Every second-hand book you have has a story. It has been owned by one or more people before you, and each of them has a life filled with love, loss, drama and conflict, sometimes on a grand international scale, other times intensely personal. Those are exactly what I found in the lives of the people who used to own my books – and they’re the stories I want to share with you.
As I studied Latin and Greek at university, I went through all my second-hand Classics books, examining the hand-written names and bookplates for clues. What I came up with, after I had tracked down eleven previous owners, was a set of astonishing personal and public stories from around the world, covering a century of triumphs, disasters and intimacies.
Tom Dunbabin was a Classics scholar who became a spy, leading the resistance against the Germans in Crete in the Second World War. Peter Levi was a poet and a priest who fell in love with a friend’s wife while at the same time subverting Greece’s military dictatorship. Belinda Dennis was a contrary Latin teacher and Emilie Vleminckx a contrary Latin student. And James Naylor was a boy I loved.
To bring the whole book together, each chapter starts with some memoir from my life: being a precocious kid in Jewish north-west London, a poor boy at a public school, a scholar at Oxford and a tutor in Hampstead. I’d like to say you’ll read all about my athletic prowess and perpetual popularity, but instead you’ll get the truth – however amusing or embarrassing. Sometimes, indeed, that truth connects unexpectedly with the lives I’m writing about, revealing a lot more than I first imagined.
So if you love reading about books or Classics or history or war or poetry or plays or Oxford or University Challenge or scandal or any of a dozen more things, there is something in Second-Hand Stories for you. And after reading Second-Hand Stories, I bet you’ll take a minute next time you pick up one of your own second-hand books to think about who has held it before you – and what stories they could tell.
It takes quite some skill to get a Third. Perhaps more even than to get a First, which simply requires preternatural brilliance firing on all cylinders, no calibration necessary. For a Third, a degree with its own peculiar glamour, you need to be just disappointing enough. Not disappointing enough and you have a respectable 2:2; too disappointing and it’s a Pass, with its strong suggestion you perhaps ought not to have come to university. The gentlemen’s Third, as it has been known, today suggests a university career spent mounting the greasy poles of the Oxford Union or treading the clammy boards of the university’s theatres, instead of burying one’s nose in a book.
You could argue, however, that a Third might in some way be a measure of unrecognised brilliance, of thoughts so unorthodox that myopic examiners feel compelled to reach for their red pens to protect their own dogmas.
You could argue this.
Emilie Vleminckx, I suspect, would not.
Emilie would most likely concede that her Third in Classics Mods at Oxford in 2002 was probably not due to her unrecognised brilliance. No, it might well have been to do with her falling asleep in her Homer paper.
I thought you'd like to know that while there might not have been much rustling from the Shed of late, I have been busy campaigning on Second-Hand Stories' behalf. And it has worked: thanks to some exceedingly generous donations, combined with all of your donations, Second-Hand Stories will be fully-funded within weeks. This means that we can start preparing the book for publication…
I've been very lucky lately: some media outlets have taken an interest in Second-Hand Stories and given me airtime or bandwidth to promote it. You may have thrilled/shuddered to hear me debate the merits of old books and marginalia with Erica Wagner on Today last Saturday; you can hear the spot here. And I was interviewed for a popular American literary blog, Q&A style. If either of these brought…
These people are helping to fund Second-Hand Stories.