12 Nov 2009

I wish I knew the full history of this book; I don’t mean the story the book contains, rather the actual physical entity that is this piece of awesome. The story in the book is a rather mundane spy ‘thriller’ (I use that word with caution), set in a cold-war era with plenty of ‘intrigue’ (again, with caution). Written in the first-person, it follows British reporter John Terrant as he tries to track down the mysterious Ellen Content with whom he had a brief affair whilst stationed in Berlin. Published in 1954, the book is definitely a product of its age – but more on that later.

I think it’s only fair to put in a spoiler alert at this point; I can’t guarantee that the rest of this post won’t reveal details of the (paper-thin) plot.

The Content Assignment

Back to this actual book I’m holding in my hands – well, I was before I started typing. All I know is that it once belonged to my Gran and recently reached me via my parents. Before that, it belonged to one “Gioladys O Williams”. How do I know this? Well she kindly wrote her name in it. Now, I consider myself an expert in reading English having had 28 years of practice, but that first name certainly has me puzzled – “Gladys” maybe, but “Gioladys”?

Update: Adrian kindly points out below that it’s “Gwladys”. Considering the fact “Gwladys” wins in a google fight with “Gioladys”, I suspect he’s right. In fact, now he’s pointed that out, I can’t read it as anything other than “Gwladys”.

Inner Cover

The book starts out telling how John, our first-person-protagonist (FPP) spots an announcement in a paper that a Miss Ellen Content is returning by sea to New York. For reasons as yet unexplained, he becomes determined to get to New York ahead of her. He convinces his editor to fund it as a writing assignment – the Content Assignment. It has taken all of four pages for the title of the book to be fully explained. Magic.

Straight into chapter 2, where the fun starts. Whilst flying, John thinks back to how he first met Ellen Content. Taking us back to Berlin 1948, the scene is set in a city whose “de-nazification was almost complete in the British and America zones, proceeding slowly in the French zone and almost not at all in the Russian zone.” This is the first indication of when this book was written; clearly the Russians are in for a rough ride.

This brings me to why I’ve bothered to write about an otherwise forgettable book; its former owner, Ms Williams, didn’t stop at just writing her name inside the cover. Oh no – she did much more.

pg 12

Clearly she has taken exception to the tone of the book, but what amazes me is that she kept going…

At first I thought it was the negative portrayal of the Russians that had upset her, but on the very next page she shows her disdain isn’t limited to that.

pg 13

pg 22

Bearing in mind this book is written in the first-person, it’s hard to tell who these comments were directed at; the author or John The FPP.

Up to this point, the comments have all referred to specific bits of text. It takes until page 38 for the dam to break and Ms Williams to write what she really thinks.

pg 38

I bet she felt better for that – although it isn’t clear from her continuing stream of comments. One noticeable change is that no-one is safe from her pen. First up, are Britain’s security services and police.

pg 44

pg 51

You know she means business; she’s signed her name.

In a shocking turn of events, she goes on to agree with something in the book.

pg 93

But she doesn’t let that deter her. New York building regulations are a surprise entry in her hit list.

pg 95

She must have tired at this point, as her next comment is a single word which isn’t entirely obviously what her point is. Perhaps the irony of John The FPP feeling the part of something strange; the book itself.

pg 103

Again Ms Williams can’t quite decide who she is venting at – insulting the poorly written character or the author of said poorly written character.

pg 107

Towards the end of the book, she returns to her favourite subject

pg 138

and again makes a dig at the quality of the writing.

pg 148

In the final pages, she decides to stop holding back and say what she really thinks.

pg 149

I hope they get the message – Ms Williams does not like it. I almost wish she left it there, but she ends with this.

pg 156

I can hear her manically laughing as she put down her pen, closed the book and felt incredible pleased with having set the world to rights.

This is what people did before Have Your Say existed.

Wow. Simply wow.

  1. Adrian McEwenNovember 13, 2009

    Superb. She should get her own Bkkeepr account 🙂

    I think her first name is Gwladys not Gioladys. Still not a common spelling, but quite well known in my neck of the woods because the Gwladys Street end is one of the stands at Goodison Park – http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=53.439394,-2.964817&spn=0.002176,0.005466&t=h&z=18

  2. nickNovember 13, 2009

    Thanks Adrian – now you point it out, it seems obvious.

    Funny you should mention bkkeepr… but let’s save that thought for a future post…

  3. Shauna Hicks • November 13, 2009

    Really enjoyed reading this. Shows how annotations can add value to what might be an otherwise boring record. Not that I have read the book. Thanks

  4. pingback from Stop Press for November 13th | booktwo.orgNovember 13, 2009

  5. Ben BabcockNovember 16, 2009

    I was thinking about this on the weekend as well. I discovered that a page in my Partial Differential Equations textbook, which I bought used online, has a phone number with the name “Zena” written below it. The previous owner’s name and phone number are written on the inside cover, and his phone number has the same area code as Zena’s. It made me conjecture the history of the phone number, and hence the physical book. Did the owner jot down her number as she told him it in order to remember? Did she write her number in his book, hoping he’d call?

    I love eBooks, but it’s this sort of incidental content that physical books acquire that makes them unique–and convinces me that print books will never die.

  6. BindingLogicNovember 16, 2009

    This is soooo cute and v interesting. I love that you have introduced us to a whole other level of the book and really a character (a reader) in the days before internet, email and now wave. I have often picked a secondhand copy of books by the annotations that it contain over another copies of the book beside it on the shelf. This is a characteristic of the way we read that will be lost with electronic books (kindles & nookes) thus these forms of book treasures will not kick around for other generations to find and query. You definitely have a *book angel* keeping watch over you. Thank you for this interesting entry.

  7. John MeadowsNovember 16, 2009

    Looking at the marginalia, to me it seems like a retro version of SideWiki. I love old marginalia — it makes physical copy of a book unique.

  8. pingback from goldmag.de » Blog Archiv » Notizen im Buch im digitalen Zeitalter: Warum sie verschwinden und was sie uns sagen könnenNovember 22, 2009

  9. pingback from Abandoned ideas #45 « knollearyDecember 22, 2010

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