On the particular joys of used books

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Two beloved and heavily annotated books of mine. Photo circa spring 2010.

I know I am not alone in this sentiment, but I hold used books in high esteem, often preferring them above brand-new editions. The remnants of past readers feel very special to me. I spend a good deal of time wondering about the book’s former owners, searching for vestigial clues to their identities. I read every annotation, every inscription, every book plate. I wonder if Carol and Judith ended their friendship, and that’s why Judith gave away her copy of The Stone Diaries to the library book sale. I admire John and Betty Connors’s gilt-edged, pre-printed Ex Libris sticker and wonder if we would have enjoyed their company at dinner. I muse about names and dates and symbols. I assess the handwriting, trying to ascertain the age or sex of the reader.

I once bought a very heavily and angrily annotated copy of Walden, clearly worked over by a high-school student. The student did not hold Thoreau in high regard, but he/she did seem to have read the whole book, because there were grumpy little notes and excessive underlining from start to finish. I found myself almost more interested in what the student had to say than Thoreau.

While in college, I bought a beautifully bound, royal-blue old hardback copy of Carl Sandburg’s poems on a whim at The Bookshop. I don’t even like Carl Sandburg that much. When I got home and thumbed through the volume, out dropped a photograph. And not just any photograph: It was a small rectangle, curling at the edges, displaying the Old Well and a thoroughly ivy-covered building (possibly Old East). Dated 1915. What an unexpected treasure! I framed that little photograph and it now hangs in the bedroom with the Carolina blue walls.

Importantly, The Bookshop was where I initiated my college romances. True to form, while perusing its musty shelves, I grew uncommonly animated and flirtatious, as if spouting allusions at a quick clip was the best way to cause someone to fall in love with me. I still remember conversations I had and the books I was jealously guarding in my arms when I had them. I even remember what I was wearing on these particular quasi-dates. I found Lydia Davis’s hardback translation of Swann’s Way there, back in the dark and creepy clearance section, and felt it to be a Sign from God that I had to finally read Proust, under the auspices of budding love.

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10 thoughts on “On the particular joys of used books

  1. Although I love to buy new books and the sound of the crease less paper is like symphony to my ears but your post has definitely given me a new aspect to think and savour the pleasure of used books.

  2. I mostly stick with used books because of the price difference.

    I purchase poetry editions which are usually pretty thin compared to a novel, but still run well above $15 (in Canada) this can get pretty costly if buying more than two at a time.

    We have the BMV shops here in Toronto that sell at about $7 and up for a “thin” edition.

    Antique markets can be a good bet sometimes, I have a Robert Browning hard cover (legal size, or thereabouts) circa 1881 that is absolutely beautiful, the cover is falling off and most of the pages have literally started to disintegrate, not bad for five bucks. It’s not decoration, I actually read this thing; Imagine how many people leafed through this book, and whose bookshelves it sat on?

    J

  3. Some girls needed a couple drinks and club music. You needed different something different than 6th grade lyrics, smoke, and fertility dances. Probably got less headaches. And didn’t have to talk as loud. That was a smart sweet piece.

  4. I read somewhere that they managed to track down Christopher Columbus’ later years by looking at his library. His books all had the date and location he was in when they came into his possession, so they were able to travel around and piece together a better picture. I started doing that, and as I have moved around the world and gifted or left books on different continents, I love to imagine that I could somehow talk to the people reading those pages. Maybe they would do just what you said: wonder what had happened next, and why. Marginalia, it is wonderful, it really does feel like a conversation with those who loved (or hated) the book before.

  5. I definitely agree with you on this ^_^ i often remember borrowing books from the library and almost wishing to never return it because of the small doodles at the corner of the pages and lost and forgotten bookmarks that have found it’s way inside.

  6. Books are definetly a great way to boost up your mood or self-esteem as you are learning things “nobody has” and that can led you to think that your smart not trully being one (joke). But yeah is good. x’D

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