Back in November, I wrote about a private pilgrimage I made to a house in Camden. I went there after buying a book called Short Letter, Long Farewell by Peter Handke from a secondhand bookshop on Berwick Street. Inside the front cover, written in pencil, I saw the following:
I went to 9a Regent’s Park Terrace.
I wondered who Charles Unwin was. He had once owned this very same book I now owned. We had an odd kind of connection. Something which had once been in his house, in his hands, was now in my house, in my hands.
Just after Christmas, someone called Ian Rowbotham left a comment saying:
I know exactly who this person is. I don’t think I should write anymore for now, save to say he is a great reader and buyer of second hand books. I have been dragged into several antiquarian booksellers’ over the years, and been the grateful recipient of many an intriguing, if tatty, volume.
I emailed Ian and asked if he’d mind forwarding my details on to Charles Unwin. Very kindly, Ian agreed to speak to him and gave me Charles’ email address. I sent Charles an email, including a link to the original blog post and asking if he remembered buying the book originally. I received the following reply:
I bought the book from Smith’s, a large secondhand bookshop in Reading. So, I was almost certainly not the first owner. I imagine I bought it during the second half of 1980. I tended to write my address in books at the time, partly because I often left them behind on public transport never to see them again.
I have to confess that I never read the book. After having kept it for 20 years without even looking at the first sentence, I thought I was unlikely ever to read it, so I took it to a charity shop. I have no recollection of Siroco’s or Parikia – that card was probably inserted by a subsequent owner.
You are silent on whether you have read the book yourself – ideally, I think, it should have been owned by several people, none of whom got beyond Page 1.
I hope this is helpful. Good luck in your attempts, if any, to track down the other former owners.
And so it seems my imagined biography of the book was almost completely wrong. Charles Unwin wasn’t the first person to own it, he never went to Parikia. Charles never even read the book. There are still some unanswered questions though. Which charity shop did Charles take the book to, roughly twenty years after he originally bought it? Was it an Imperial Cancer Research shop? And how did Ian Rowbotham find my blog anyway?
I like Charles’ idea of a book owned by lots of different people, but never read by any of them, although I feel slightly guilty because not only have I read the book, I’ve actually read it two and a half times.
I read it originally back when I first bought it; in a slightly confused, feverish state. Then, in November I started reading it again and when I was about halfway through, I noticed the inscription on the inside front cover. I decided to go to 9a Regent’s Park Terrace. Having decided to do this, I went back to the beginning of the book and wanted to see if there was some way of tying the plot together with this idea of mine. But in the end, I hardly mentioned the content of the book itself.
I recently read 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I thought what she says here is lovely:
I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.)
And although Charles Unwin never actually turned the pages or called my attention to any particular passages, his inscription (however functional it may be) increased the value of this book, for me at least.
It’s a good book, Charles. I can lend you a copy if you want.