Wednesday, 21 January 2015
The social history of books
There was that Kenneth Patchen 1957 Selected Poems I bought in a local Oxfam shop just before Christmas, signed on the flyleaf: ‘George Buchanan, 1959’ – the Irish-born poet, 1904-89, who published with Carcanet and whose daughter lives opposite me.
Last Saturday in another local Oxfam shop there was a treasure trove of late 1950s/early 1960s Penguins. I bought three. Inside a Moravia I found a forgotten bookmark in the form of a letter dated 7 February1961, thanking a Dr Helen Rubens for her job application and inviting her to attend a interview at a doctors’ surgery on the afternoon of the 10th – in other words, almost certainly this book was last read over a half a century ago, and perhaps the woman reading it had it with her on the day of the interview (the surgery opening times are handwritten on the back of the envelope). I googled the name and found her: her grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants and her parents met while working as market traders; she married a trades unionist at the age of 23, became a GP, mentored refugees studying medicine, was made a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1992, and died last year. For her Guardian obituary, written by her son, see here. I feel proud to have some of the books she once read.