Buying a brand new book is a treat, one of life’s little pleasures. But the book itself, well, it’s just a book, isn’t it? A sterile bundle of paper. If it’s fiction, you’ve bought yourself a story, and that’s a very special thing. You may collect all the books that author has written, or know them personally, and that’s special, too.
But root around among the offerings in charity shops and jumble sales, as I like to do, and you’ll find books with stories of their own, aside from those printed on the pages.
I’m not a prolific reader of poetry by any means but I do think a poem belongs inside a proper book, the older the better, and I’m always on the look-out for those. One of my favourite finds, bought for pence at a jumble sale, is a small red-bound copy of The Albatross Book of Living Verse, published in 1933. Inside the cover is written in green ink: ‘Bought at Steyning, Sussex, 1949’, and a name I can’t decipher, so even by that time I imagine it had passed through other hands.
Flicking through the tissue-thin pages when I arrived home with my prize, I found there was more to this little book than the inscription. Several passages had been emphatically underlined with the same green ink. No casual enjoyment of verses here, then; this was somebody who took their poetry seriously. There’s a note written in the margin of a Rupert Brooke war poem. It says: ‘Pilot Officer Frank Stanyon ??, 1940, RAF,’ in the same handwriting as the note in the front. A nice sense of mystery there – was the book owned by Frank himself, or somebody connected to him?
Inscriptions inside books intrigue me, even if it’s just the owner’s
name. It feels as if I’m being allowed a glimpse into somebody’s life. Children’s books are a good source. Who remembers proudly writing inside the cover of a new book: ‘This book belongs to…’? Do children still do that? I don’t know; there aren’t any children in our family, but I suspect they do.
When my boys were young I bought them a jolly-looking Enid Blyton story book at the school Christmas fair. Actually, I think I bought it for me because of the lovely old-fashioned illustrations – I don’t remember the boys taking much interest. Inside was written in wobbly writing the name of a girl who had been in my class at school some 30 years earlier. I felt that book had made a round trip, carrying its own story with it.
Sometimes it’s not what’s written inside a book but what is hidden among the pages which tells another story. Somebody passed on to me an ancient copy of The Good Housekeeping Compendium which belonged to an elderly lady. I won’t be attempting to stuff a hare or hang a pheasant but I’ve kept the book because tucked inside is a yellowing page torn from The Farmer and Stockbreeder, October 20, 1930. On one side it urges the reader to ‘Practise Making Sweets for Christmas’, with recipes for delights such as Elves’ Fudge and My Cocoanut Candy. Common sense tells me that the recipes were why she kept it, but I prefer the other side of the page which has an article entitled ‘Fashion Inclines to Comfort’. It’s all about hats, hemlines, corsets and knickers for countrywomen. Did countrywomen need special knickers? Maybe they did, to keep out the cold!
As well as being interesting in their own right, it occurred to me that these hidden stories could provide a writer with an idea for a brand new story. The author Ali Smith certainly thinks so. She made many discoveries among the books she was sorting for Amnesty International. In an article on the subject, she talks about intriguing inscriptions, postcards, and photos she found among the pages, and how some of them inspired and informed her own writing. One of her finds – a vintage photo of a girl in a bathing suit – set her thinking about the structure of her best-selling novel How to be Both.
‘Who says books don’t beget books?’ she says. And that’s a good way of putting it, I think.