Currency $ USD
Publication date: October 2015
107% funded
343 backers
Cover of Second-Hand Stories

The amazing stories behind my second-hand books and the people who owned them

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.

Josh Spero has been the editor of Spear’s magazine since 2010, covering everything from finance and philanthropy to art and luxury. (The magazine is not named after him.) He is also Tatler’s art critic.

Before Spear’s, he was at The Independent and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times and The Economist. And before he was a journalist, he read Classics at Oxford.

When Josh was very young, his teacher told his mother that he would soon be reading the backs of cereal packets. He has recently started reading books too.


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.



Friday, 9 January 2015

Dear friends,

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…

Second-Hand Stories in the media

Sunday, 2 November 2014

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…

Beth Kennedy
Beth Kennedy asked:

Hi Josh - I love your project and would like to pledge. Is there any way to donate U.S. dollars?


Unbound replied:

Hi Beth,

Thanks for getting in touch. We take payment in GBP but there is the option to pay via Paypal if this would be better for you. I hope this helps and if you have any more questions about the site please head to

Nigel Moore
Nigel Moore asked:

Hi Josh, what a splendid idea! And here I am with loads of dust-collecting 2nd hand books about psychoanalysis, ancient history, poetry with quite a few recognisable names! But I'm still reading the backs of cereal packets and have passed middle age, so you've got me thinking.
By the way, I have a book by Katherine Dunbabin on Greek and Roman mosaics, any relation to your resurfacing spook?

I really wish you luck

Nigel/ tessellae

Josh Spero
Josh Spero replied:

Hi Nigel - great to hear you're now looking at your books differently, which was I hoped would happen. Katherine Dunbabin is indeed Tom Dunbabin's daughter, an eminent scholar in her own right; I met her in Oxford to talk about her dad. Best wishes, Josh.

PS The best way to make sure the book is published is to tell your friends!

Pamela Williams
Pamela Williams asked:

I wanted to give a pledge as a gift; I pay but my friend's name goes in the book. Is there anyway of doing this?
Many thanks

Unbound replied:

Hi Pamela,
To check or change the names in the back just log in and head over to the 'Your Account' page (which can be located at the top right hand corner of the site). Here you'll see the icons for all of the books you have supported. Under the icon is the green button 'update the name in the back'. Click this and away you go.
The Unbounders

Jeremy Stone
Jeremy Stone asked:

Question more for Unbound than the author. I don't seem to be able to find any indication of the total amount being raised. There must be a denominator for you to be able to calculate that you have got 67%. I really would like to understand how the total is derived, and hence what a pledge is going towards.

Unbound replied:

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for getting in touch. Our editorial team review all projects to determine the cost they will need to raise in order for Unbound to publish them and this is the case with Josh's book. The costing includes everything from copy editing, editorial, production, marketing and distribution into the trade. The website calculates the 'total amount of pledges needed' from an average pledge spent.

We have discussed having the target in pounds rather than people, but we that this way it makes supporters feel that they are involved more than just financially. As it is, Josh's project needs just over £5,000 for it to be fully funded. I hope this helps and if you have any further questions for Unbound please send these over via

Best wishes,

Caitlin - Unbound Community Coordinator.

Louise Matthews
Louise Matthews asked:


Josh Spero
Josh Spero replied:

Thank you :)

David Dunbabin
David Dunbabin asked:

Looking forward to reading your book. Any idea when the hardback ordered should make it to Australia?

Unbound replied:

Hi David,

The books were dispatched in September so you should have received your copy by now. Please can you email us at and confirm your delivery address?

Many thanks,

Caitlin - Community & Events Manager

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