On the particular joys of used books

133/365
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.