Proof that I am not illiterate.

It’s a new insult to me, really. Being a book-lover, bookseller and would-be book-writer (yes, I do know that the word is author, but I am going for style here).


While being a Bookseller may not be the most glamorous of jobs, I have to say that I do adore it. Not only do I get to share my passion for literature with people every day, but I get to share it with people from all walks of life, from all over the world.

There is something intrinsically human about the way in which we can bond over a shared interest. Be it stamp collecting, birdwatching or, as in this instance, reading, when you realise that you have this in common with another human being the bond that is created is truly special, if fleeting.

I have worked for my lovely big name book company for two years now, and I am still surprised by the range of customers we can get in one single day. I am still genuinely surprised by the incredible stories some of them tell, by the long, heart-felt conversations that we can often share and by, more than anything else, the way in which each and every one of them is different, in their own small way. At times it really is, at the risk of sounding too soppy and cliché, heart-warming. Humbling. Fascinating. Downright enjoyable. I have encountered people with jobs that I didn’t know existed, from places I didn’t know the locations of, with names I had never heard of before. Working in retail may not seem exciting, but if there is one thing you can say about it, it is that it definitely, definitely serves to broaden your view of the world and the people living in it.

One of the ways in which working as a Bookseller has broadened my knowledge is this: I now know that, however many ways you think there are for spelling one word, there are probably more than that. You see the thing is, as a Bookseller, I have a certain passion for reading and writing and, the more you read, the more variations of words and names and people and places you get to know. On top of this, being a Bookseller also means that you encounter new names on a day-to-day basis. There will be an author with a name so bizarre that you point it out to al your colleagues, there will be a customer that takes you by surprise when they spell out their surname, there will be characters called things too elaborate to imagine. But the thing is, once you’ve learnt a name exists, it’s quite hard to forget. It’s out there, in your brain, the knowledge of that slightly obscure name. Bookselling teaches you a lot in that way, and is a job that you don’t really go into if you don’t care about certain things. Like grammar, for instance. I’m not saying that you have to be a so-called “grammar-nazi” to work in a bookshop, but the truth of it is that, to want to work in a bookshop you would surely need to enjoy reading, and the more widely read you are the better your grammar, punctuation and spelling would be, logically speaking.

So it always comes as a surprise when your knowledge of the English language is called into question, which is exactly what happened to me today.

A customer and their wife approached me to pick up an order that they had placed, and said that their last name was Knight. I asked if they spelt it with a “K” or just with an “N”, to save time when searching.

“An ‘N’?” the customer replied, “An ‘N’? That’s not a real name! My god,” he says, turning to his wife, “did you hear that? She works in a bookshop and she’s bloody illiterate. Of course it’s with a ‘K’, the other version doesn’t exist dear.”

It’s okay. I’ve been through this before. I smile, and laugh, and explain that it’s easier to check, because we have actually had customers before that spelt it another way. I retrieve their order, and start putting it through the till.

“An ‘N’.” He says, “An ‘N’ makes it Night as in the Night-time, that isn’t a real name. How did you not know that? How long have you worked here?”

“It is rare, yes, but in my two years I’ve come across one or two that spell it that way instead of with your more traditional ‘K’.”

“No you haven’t.”

“Yes, I have. I can assure you. They were returning an item once and I got to see their signature, it was a very nice signature. Rare name, but really gorgeous signature.”

“You’re lying.” At this point, the customer seems to be getting angry.

“I’m not, really, I’m sorry. I know it’s a rare name, but I have met a few people with it. That’s the beauty of retail, you are constantly surprised by new names!” I laugh. I smile.

“No, I’m sorry, but you’re clearly lying. You’re embarrassed by what you said and now you’re trying to cover it by this elaborate story.”

“I know you don’t believe me, but it is true.”

“Right. Sure.” Eyes are rolled. I smile and shrug.

The customers wife looks at me pleadingly, letting out a nervous laugh. She seems embarrassed. They leave and I thank them, smiling. As they turn out of the door I hear the man say “Can you believe the level of English that passes for acceptable nowadays!?”

All I want to say on the matter is this: it’s a real name and, as far as surnames go, I think it’s quite a nice one.

If you’re interested in the science behind it, Mandi Johnson has written a very interesting thesis on the link between spelling and reading ability here:

There is also a short article by the Guardian on the benefits of reading from an early age, among which it points out is the ability to develop good spelling skills.:

This isn’t to say that those people who don’t enjoy reading for pleasure have poor grammar and spelling, but I do whole-heartedly believe that reading certainly helps.

What shocked me the most about this situation was how angry the customer became the more I continued to smile and tell him that I was telling the truth. He was obnoxious. He was rude. He was insulting. He made me wonder: at what point is it acceptable to be rude when thinking you are in the right?

A colleague of mine commented that she hadn’t realised what he was saying because, let’s face it, unless there’s something obviously strange going on, you don’t tend to try to listen in on conversations with customers. She mentioned that I had seemed happy, that I actually seemed to be enjoying my conversation with him. But how?

There are times when somebody is rude for no given reason, and it is extremely hard to keep up the pretence that it isn’t bothering you. But this time it was simple: I knew that I was right. Therefore as he grew angrier and angrier, it made me feel a little sorry for him, knowing that when he went home to Google it he would not get the satisfaction he was hoping for, but instead a dull ache at knowing he was wrong and had made, let’s face it, a bit of a tit of himself.

But then I asked myself, if I know I am right, and it makes me calmer, then why is he so angry when, from his perspective, he knows that he is right? I don’t know if age has something to do with it, but from my experience it genuinely may do. Over the years of working in retail I have noticed an interesting trend. The larger the age gap between you, the more likely it is that the older of the two of you will get angry. Does it have something to do with the older generations lack of faith in the intelligence of the young adults of today? Does it represent a disrespect for their knowledge if we disagree with them? Does it, perhaps, make them insecure? These are just musings, but I find it very interesting.

Has anybody else ever experienced something like this? This isn’t the first time that someone has tried to argue with me over spelling or grammar in the store, but it’s certainly the first time that anybody got so angry or so personally insulted by the idea of me being so obviously wrong. Do they overreact because I work in a Bookshop and therefore I should have perfect knowledge of spelling, grammar, punctuation, all authors and all genres?

Does anyone really ever have faith in something like this, something like a rare name spelling, unless they have heard it or seen it from themselves?

One thing that I know for sure is that, however adamant about it he may have been, I am certainly not illiterate.

Google backs me up.

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