By Caitlin Kelly
If it weren’t for Twitter, I would never have discovered the wit and wisdom of Josh Spero, a 30-year-old London journalist who covers art for Tatler, a glossy British monthly magazine whose primary audience is people with multiply-hyphenated surnames and country houses that make Downton Abbey look shabby.
He also edits Spear’s magazine.
Josh is crowdfunding his lovely and unusual idea for a book — to seek out the previous owners of the books of classics he studied while at Oxford; so far, he’s got one-quarter of his goal amount.
We have yet to meet in person, I hope to do so when I get to London in early January 2015.
A few Spero-isms:
“I’ve never been able to stand rules and regulations”
“My working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama”
“I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it”
Tell us a bit of your personal history….
From six months until 26 years, I lived in Edgware, a barren untroubling suburb of north-west London, whose best escape was books. We used to walk down to the second-hand bookshop the other side of town, near the salt-beef bar, and I would buy half a dozen Hardy Boys novels a week, before I moved on to cheap copies of literary classics. My dad was then – is still – a London black-cab driver, my mum a housewife until I went to private school, when she had to get a job to pay for it.
University College School was in Hampstead, a leafy village within London which had been home to Freud and Daphne du Maurier (not as cohabitants), and it was famously, perhaps notoriously, liberal, which worked for me: I have never been able to stand rules and regulations. And still I read everything I could find.
Where and what did you study at university and why?
At UCS, I was taken by Classics – the Greek and Latin languages and their worlds. I loved the drama of their histories, the great men who kicked the Gauls’ arses (I was never a fan of Asterix) and beat back the Persians. It was a revelation to delve into Vergil’s occultism and Euripides’ mania, so I was desperate to study it at Oxford, the best place in the world for Classics, no doubt.
After passing Magdalen College’s stiff interview and being told I had a decent chance of a decent degree, I spent four glorious years there, half of them locked in the library, the other half arguing my way out of positions I hadn’t meant to argue my way into and doing Oxford Things (punting, politicking, student newspaper, inedible Formal Hall dinners).
Where did you get the idea for this book?
One of my first freelance writing jobs was covering the summer auctions of Contemporary art at Sotheby’s for The Guardian in 2007, those thrilling incomprehensible displays of pills in cabinets and what looked like disassembled crates. There the idea of provenance insinuated itself into my brain: every catalogue listed with delicious rectitude a work of art’s previous owners; soon it occurred to me that the same thing was true for books – and not just expensive books either. That’s where Second-Hand Stories comes from.
Over four years at Oxford, and six years tutoring afterwards, I had accumulated well over a hundred Classics books, from how to write in Greek verse (weirdly pleasurable) to texts of everyone from Plato to Propertius. There had to be curious tales tied to the names inscribed in them, so I sorted out the fifty-odd books in which their owners had recorded their names and set about tracing them, the previous owners of my books. I didn’t mind if they weren’t celebrities or lords or royalty: my working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama.
What was the best part of writing it?
The best part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. While I thought I might uncover some unusual tales from my eleven subjects, I never imagined what I’d find.
Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a thick purple-covered commentary on the historian Herodotus, had led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete in World War Two. Peter Levi was a poet-priest who had a chaste love affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Emilie Vleminckx is a student my age who conquered a blow-up at Oxford, a university she had fled to to escape her stifling life in Belgium. There was an actor in Hollywood films, a teacher in fascist Italy, a code-cracker from Bletchley Park and a boy I loved who died too young. To read the full stories, you need to buy the book! http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories
There are, in Second-Hand Stories, some incredible tales, all of which I was lucky enough to come upon.
What surprised you most when you started seeking out the previous owners of your books?
Although I knew Classicists were an interesting bunch – we end up everywhere, from Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) to the darkest recesses of the library – I had not the slightest inkling so many amazing lives were contained in my library. You’d have to be a great novelist with the broadest imagination to assemble half the characters that reality did. I was also surprised by how willing almost all of them – or their relatives – were to talk to me. Without them, Second-Hand Stories would have been utterly impossible.
What was the most difficult/challenging aspect of writing it?
The most difficult part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. Some were somewhat easier, having written their name and Oxford or Cambridge college in them. But others involved detective work, Google work or, frankly, guesswork.
One book was dedicated ‘To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice’, where Maurice was obviously Maurice Bowra, the author of the book, a translation of the odes of Pindar (a vile toady to winners of the Olympian games). But the Peter was mysterious, until a smart suggestion from a former tutor made us look at the introduction, where Bowra had thanked Peter Levi.
Another only had the letters ‘MBMcCB’. It took several solid attacks on Google before I discovered someone else who had the same final three initials and it turned out the owner was his brother.
There was plenty of direction and serendipity in putting the cast of Second-Hand Stories together.
Any thoughts on e-books (which would have made your entire project — sadly! — moot.)
I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it. For a start, as you say, my book wouldn’t exist if we only had e-books – owners have no way of writing their names on them (if, by the terms and conditions, they even own them in the first place); they easily disappear or are wiped or become obsolete (we’ll always have the technology to read paper books, ie eyes); and you can’t have any real engagement with them (all those immaterial words on a screen have none of the heft of black ink of white paper). The physicality of books, their beauty and weight and feel, is my ultimate reason for rejecting the functional dullness of e-books.
Were there any other challenges in writing Second-Hand Stories?
Yes: getting it published. I was rejected by a great number of publishers largely with the note that ‘it isn’t commercial’. Good! It doesn’t have to be commercial – it has to be interesting. That’s why I’m thrilled Unbound http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories believe in it. They’re a crowdfunded publisher, which means I need your support.
If you like the sound of my book, please pledge towards it here http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories – it’s only going to be published with your help. There are rewards at each level too, ranging including signed first-edition copies, invitations to the launch party and even a private tutorial on Classics with me.
I’ve never done this at Broadside before, but love Josh’s idea and his spirit.
I hope you’ll support his book!