One perk of being the Barefoot Bookseller is getting to meet all the fascinating people that arrive on the island. Just before Christmas, I was fortunate enough to welcome historian and author of The Silk Roads and The New Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan, to Soneva Fushi, along with his family. To celebrate the occasion we had a week-long Silk Roads extravaganza, with events, dinners, and cocktail parties in Peter's honour.
We began the week with a cocktail party at the bookshop, where guests from all around the world came to meet Peter and purchase signed copies of his books. He gave a fascinating talk to a large crowd of spellbound guests about the history of exchange along the Silk Roads, with questions from the audience over-spilling late into the night. We hosted a Journey Along the Silk Roads meal, with a special five-course menu designed by our Head Chef Kevin, that took us from Turkey to Sri Lanka via the Middle East, China and India.
Peter's visit inspired guests and host alike, generating discussion among adults and children all week, enthusing a gang of playful boys with his stories of the Silk Roads at the Den. It's not every day you get to meet an internationally best-selling author on a remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. His visit was an unforgettable part of many guests' experience at Soneva Fushi, and will undoubtedly be a highlight of my time here too. Peter has written for the Barefoot Bookseller blog about his experience at Soneva Fushi, and his love of books and bookshops.
For some people, it is their team’s football stadium; for others, a special restaurant. For me, my favourite place is a bookshop. I don’t mind how big it is; how many (or few) books it has on display; or which country it is in. If I were a moth, a bookshop would be my flame: the lure is irresistible.
I’ve always loved books and I’ve always loved reading. But even more, I think, is that I love finding new things. So being let loose in a bookshop is like finding oneself opening up a treasure chest and being able to rummage around inside; or like being told help oneself to sweets in a sweetshop – except that bookshops are not bad for the teeth.
The first time I went to Blackwell’s in Oxford, I must have been around seven years old. I can still remember the sense of wonder as I went further and further into the back – and then when I went downstairs into an enormous room that felt like a cave.
Even then, I realised that if you read more, you knew more; that if you knew more, you understood more; and if you understood more, then you’d be able to make sense of things that are complex and difficult. Books are not just a gateway to knowledge but to enlightenment.
Now that I am a historian and an author, I also understand how hard it is to write a book and to join all those volumes on the shelves in a bookshop. I know how many people want their voice to be heard – whether as a novelist, a historian, a doctor or a specialist on military helicopters – and hope to see their volume proudly on display.
You can imagine, then, what a joy and a privilege to come to the Maldives and to find, waiting on the quayside, not only the Barefoot Bookseller, but a small, and perfectly formed bookshop sitting on the island paradise of Soneva Fushi.
That’s not all. In the window of the bookshop are copies of my books about the Silk Roads. I’m always thrilled to see them, partly because they look so beautiful (the designer of two of my books, Emma Ewbank, and Neil Packer who did the illustrated version give lie to the old adage that you should not judge a book by its cover: with mine, you can – thanks to them!).
Even more exciting, though, is to see what else the lucky guests can find in the shop. So having dusted the sand from my feet on the friendly hedgehog spikes outside the door, I’m transfixed to see what the lucky guests at Soneva Fushi can choose to read if they’ve either forgotten to bring books with them; have raced through them early; or are just drawn in to take a look and cannot resist the urge to browse, buy and try.
As it happens, it turns out that expert packing means putting books into luggage first; but the top of my To Do list when I travel, whether on holiday or not, is to assemble a mini-library of my own to take with me. I read fast, so reading a book a day during the holidays is not impossible – especially if our teenage children take their time to get up in the mornings. Put simply, books and reading are not just a fundamental part of my life as an academic historian, but of my travel and of my life.
Every so often, all those elements come together – work, rest, play, family, travel and new experiences. We first came out to Soneva Fushi fifteen years ago. It was a byword for barefoot luxury then, for sustainability, for low-key excellence and for thinking about what people want when they visit heaven on earth.
I was thrilled to be back and to spend time at the Bookshop, at Out of the Blue, at Down to Earth and even with the younger generation – the historians of the future – at the Den, talking about what I know and what I love. History, of course; but books, bookshops and those all-important booksellers who have to think about what others will want to read; the Silk Roads; and how the Maldives fits into the big arc of global history. I can’t wait to be back.