On finding your second-hand self

7th November 2012

Wednesday morning, and to kill time I’m wandering around Stratford-upon-Avon. Oxfam Books is – as ever – alluring, and I make for the modest Film and Television section. Not that my shelves at home (or indeed the floors) have any more space, but I am always hopeful of finding an early volume of Briggs or “K’s” signature in a copy of Civilisation. Today, however, slotted between Paris Hilton’s – until now, unknown to me – Confessions of an Heiress and an equally resistible volume titled Mime in Class and Theatre is, yes, a book that I wrote back in 1988, The Moving Image: An International History of Film, Television and Video. The black spine, white retro font and end-frame of Chaplin’s  Modern Times jolts me with the recognition that this is perhaps the first time I’ve found myself in a second-hand bookshop. Quite how do I feel about that?

The book was commissioned by the British Film Institute, along with Blackwell, to mark the opening of what was called MoMI, a museum of the moving image located under Waterloo Bridge, next to what was then the National Film Theatre. As the volume’s subtitle suggests it had an impossibly broad sweep, and I shudder now at my hubris and naivety in taking it on. But the writing of it made me explore areas of the moving image about which I knew next to nothing, such as animation, and I would (I think) defend it as an early attempt to outline a parallel history of the large and the small screen.

Even now I cannot bring myself to read anything of what I wrote those twenty-five years back. But if I avoid my text (and the Preface contributed by Prince Charles – he was the Patron of MoMI) dare I look at the price? Do I want to know what my efforts are judged to be worth for the good people of Stratford? The illustrations will probably save it from being priced insultingly low, so I pull it carefully from the shelf and peek inside. In light pencil is written “£2.99”. Not bad, better than I might have feared. That said, you can pick up copies on Abebooks.com for as little as one dollar, but you’ll have to pay shipping from the United States on top.

Alongside these figures are four other characters: “6/12”. So it’s been here since June. Five months – or four really. And can I legitimately add “only” before “five”? The condition is also pleasing. It appears to have been read, which is encouraging, but at the same time there are no breaks on the spine or turned down page corners. This copy of The Moving Image has had a careful owner.

The next test, for both the book and for me, is to flick through to see if I can spot any annotations. No, there are no irritated corrections of the dates of silent classics from Japan, no disagreements with my analysis of the BBC’s problems in the 1970s. That’s a relief. On the other hand, there is no evidence – such as delicate underlinings or moderate application of a highlighter – of careful, focussed study.

I resist the fleeting thought that I might offer a signature. I am sure I read somewhere that fly-leaf scribblings can damage the second-hand value of books because they fix ownership in a way that is not welcome. Besides, the assistant might think I was a bit of a nutter, and it would be far worse to have one’s offer of a dedication dismissed.

Instead, I slip the book back, surreptitiously snatch a photo and contemplate a sense of stability that comes from an acknowledgement of the volume’s presence. (Remarkably, one of the other treats on offer nearby, as you can see, is called You Are Here.) I wrote this book, an institution published it, someone purchased it, and now – whether because of a death or a divorce or a straightforward spring-cleaning – it has ended up here, and I have come to encounter it. That’s… good. I leave the shop and step out into Stratford’s winter sunshine more content than when I came in.


  1. Michele says:

    I’m not sure how much of a consolation it is to know that I *never* write in my books – even the ones I’ve studied hard… (That said, I’ve lately taken to pencilling in edits because I really *hate* books with typos and other errors in them. I’ve also taken to emailing publishers with a list of edits in the vague hope they’ll correct for the next edition!)

  2. Helene says:

    I feel your anxiety, John.

    A number of years ago I wrote for a medical magazine. I absolutely dreaded reading anything after it was published for fear of spotting a typo or cut-and-paste error. And after I had proofed it several times! My editor would have been livid!

    • Michele says:

      Trouble is, these days, I don’t believe that the proof-reading gets done to the same extent. I’ve noticed more and more over the last decade that numerous books – fiction and non-fiction have errors of one sort or another in them. It’s like no one in publishing has the time to do the job properly any more.

  3. Yes, but did you buy Confessions of an Heiress?

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