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What happens if you find the people who owned your second-hand books?

Second-Hand Stories by Josh Spero follows the author as he tracks down the previous owners of his books.

It is a lovely idea and you wonder why it hasn’t been done before: tracking down the previous owners of your second-hand books, talking to them if they’re alive, telling their stories if they’re not. You find out, if possible, what the books meant to them, how they came by them, the circumstances under which they parted. You have the potential for a series of poignant narratives; and besides, who hasn’t ever felt, however fleetingly, like doing the same?

Naturally, you pick up this book and flick through it before reading it, to see what books have been chosen, rather in the spirit that you look at someone else’s bookshelves, if they’re interesting, and it dawns on you that each of the 11 books that Josh Spero has chosen is a textbook for either Latin or ancient Greek. This rather makes one wonder how the interest may be sustained. Classics may be coming back into fashion, in a way, but it is still somewhat . . . niche. Moreover, those of us who were obliged to study the subject at school do not invariably have fond memories of the time spent doing so. No one who ever learned, with feeling, the rhyme “Latin is a dead language, as dead as dead can be,/It killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me” ever forgets it, yet strangely there is no place for it in this book.

However, it is worth persevering. It becomes clear early on that Spero is an engaging narrator, sympathetic to the characters he interviews (with one exception, which I’ll return to) and alive to the risks involved in his enterprise. He reproduces one of the answers given to him by email by the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, whose surname he had seen inscribed inside Latin Prose Composition by North and Hillard: “It was one of those maddening school textbooks that pupils have to buy and then find that they use them so sporadically . . . that the cost seems a waste.” Bathetically, Spero is told that the book probably belonged to Felipe’s son, Sebastian, and here things get interesting, as we are given an insight into the kind of life that is not as stellar, not as successful, as Felipe’s.

Seb (as he calls himself) has enjoyed – not that that is the word – a career on the stage and screen that largely involves appearing in turkeys, while watching contemporaries from Eton become stars. He flicks through the Latin grammar and says: “You sit in front of it and think, ‘I’ve got to translate this wretched piece of prose into Latin’ – that’s not dissimilar to what it’s like writing the plays I’ve written.” As most lives are, in one way or another, failures, a random sample such as this is going to reflect that.

Not that all the lives are failures. An old Penguin Classics edition of The Odes of Pindar was inscribed by Cecil Maurice Bowra, the translator, to Peter Levi, a one-time professor of poetry at Oxford. That chapter is illuminating and touching about Levi (who, despite his fascinating life, poetic gifts and great personal charm, could be said by some to have been a failure of a sort) and full of valuable insight into the donnish mind, capable of the kind of cruelty that can allow even its victims to describe their own minds – as Levi did – as “second-rate”. (It is the interview with a supposed friend of Levi’s that pushes Spero to uncharacteristic rage.) Then again, we also have the lives of Tom Dunbabin, a Special Operations Executive agent in wartime Crete, unambiguously heroic, and Donald Russell, still keeping his hand in at Latin verse composition in Oxford and a former code breaker in the Japanese section of Bletchley Park.

But the final note of this odd but touching book is, ultimately, failure: the worst kind, the suicide of a contemporary of ­Spero’s, James Naylor, dead at 24 (you can tell how his story is going to end early on and it doesn’t make it any easier to read; but it is no less worthwhile). I suppose this is inevitable and it is the randomness of fate that is the driver, as well as the unspoken subject, of this book. And there is, even after the sadness, a sweet perkiness about the prose, the kind of diffident charm that can be associated with classics scholars. As Spero reminds us, his surname is Latin for “I hope”. “I think this explains a lot,” he says. Maybe it does. 

Second-Hand Stories by Josh Spero is published by Unbound (336pp, £14.99)

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.