Non-essential Freedoms

The mild anarchy of piles of second-hand books reminds us of the simple, contingent encounters we have all missed during lockdown. Eleanor Parker | Published in History TodayVolume 71 Issue 7 July 2021The Old Book Shop on Pennsylvania Ave, by Thomas Fleming, 1902 © Topfoto.The Old Book Shop on Pennsylvania Ave, by Thomas Fleming, 1902 © Topfoto.

Bookshops are back and that’s something to celebrate. Among all the kinds of ‘non-essential’ activities prohibited over the past year, browsing second-hand bookshops may not have been high up everyone’s list of yearned-for normality, but it was pretty high up on mine and going back into a favourite bookshop again for the first time a few weeks ago was an absolute joy. 

For some people, second-hand bookshops are the very definition of that dismissive label, ‘non-essential businesses’. Who needs them in the age of online warehouses that can get you any book you want within a day? But it’s because they’re ‘non-essential’ that they’re so enjoyable. The pleasure of visiting a good second-hand bookshop depends entirely on randomness and chance: you have no idea what you’re going to find. You might find a treasure; you might find a dud; you might find nothing at all. Finding out is the fun.

It’s useful to be able to think of a book and order and receive it within a few hours – no arguments there. It’s the opposite of random, though: you get exactly what you want, when you want it. But there are books you don’t know you want and you won’t know you want them until they’re standing on a shelf in front of you. I’ve bought cheap books I’d never heard of because they had a funny title, or attractive illustrations, or a touching inscription in the front – just on the off-chance, regardless of whether they looked any good or not. Sometimes I’ve loved them and found a new author to enjoy, sometimes I’ve hated them and given up halfway through and sometimes I’ve never got round to reading them. But I can’t think of a single book I’ve bought in that way which I’ve regrettedbuying. They sit on my shelves and remind me of the little places where I bought them, so I feel I got my money’s worth for the few pounds they cost me.

In my first post-lockdown browse, I bought a novel from the 1920s, once very popular but now almost forgotten, specifically because I’d heard someone the day before talking about how silly it was. It happened to be there and the coincidence was too much to resist. I’d never have sought it out online; I’d never have thought about it again if I hadn’t chanced to unearth a copy, half falling apart, from a precarious mountain of other books in a corner of the bookshop. It is pretty silly, but I’m enjoying it all the same.

It has the name of a previous owner scrawled in it and I’ve been wondering if he thought it silly, too. Part of the pleasure of second-hand books is the charm of knowing you have something which has lived in someone else’s house, occupied a space in another person’s life and memory. I have a secret fondness (though not so secret now) for collecting vintage children’s books, especially girls’ books from the first half of the 20th century, that era when girls were encouraged to believe they could be and do anything they wanted, as possibilities for adventure, travel and career success were opening up to them as never before. As a result, I have a healthy collection of books which were once school prizes and Christmas presents, signed by loving aunts or friendly, encouraging teachers, addressed to little girls who must now be great-grandmothers. Often the girls have written in their books, so I can tell they read them. I hope it would please them and their givers to know their book have found a good home.

There’s another aspect of this randomness I’ve come to appreciate, too, in contrast to the carefully controlled world of online shopping. There’s something to value about a completely unmediated and uncurated encounter with old books: a chance to access for yourself the raw material of history. Opportunities to brush up against the true strangeness of the past are getting fewer, it seems. It feels increasingly difficult to access forms of historical material which haven’t been diligently curated for your good, filtered into bland homogeneity to suit some corporation’s agenda. By comparison, the mild anarchy of those tottering book piles came as a relief. What a pleasure to be trusted to exercise choice and judgement, just left to get on with it, rather than being told what you ought to want. After a year of surveillance and constraint, that finally felt something like freedom.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk. 

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