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.

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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 appears in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue