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What happens to our social history?

A few weeks ago I was on the hunt for a photo frame.  A parental urge to frame a moment in London; a birthday treat for my youngest.  This urge led me to a charity shop (I have always had leanings towards to the second hand or what one might call other people’s cast offs).  I found a frame; it contained a whimsical water colour re – print, probably from the 1930s.  The picture would have been removed and the captured London moment re – homed.  I didn’t buy it.  The reason was simple: someone had bought the picture for a birthday present and had neatly written on the back a rather sweet inscription to the recipient (who, with luck, was more appreciative of the whimsical than me).  I suspect the value of said picture was accurately priced at £2.  The value of inscribed love and warm regards: priceless.  A glimpse into handwriting style and syntax of the time: an enjoyable bonus.

The source of stock for a second hand bookshop is wide and varied; serendipity doesn’t just occur for the customer:  the book lover who has died, leaving the loved ones to dispose of the collection, will perhaps enjoy the thought that their life in books will be explored by those who remain.  Their interests and pleasures dustily curated on their shelves soon to be dispersed through many hands and shelves via the second hand book seller.  For that moment, however, a snap shot is provided of them.  The snap shot is not always just of the owner and their obvious interests.  If lucky, there will be little titbits of accumulated information that gives the voyeur further peeks into a life unknown.  Bookmarks or postcards used as bookmarks, a dog eared photo given the same as task as the postcard.  Thoughtful and loving inscriptions.  Books that have been awarded as school prizes.  Each book chronicling a period in time; not a significant historical event but the gentle humdrum of an everyday life: the birthdays, the anniversaries, the Christmases, the thoughtfully given volume for just the act of giving that spawn memories for quiet reminiscence.

And then these little gems of social history pass onto the shelves of second hand bookshops.   It is always rather exciting to me to wonder who previously owned the book.  Whose hand turned the pages before mine?  Did they feel the same as they read?  Would the book be re – read, lent, debated and discussed?  Have the older volumes been handed on from generation to generation?  What scenes have the books formed a quiet, rigid backdrop for?

Today’s life of text and email, Whatsapp and Instagram maybe will leave slim pickings for future generations to muse over the social life of those who went before them.  The bundles of letters from everyday folk, the short notes of intent, the post cards declaring a sorrow of the recipient not being there with the writer, all those reasons for putting pen to paper in times gone by are removed with a blur of pixels and a silent buzz of fibre technology.  Never has everyday life been so exhaustively documented by so many and yet in the future how much will remain?  Maybe the odd second hand book with a charming inscription that to the curious might speak volumes and tell a thousand stories of what life was like ‘back then’.

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