FEATURE ESSAY // by Connor Harrison


When I first started to read, the choice I had was limited to my mother’s bookcase. But with no real knowledge of any literary qualifications, each book I picked up was equal in its possibilities. This is as good a place as any to start reading; with no expectation I read Dan Brown, Wilbur Smith, Philip Pullman, Robin Hobb, Umberto Eco. I read a biography of Genghis Khan and a handful of Edgar Allan Poe stories. I read Clive Barker who was, and continues to be, my mother’s favourite author. The combination of her enthusiasm, and Barker’s prose, still informs much of what I expect from reading today. It was through second-hand books that I learned how to read for myself.

The term ‘second-hand’ is buried beneath a history of classism. It is a signifier of both a lack of money, and a failure of capitalism (an item passed down is a sale lost). Second-hand is of course a euphemism for used, for old, pre-owned, hand-me-down; it is a euphemism for poverty. Second-hand clothes are given to younger siblings—my old t-shirts went to my sister—or they are donated to charity shops. The latter, odd-smelling, quiet places usually run by the elderly, are where I have bought at least half of my books. This was decided by two factors: a lack of money to pay full-price, and a lack of bookshops in or around my city. By the time I was looking for new things to read, it was in little stores whose funds went to animal healthcare, or orphaned children, or the homeless. The one nearest my home was a converted frozen food shop, run by a cancer charity; it was there that I bought my copy of Emma, and The Sun Also Rises.

But searching for the books you want, or need, in charity shops, has to be a regular job. Those books that people are willing to donate, are typically those that ask for a single read—crime thrillers, romances, fantasy novels from the eighties. They are books that fall out of use, like cookery books, and encyclopaedias. I would go as often as I could, waiting for someone to hand over a James Baldwin, or a rare John Berger. The classics would come thick and fast, perhaps due to their air of durability, and I was able to buy the Bronte sisters for the change in my pocket. Spending time in charity shops, you come to see what people consider expendable. It was only when an old, well-read local died, that the gems would show up; when you could buy a copy of The Great Gatsby with a handwritten note dated nineteen-forty-seven; when you could find a poet you had never heard of for less money than a can of Pepsi.

But every book, whether it’s a trashy novel or Eliot’s collected works, is an idea in print; the more people who read it, the more it becomes.

That sounds morbid, but a second-hand book being used is, like a dinner plate, proof of continued life. To hand down to another the words that have accompanied your days is both a gift and an afterlife. A second-hand book is an invitation for a new reader to retrace your steps. The trouble is we are raised to believe that, if something is used, it is less. But every book, whether it’s a trashy novel or Eliot’s collected works, is an idea in print; the more people who read it, the more it becomes.

To take a random sample of the second-hand books on my shelves, I can brush up against a variety of lives, past or present, still living or long-deceased (part of the appeal is that you’ll never know).

In an old paperback of Malone Dies: ‘Martin Oakley, 8th October, 1971’

In a copy of Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth: ‘Jan 92. For Milla – I had to give you this, for the title alone! Much love, Jane x’

In Sixty Women Poets, edited by Lind France: ‘for Cath, to inspire, Love R xxx’

In a copy of Graham Greene’s, The Quiet American: ‘Peter Baruch July 1994’

On a post-it note in Edna O’Brien’s Casualties of Peace: ‘This book is falling to pieces. It is all there. I couldn’t bear to put it in the recycling.’

In Hermit in Paris, by Italo Calvino: ‘7/15 7/12 (plane on return from NY) 23/7/12’

These notes and traces invite the imagination. Peter Baruch, for example, either received his book, or finished it, on the month and year of my birth. Such a coincidence seems like fate. Or the Calvino read on a flight from New York, the date written in messy biro—were they American? Or were they British, on their way home from holiday? Did they happen to read, flying over the Atlantic, Calvino’s own vision of America—‘the most spectacular sight that anyone can see on this earth’? What about the mysterious R, who bought sixty women poets to inspire Cath? Is the fact that I found the book in a second-hand shop proof that a dream of poetry died? Or that an ended relationship soured for Cath an entire body of women writers?

The notes found in second-hand books, whether they are the highlights of undergrads, or the jotted thoughts of past readers, are the fragments of stories themselves. They can be a guide, or a challenge to our own reading. They can be as simple as a date and a name. They can be nothing but a coffee stain on a page.

Sometimes, when a book becomes a family hand-me-down, it can retain stories we know well. After my grandmother died, I came into possession of most of her library. Most of it was made up of Catherine Cookson, Val McDermid, Dickens and anthologies of gothic fiction—she was a reader primarily of crime and classics and morbid murder mysteries. But when she wasn’t reading these, she was reading the Bible. While she might not have been a regular churchgoer, or particularly strict in her faith, she believed in a rare, wholehearted way, and one of the books that came from her to me, was her copy of The Way. Accompanying biblical verse are stories of true life, uplifting messages, and images of modern life: the ill-fated crew of the first Apollo, two men who ran across America, the risk of car crashes. Without knowing too much about it, The Way was seemingly printed to salvage some of the children of the sixties and seventies, to bring the Bible to their table, their dashboard, their America.

Whatever her reasons for buying the book, my grandmother turned it into a kind of family album of textures. Taped inside the cover is a dried flower, pressed by mother, in ‘Spring, 1980 at the age of 6 years.’ There is a Christmas card from old friends whose signatures I can’t read. There are receipts, bookmarks covered in her favourite verses, and indecipherable strings of numbers on notepaper. In there is a snowman I drew ‘Xmas ’97, aged 3’. And slipped between the last pages of the Book of Job, where he is said to have ‘lived 140 years after that, living to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren too,’ there is the ultrasound of a baby—an ultrasound of me.

Image from BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives