is really important when trying to understand the narratives and the stories that we are telling and, for me as a publisher, to think about what is missing from that and what the stories are that I can’t see.
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Is there a book you relate to more than others?
Ordinary People by Diana Evans is most reflective of my experience of being a black Londoner. I love that book so much.
Is there a book you revisit often?
Yeah, and it’s probably the book I recommend the most, it’s called This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. I reckon I have at least four copies of it at any one time because I’m always buying it and giving it away. It’s the book I come back to the most. That and James Baldwin.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Sharmaine’s Reading List
American Spy: A Novel by Lauren Wilkinson
Cygnet by Season Butler
How To Fail: Everything I've Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong by Elizabeth Day
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Lanny by Max Porter
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Educated by Tara Westover
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
After the End by Clare Mackintosh
The Shape of a Pocket by John Berger
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
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