Once upon a time, I lived in Oxford, England and browsed second-hand bookshops in streets reminiscent of Diagon Alley. Nobody browses now. Most such bookshops have either closed or moved online, and the few that are left have customers with neither the time nor the inclination for an activity motivated solely by the hope of a serendipitous find. However, I was fortunate to live near Thornton’s, the oldest second-hand bookshop in Oxford, and spent many pleasurable hours climbing its spiral staircases and exploring nooks and crannies for dusty tomes that called out to me.
Occasionally, the find was a first edition. Sometimes, an intriguing inscription, such as my copy of ‘The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,’ in which was written: “To my beautiful prisoner in the Hoffstadt, August 1937.” What was the Hoffstadt and in what way was she his prisoner? I have a treasured edition of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Principles of Political Economy’, signed in January, 1917 by Stanley Baldwin. Was this the same Stanley Baldwin who served as the British Prime Minister three times between the two world wars and was the only premier to have served under three monarchs? I don’t think I will ever know, but I would like to think it is.
I have three copies of ‘The Doctrine of Personal Right’, written by S. Hutchinson Harris, and published in Barcelona in 1935. During The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) between the Republicans, who supported the Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists supporting General Franco, Barcelona, with strong anarcho-syndicalist support, declared for the Republicans. In ‘The Doctrine of Personal Right’, Harris had argued in favor of natural rights, which was clearly close to the anarchist position and so explained the curious location and timing of the book’s publication.
But rarely have I come across a stranger find than ‘The Tragedy of Anti-Semitism’ by A.K. Chesterton and Joseph Leftwich, published in 1948. A.K. Chesterton was a British Fascist leader who went on to found the British National Front, and Joseph Leftwich was a Zionist Jew. My particular edition is inscribed by Joseph Leftwich to Thomas Moult, a good friend of Leftwich, and as I subsequently discovered, a well-known Georgian poet. The book contains a discussion, in the form of a series of letters between Chesterton and Leftwich, on the subject of antisemitism. It was published only a few years after the end of the Second World War and yet the debate is measured, polite and dare I say it, civilized. I have no idea how it was reviewed but what I find most interesting is the thought that this book could never be published today because we have become too intolerant of views that challenge our foundational beliefs.
My friends are strange but they help me understand lost worlds of meaning and keep my sense of wonder alive. I thank them for that.