From History Today:
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.
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.