History of the Book

Page 116 'H is for Hawk

Page 116 ‘H is for Hawk

I was reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald on the train this morning and I was struck by the passage above and how it relates to working at Oxfam.

Often when we get donations of books there are mementos left by or from previous owners of the book. This can range from an owners inscription to items that are left in books such as photos, bookmarks, etc. (see our Lost and Found post). Macdonald asks her friends about objects that gave them a sense of history and her description of how her friends feel regarding objects such as ‘clay pipes’ or ‘dancing shoes’ is exactly how I feel towards many of the donations that we receive in the shop.

By looking closely at a book and often its contents it is possible to get a sense of who the person was who previously owned and read the item. Some people write their names, some leave messages for other and some write notes in the margins. All of which help to build up a picture of who the person was. And if you have more than one book this sense of the books history build into a sense of the person through their reading habits – you become au fait with their interests, you discover who they are/were through the books that they read. If they were, like me, the type of person who uses whatever is to hand to mark their place. You then have an idea of journeys, of their taste in cards, of whether they pressed flowers or not.

Books can tell us so much about the individual and it is my role at Oxfam to allow others to share the same sense of the history of the book by caring for the books and passing them on to a new owner who will in turn add their own history to the book.

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Book of the Week: Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett

In anticipation of St Patrick’s Day on Tuesday 17th March, we wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate one of our favourite Irish writers, Samuel Beckett.

Widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th Century, Beckett was a novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet whose work fits in to what Marin Esslin called the “Theatre of the Absurd,” and which became increasingly minimalistic in his later life. Beckett was raised in Ireland but spent the majority of his adult life living in Paris.

His most famous works are probably his first three plays, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Happy Days,  all written between 1948 and 1961.

The video above is a monologue called “Not I,” which Beckett wrote in 1972 and which is performed by actress, Billie Whitelaw. Although this was not the first performance, Beckett had written the monologue with Whitelaw in mind, as they had worked together before, on Play. The monologue is frantic and delivered at great speed, telling the story, in a round about way, of a seventy year old woman who has lived a loveless existence following her abandonment by her parents at birth and who seems to have suffered an unspecified traumatic experience. Although rape is something that springs to mind when listening to the monologue, Beckett was emphatic in denying that this was the trauma she had suffered.

The play is always staged in this way, with the stage completely dark apart from a spotlight on the mouth of the actress. Beckett originally wrote in another, silent character called the Auditor, genderless but usually played by a man. This character would wear a black robe and only be dimly visible but when Beckett tried to stage the play, he found the figure too difficult to position so removed it from the production, while leaving directions for it in the published script.

Whitelaw and Beckett had an intense professional relationship and he would write some of his more experimental pieces specifically for her, referring to her as a “perfect actress.” After his death in 1989, Whitelaw chose never to perform any of his works again.


In the first half of Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett, James Knowlson, Beckett’s official biographer, compiles a selection of Beckett’s personal memories and anecdotes, while in the second half, he talks to others who knew Beckett personally and professionally. If you’re a fan of Beckett’s work or would just like to find out more about this fascinating character and his work, pop into the shop to ask about this book.


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From Fairtrade Fortnight to Easter


Once again it has reached that time- the end of Fairtrade Fortnight and the fast approaching Easter season. To celebrate such events, it is only right to acknowledge the wonderful Fairtrade Company that Oxfam supports.

Fairtrade Fortnight is an event that hugely raises awareness of the hard work that the producers do, as they make such luxury items a daily expectance in today’s society. You may have noticed the recipes inside Oxfam shops and on the website as well as the huge abundance of Fairtrade products on display, which help strengthen this amazing cause. By purchasing such products it makes it easier for the producers to earn a better living with the support that you have provided. If you want to find out more about what Fairtrade does and how to support it follow this link: http://www.fairtrade.org.uk.

Now try not to be disheartened at the ending of such a momentous event as Easter is just around the corner. This is another reason to celebrate for Oxfam as if you enter the shops you will surely not miss the selection of Easter eggs scattering the shelves. It is surely the point of call for many children visiting the shop.

The Easter Eggs currently on display, like the huge array of other products available in Oxfam, come from the wonderful company Divine. Such a company has grown globally and as a result has succeeded in growing a market for Fairtrade chocolate. In fact Oxfam is the only retailer that Divine supplies its whole range to (not that we’re bragging.)

So what is your favourite Easter product to sample on this season? Is it the mini chocolate eggs or the more glamorous full sized eggs? Well I have to say that after working on the till staring at the eggs for some time, I really would not mind which I ate first! In their bright Devine packaging they look absolutely amazing, and knowing that they are supporting a cause as worthy as Fairtrade makes them taste even better.

If you want to find out more about Divine and the products that they supply to Oxfam there is an abundance of material just a mouse click away: http://www.divinechocolate.com/uk/about-us.

But in the meantime why not pop into Oxfam Books Petergate and see for yourself what the fuss is about. We have a “eggstremely” huge selection of Easter eggs on display to get over the ending of Fairtrade Fortnight. Sorry I told myself I would not use any egg-related puns….

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Book of the Week: The Book of the Dead


This week, we have had the most wonderful donation of a huge quantity of books about Ancient Egypt including an amazing copy of a translation of the Book of the Dead, including these beautiful pull out images (pictured above)

The Book of the Dead is an Ancient Egyptian funerary text that was in use from the beginning of the New Kingdom (c. 1550 BC) until around 50 BC.  The Book of the Dead contains around 200 spells which were supposed to help the dead transition smoothly into the afterlife. While some of these spells were part of wider funerary rituals, performed by priests and loved ones, the majority of them were intended for the personal use of the dead.

These spells formed part of a long tradition of Egyptian magic for the dead which can be seen in its earliest form as Pyramid Texts, which date from between 2400 BC and 2300 BC. These texts were almost exclusively for royal use and were laid out on the walls in such a way as to make it easier for the dead person to use them to transition into the next world.

Another body of spell known as the Coffin Texts emerged after the end of the Old Kingdom and seem to have served a similar purpose but were not just used by royalty. These texts have been found carved into the sides of coffins (hence the name), written on papyri inside coffins, and, occasionally, carved into the walls of a burial chamber.

Spells in the Book of the Dead were often concerned with ensuring the safety of the dead.

One important means of providing magical protection was the placing of four bricks of unbaked mud in niches in the burial chamber, each acting as a stand for a protective figure and part of spell 151 of the Book of the Dead contains specifications for the bricks and what the figures were to be made of.

Amulets are another example of this, and were commonly found in the wrappings of mummies. The scarab amulet was a very popular amulet and was associated to the Sun God and powers of rebirth. It was often made with Jasper as there were specific guidelines as to what colour amulets should be outlined in the Book of the Dead.

“Heart Scarabs” used to protect the heart, which was seen as the most important organ as it was the source of all human intelligence and was crucial to the process of entering the afterlife. “Heart Scarabs” often had magic spells inscribed on them and there was a specific spell from the book of the dead that prevented the heart testifying against its owner.

If you are interested in Ancient Egypt and would like to learn more about the Book of the Dead and other aspects of Ancient Egyptian life, religion and culture, please come down to the shop and chat to one of our volunteers who will be happy to help you navigate the amazing quantity of books we can offer you on this subject!

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“Judging Books by their Covers”


On Monday 9th March, Oxfam Books, Petergate, invites you to come and discover the fascinating history of book covers, in a lecture given by shop manager, John McKay, in the beautiful buildings of the York Medical Society on Stonegate.

John McKay has a phD from Birkbeck College, University of London, in contemporary Scottish literature. As well as managing Oxfam Books, John teaches courses on literature for the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York and is currently researching the relationship between book covers and their influence on reading patterns.

The twentieth century witnessed the rapid evolution of the book cover from a functional protective layer into a complex visual presentation. This lecture will attempt to provide an overview of the history of jacket design and how it has developed into a sophisticated marketing tool signposting many aspects of the enclosed text prior to reading, truly allowing you to judge the book by its cover.

Shop volunteer, Elizabeth Hatherell, says, “When you work somewhere that surrounds you with books, you suddenly begin to take more notice of them, and working with John has really opened my eyes to the importance of the book cover. This is going to be a wonderful evening for anyone who loves books and, on top of that, all the money is going to help provide books to children who really need them.”

Many of us live our lives surrounded by books and it can sometimes be easy to forget that this is a real privilege that many in the world do not have. At Oxfam Books, we feel that it is particularly important that children are given access to books and to education, which is why all proceeds from this event will be going towards buying school supplies for children who desperately need them.

This will be done through Oxfam Unwrapped, which asks for £8 to ensure that children are given everything they need to make the most out of school, (http://www.oxfam.org.uk/shop/oxfam-unwrapped/teachers/school-supplies-ou9025in) and, as the UK government is currently doubling all donations given to Oxfam, with UKAid, each ticket bought will provide the full £8.

The talk will take place at the York Medical Society, at 7pm on Monday 9th March. Tickets cost £4 and include a complimentary glass of wine. They will be available to buy from Oxfam Books, Petergate, from Saturday 14th February, but there are a limited number so visit the shop soon to ensure you don’t miss out!

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Book of the Week: Where’s My Cow?

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In the spirit of half term, we have chosen a children’s book as our Book of the Week.

Fans of Terry Pratchett’s acclaimed Discworld novels will have met Sam Vimes before, in Thud!, Pratchett’s 34th Discworld novel, in which he is placed in charge of the investigation into the death of a dwarven demagogue, Grag Hamcrusher (no, I’m not 100% sure what that means either…). A side note in the book mentions that Vimes will always get home to read his son a story in the evening. And here is the story.

A parody on the traditional layout of a children’s book, this one follows Vimes as he attempts to adapt his son’s favourite book, Where’s My Cow? into something more relevant to his young life. He decides that it is silly to teach a boy growing up in a city about farmyard animals and that, in any case, the suggested method for finding the cow is rather inefficient (rather than asking every animal if it is a cow, it is much more reasonable to report the missing cow to the City Watch, who will “swing into action with keenness and speed”).

This book is guaranteed fun for children and adults alike, with Melvyn Grant’s vivid illustrations bringing the story to life and plenty of opportunities to pull silly faces and make funny noises.

For this and many more children’s books for all ages and abilities, to keep them quiet this week, pop into the shop and have a browse in our children’s corner.

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Book of the Week: Ian Fleming’s For your Eyes Only FIRST EDITION

This week we received a very exciting donation: a 1st edition, hardback copy of For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming, published by Jonathon Cape in 1960. This is the eighth book in the James Bond series and contains five short stories:
From a View to Kill
For Your Eyes Only
Quantum of Solace
The Hildebrand Rarity
Not only do these tales capture Fleming’s unique talent for intrigue and adventure, the book itself is fascinating and we are very lucky to have been given it.
21,712 copies were published and the jacket, designed by Richard Chopping, is famously the only one to depict Bond, albeit only his eye.
For Your Eyes Only cover
The red lettering on the front and spine of the book are notoriously fragile and, while that on the spine has faded, the lettering on the front, and on two pages inside, is clear and bright.
For Your Eyes Only binding
The binding is also a thing of beauty, with an image of an eye embossed on the front and gild blocking on the spine of the book.
For Your Eyes Only back
Fleming’s Bond books are very popular with collectors and to be truly collectible, a first edition Bond novel needs to be in its original dust jacket. For most of the books it is easy to tell a first edition jacket as it won’t bear any self-referential quotations from critics.
For Your Eyes Only title page inscription
Overall this book is in fantastic condition, a fact made even more impressive when one notices how well loved this book seems to have been. The previous owner has written an inscription on title page and any wear and tear to the dust jacket can be safely attributed to frequent re-reading and normal aging.
For more information, or if you would like to purchase this book, please visit our ebay page using the link below:

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