Someone Else’s Books

if ever you’re at a loose end, I recommend a walk round a second-hand bookshop.

Ideally, if you are in London, you should go to Charing Cross Road, where you will find a plethora of dusty second-hand bookshops, or to the bookstalls laid out in front of the National Theatre (perfect for a sunny Sunday afternoon).

There’s the smell, thick and dusty and reminiscent of all kind of things you can’t quite place. There’s the silence, everyone speaking in whispers, as if afraid to disturb the air. There’s the sense of stepping into time frozen. (Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are right when they say the walls between worlds and times is at its thinnest in a second hand bookshop). And then there’s the books.

Most of the hardbacks have lost their jackets, so you have to open them and see the old stained pages to discover what they are. The paperbacks have wild covers from another time, or the pared-down covers of war-time. This is where you’ll find books you’ve heard of, but have been out of print for years. Or even better, books you’ve never heard of but as soon as you see, you know you need (I found a copy of something called ‘Strange Tales’ from the 1950s the other day. I’d never heard of it, but it was perfect for me).

Books from your childhood, with the covers you remember grasping suddenly appear before you.

And the best part, the very best part, is reading what other people have written in these books before you.

I normally disapprove of people writing in books. But I love to read these notations left by readers ten, twenty, fifty, sometimes a hundred years before. Notes like ‘this isn’t true, I was there’ and ‘compare to Gibbons’. Little insights into someone else’s mind and emotions.

Once I found a book owned by an actor I greatly respected. It was King Lear, he had played the Fool, and his notations on how to play the part was on every page. To me, this was treasure.

It’s wonderful to find these things, and connect to these people years and years ago. They are long gone, but still you can see how they reacted, how they felt, what moved them, what they loved and what they hated. And you may find a book you thought lost, or never knew you needed. Secondhand bookshops are more than just shops. For people like you and me, they are treasure caves.

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