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My Strange Friends

December 1, 2014

Books

Thornton's Bookshop

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.

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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53 Comments on “My Strange Friends”

  1. Mikels Skele Says:

    Amen. If you don’t get any disagreement from your friends, one of you is unnecessary.

    Reply

  2. cindybruchman Says:

    Was it not Jon Stuart Mill who asserted we should always question our beliefs and place our ideologies up for examination? What a great book store. I miss them.

    Reply

  3. Dina Says:

    Lucky you to get hold of those first editions, Malcolm. I love bookstores more than any other shops and this one was a gem.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      It makes sense that most bloggers are passionate about books and bookstores. It’s just a shame that the same internet that makes blogging possible, has also killed the physical bookstore.

      Reply

  4. mdtodorovich Says:

    Malcolm,
    Excellent post! I’m envious of your experiences (and sweet finds) at Thornton’s. I’ve visited a few second hand shops but have had little luck in finding anything worthwhile. Sadly, as you mentioned, these second–hand shops have all but disappeared and have been replaced by online distributors. And although this online shopping experience is convenient, it will never replace my nostalgic images of sitting in a trendy shop, browsing through old manuscripts, and perhaps discussing poetry and prose with other like–minded readers.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michael, you raise a good point. Before the internet, if you were knowledgeable in a particular field you would have an advantage over a bookseller, but nowadays the playing field is more level and consequently the bargains are fewer. Maybe the renaissance of coffee shop literary discussions will partially compensate for the experiential loss you write about?

      Reply

  5. Bill Hayes Says:

    Some years ago, I was doing a bit of Girafing in Thornton’s bookshop (most animals graze – but Giraffes “browse” when eating tree tops) and I came across a little red leather bound book called the “PocketRichard Jefferies” pub:1913. A pasaage caught my eye which read, and I quote” hardley any of us but have thought: Some day I go on a long voyage; but the years go by, and still we have not sailed” Someone had faintly written in the margin in pencil “I have!” Of course I had buy the book. A real treasure.

    Incidently – you can see Stanley Baldwin’s signature here: http://www.joergs-british-autographs.de/baldwin-cc.jpg

    good evening.

    Reply

    • Bill Hayes Says:

      Ooops, sorry about the mistakes, whoever proof read that should be taken out and shit.

      Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Bill, I looked up the ‘Pocket Richard Jefferies’ and it does seem a gem. Also, I am in your debt for finding Stanley Baldwin’s signature, something I was unable to do. Unfortunately, it has not solved the puzzle. The signatures are very similar but the ‘S’ and the ‘B’ are completely different. However, there is an eleven year difference between the two signatures so I continue to live in hope, and maybe it’s best that way 🙂

      Reply

  6. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    I enjoyed this glimpse into your past, Malcolm. Most people’s once upon a time isn’t so scholastic. =) What rich excavations that reveal the landscape of your literary and historical knowledge. The beautiful prisoner is indeed an intrigue.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      D., I’m not a great fan of scholasticism or the academy. With certain exceptions, such as physics, most scientific and intellectual breakthroughs have come, not from mainstream university departments, but from passionate amateurs and tinkerers. Personally, I have always loved ideas.

      Reply

  7. matt Says:

    Friends such as your strange ones, make tolerable the ridiculousness of the everyday that tries to erode our souls and beat us down. May we never be without them.

    Reply

  8. chr1 Says:

    Strange what one can find in a book, especially a first edition. Sounds like you’ve always had a bent for the deeper ideas.

    Reply

  9. NicoLite Великий Says:

    Thornton’s sounds like a proper playground for intellectuals.

    Reply

  10. renxkyoko Says:

    there used to be a bookstore near our house but it closed shop several years ago. there was a coffee shop inside and tables and chairs and sofas. the smell of coffee brewing and the smell of books were heavenly. I prefer “real” books that I can hold , and love to receive real greeting cards . Someone said I have an “old soul”, whatever that means.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      The smell of old books and new books is very different and I think coffee only goes with the new books. Saying you are an “old soul” is a compliment meaning you are wise beyond your years. Until a few days ago I owned the domain ‘OldSoulsCorner’ but I never got around to using it.

      Reply

      • renxkyoko Says:

        Really ? 🙂 I thought it was liking old things. I actually love to watch Antiques Roadshow, and I wrote on my post I’d rather go the archaelogical diggings than go partying. XD

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          The second-hand bookstores I had in mind are very dusty and even without the dust I feel like washing my hands after touching anything. I can’t imagine sitting down to a coffee and croissant in that environment.

  11. surgeryattiffanys Says:

    Wow. Envy….. Reading this makes me wish I have enough time to read books other than scientific journals, medicolegal reports and insurance guidelines!!!!

    Reply

  12. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    I LOVE used books. I especially love the ones with underlinings and notes all over them. I have a Leibniz’s Monadology with this: Katherine S. Hazeltine. October, 1907. She has the whole thing outlined, then she has beautifully written notes at the end, an extra leaflet taped in at the end of the book. She may not be famous, but I feel like I’ve struck gold.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I’m totally with you on this one and understand why it’s such a treasured possession. Interesting that we tolerate written notes and underlining much better than the indiscriminate use of a highlighter.

      Reply

      • rung2diotimasladder Says:

        Ha, that’s hilarious. I’m definitely guilty on both counts, as can be seen in all my college books. I was looking through one today and I couldn’t believe the junk I highlighted. If that book ends up in a used book store I’ll be embarrassed.

        Reply

  13. aFrankAngle Says:

    Everything has a history, and your strange friends have also given you a better sense of today.

    Reply

  14. reocochran Says:

    I like going to old bookstores, also when our local library takes out their ancient archives and antique books and put them in ‘Discards’ bins for only a few dollars apiece. I like how you respect history and the classics. I am not sure I would enjoy some of the deeper and controversial ones, like the support of anti-semitism. I would never burn a book or be one who thinks we need to censor. But, I would not ‘enjoy’ this debate…
    My family loves a good debate, but usually we are in agreement about equality and our fellow man. Smiles, Robin

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Robin, well said but you don’t have to enjoy a debate to learn from it. More recently I recall that even Ted Kaczynski (The Unabomber) and Osama bin Laden, had interesting things to say although because of what they did, nobody wanted to listen, a big mistake in my opinion. Kaczynski said some interesting things about the types of society that might develop if human labor were entirely replaced by artificial intelligence, and Bin Laden asked what was the United States doing with military bases in over 750 countries, and in particular supporting a reactionary monarchy in Saudi Arabia with troops on the ground near the holiest religious sites? I think that’s a question that was and is worth asking and the answer might lead to a more sensible debate on terrorism than all the anti-Islam rhetoric we hear today.

      As to the antisemitism debate, Chesterton would have said that he was also in favor of equality, wanting England for the English and Palestine for the Jews, meaning that he wanted all Jews to get out of England. Now, clearly this is a sick argument that has very little to do with equality as we understand it, but without an honest debate we are prevented from pointing out why the arguments are faulty and illogical. The alternative to debate is force, but in a civilized society force should only be employed reluctantly and as a last resort.

      Reply

  15. Dalo 2013 Says:

    This is a fantastic posts. Takes me back to the time when every bookstore explored had some sort of treasure to be found… The magic I have found, 1st edition of Old Man & the Sea, of Roald Dahl’s Danny Champion of the World (I will buy any hardback copy I find to give as gifts)…and then, as you mention ~ there are times our strange friends bring something that can shake our bones a bit. This post makes me smile at such great memories of browsing, learning and of wonder that books bring.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Dalo. A Hemingway first edition! That’s a real find. I love your expression “shake our bones”, which is exactly what some books do to us. Interesting that you still give hardback copies of books as gifts. Here’s a copy of an email I received just the other day from a friend, and it’s not unusual nowadays, particularly with the advent of digital publishing:

      “Linda has collected many classics over the years she now wishes to depart with in preparation for moving next Spring.. They include works by Dostoyevsky, Chekov, Tolstoy, Hardy, Austen, Dickens and others.
      I hate to throw them in the dumpster. What do you suggest?”

      Very sad.

      Reply

      • Dalo 2013 Says:

        I use a Kindle, and I love it. Perfect for travel and for reading…but there is nothing quite like feeling a book and feeling its words as well. My Dad still gives out books as gift, it is one of those very thoughtful processes he taught me ~ give a book that has real meaning for the recipient. It is great fun to find a book that fits a friends 🙂

        Reply

  16. Sherry Chen Says:

    Hi Malcolm, I think your site’s got beautiful design and such interesting pieces, so I’m following! 🙂
    I really enjoy your posts and look forward to your next.
    Feel free to check out my writing about publishing: publishinginsights.org
    Sherry

    Reply

  17. Tahira Says:

    One of the ways I grow, cognitively, is by being challenged on my beliefs & thoughts. In fact, these days I almost find it a necessity in my personal relationships. Your finds sound wonderfully interesting as do your experiences, Malcolm.

    Reply

  18. theunrecordedman Says:

    As long as I think someone is being honest then I don’t find it difficult to talk to them, even if our views are diametrically opposed. It is the studied striking of poses which I find so infuriating. Maybe both of these men were genuine in their beliefs. Discussion then becomes possible since it is possible to sway someone who at least has some interest in the truth.

    I hope you don’t mind me saying so but your ending, “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” had something of the sentimentality of which I commented earlier. People, especially British people, never used to talk in this way. They used to feel occasional wonder at the universe but kept it to themselves (I always feel such declarations are more about the speaker than the actual world). Brits used to appreciate their friends without needing to spell it out and there was something very intimate in that. I have always felt that ‘I love you’ trips too easily off some people’s tongues and is unconnected to what they happen to be feeling at the time. This is the wonderful aspect of ‘Brief Encounter’, that quintessentially British film: many things are unsaid but are still understood and some deeper level. Praising a friend so directly is a bit embarrassing and rather spoils things, This is especially true for something as vague as ‘helping you to keep lost worlds of meaning alive’.

    I hope you don’t mind me saying all that. It’s just that you might have been in America too long to notice such things!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “I hope you don’t mind me saying all that.”

      Not at all. I think you have given a marvelous description of the British character and maybe I have lived in the U.S. too long and picked up some affectations 🙂 As to ‘The Tragedy of Anti-Semitism’, both men were not only genuine but went out of their way to be polite to each other and to give the other the benefit of doubt. It was that attitude that I found so intriguing.

      Reply

  19. Beth Says:

    Today our granddaughter shared a booklet she wrote for her paternal grandfather. It was a genealogy of sorts with lots of photos she found online to illustrate her work. The pictures were of the Glott family from Norway back as far as she could trace them through WW2 and before. The Glott family was known for its horses and tobacco business. Much of the information came from the Jewish Museum. That was news to me.

    Reply

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