Monday, 12 March 2018

Old Books, New Books by Ruth Hatfield

Before about five years ago, I can’t remember ever buying a new fiction book for myself. I’d buy them as presents for others, but when I wanted a book for myself I always went for second hand – jumble sales, charity shops, the internet when that came along. 

It wasn’t just economy - there’s something thrilling about a book that’s belonged to somebody else, and what you might find in it. Last week, on World Book Day, I opened a book I’d just bought at the Salvation Army charity shop in Cambridge (children’s books 10p, which does make me wince a bit these days, knowing what I do about the state of authors’ finances). This book was inscribed with the name ‘Joanne Rowling’ in childish scrawl. Was it her? Who knows.

But we all know the joys that can fall out of a second hand book: postcards, tickets, receipts, lists – one that really stuck with me was a list of prospective baby names: Chloe, Emily, Sophie, Ngaire (What did they go for in the end?!). I’ve had letters both formal and personal, pressed flowers, cigarette cards and book reviews cut out of newspapers to helpfully inform me about the book I’m about to read.  I tend to dog-ear my books, which I thought was a horrible enough habit until I discovered that some people actually FOLD THE PAGE IN TWO to mark their spot. There are the dedications – some from loving family, some from friends or the authors themselves, and some from people whose relationship to the recipient is mysterious and hint at an entirely new story.

And then of course there are the names of the previous owners. Kids seem much more keen to write their names in books - So many of the children’s books I buy have multiple marks of possession on them. There are attempts at practising signatures, messages to the wider world to get their hands off this book and that old favourite for of address – Name, street name, town, England, Great Britain, United Kingdom, The World, The Galaxy,  The Universe. My favourites are the sibling-offs, where two kids have competed to write their names the most times in the same book. And kids are also really, really good at graffiti.  

If I wasn’t frantically writing this post the evening before I have to post it, I could have spent hours going through my books finding all those brilliant personal marks to post up here. But actually you don’t need to see mine – anyone who’s got a few shelves of second hand books in their home has a whole new layer of stories lurking inside the pages, of the unseen readers who’ve pawed at your precious books before they jumped into your hands.

These days I do buy new books, basically on principle as a mark of respect to their authors and because I listened to somebody talking recently about the fact that a new book costs about the same as three cups of take away coffee, which, when you consider the ratio of money spent to duration of entertainment seems like a pretty good bargain. But second hand books, besides being  a good way to recycle/save your money/support charity, have that other thing going for them – there’s someone else on the journey with you besides the author. There’s mysterious real person number 3, who once read this, too.

Who were they? A book lover, tucking their Pat Smythe cigarette card carefully away inside her autobiography? A book hater, getting as far as page thirty-four then brutally folding the entire page back on itself? That boy with the slanting doodles? Or just a name, who went on to become the most famous children’s author in the world? They’re stories in themselves, those names. But they’re also real people. The sheer magic of books!


Sue Bursztynski said...

A very sweet post! And not impossible that Joanne Rowling was THAT Joanne... years ago, I was living in Israel. I visited second hand bookshops in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to rustle up some reading for myself, mostly old copies of science fiction magazines. But once,
I unearthed copies of two Star Trek books lovingly inscribed by the authors to a relative. I wondered how they had ended up in a second hand shop. Had the auntie passed away? Or had she, just as likely, rolled her eyes at this rubbish the girls expected her to read and pass it on? I never did find out. I could have written to one of the authors, but decided it was not a good idea. If the auntie had passed away, this would make them sad. If she had simply donated the book...they would be sad... So my curiosity remains unsatisfied!

And I have a 19th century edition of the Aeneid inscribed by the school to a child as a prize. It’s in such good condition I’m betting it was shoved on to the shelves in Papa’s Study and forgotten. ;-)

Mystica said...

Lovely post.

Helen Larder said...

What a sweet post. I love second-hand books. I think they are sometimes more special than new ones xxxx

Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating post, Ruth. I've also got loads of second-hand books, but sadly none pre-owned by Joanne Rowling! (Unless you get to ask her one day, you'll never know...)