The only thing that equals the smell of a new book is perhaps the musty and dusty smell of an old book. The only thing that rivals the glossy cover of a new book is the worn edges and dog-eared pages of a book beloved and then released back out into the wild to be captured and enjoyed by another. I spend a lot of time talking about the stories that you can find within the pages of a book on this blog. But I have never focused on the stories one can find beyond the text of a used or vintage book. A used book allows you a unique picture of the previous owner through their own markings, highlights, notes, place holders and inscriptions. These clues tell you a bonus story, one that you didn’t necessarily expect when you purchased your book. It is a story about the reader and what the experience of reading was like for another. Each experience is unique because every individual approaches a book in his or her own way. So, just as the stories within the pages and words of a book tell the unique story of the author, the markings left by the reader reveal the mystery of prior ownership and when it come time for you to pass on your own books, you tell others a little something about you, the mysterious owner of a beautiful book with which you have written your own unique story.
When I look through used books, I sometimes come across forgotten bookmarks. Sometimes a bookmark will be a shopping list. Sometimes you will find old dollar bills used as book marks and it’s fun to imagine what sort of person would forget about their cash and sell the book off. Bookmarks have personality and style and they tell you a lot about the person who owned the book. When I get desperate, I grab a sticky note. But my favorite bookmark was a Christmas gift from my cousins. My uncle had drawn a raven and quoted Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. On the flip side was my name colored in by my cousins.
I love reading inscriptions in books that were given as a gift. You get to see why the giver decided to pick that particular book for the person and you learn a little bit about what their relationship was like when you yourself read the book. Giving the gift of a book tells someone, “This is how well I know you” because when someone sits down to read a book they are investing their precious time to reading that particular text. One of the most interesting inscriptions I have come a cross was in a religious book that someone gave as a gift. The message essentially said that they hoped the person would use this book to find their way to religion. That’s not a very subtle way of doing things, but it certainly tells you a lot about the giver. I have a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit that was a gift from my grandmother when I was little which she inscribed with a message. I love that book and took it with me when I moved into my apartment because I can look at her handwriting. It’s what I have left over her.
Personally, the gift of a book is one of the best gifts I can receive and I cherish each one that I have ever been given. I have received books that people think I would enjoy, books they think I should read, books about writing and storytelling, idea starters and, of course, stories. Sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I receive really old texts. One of the best presents I’ve ever received is a really old version of a compilation of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. It even had a poem in there that I had never seen before. The book is thick and ornate with gold fringed pages and a copy of a letter written by Poe himself. This book is especially interesting because while it may have had only one previous owner, it could potentially have had many more. There is a great story about the owners and the journey that the book took to my shelf.
If a book I had owned were picked up by another person in a used book store, it would tell them many things about me. It’s actually a really great way of understanding who I am. The underlining in blue pen would tell them that I love language because I always underline sentences that inspire in me a feeling of beauty. It is not what they describe that moves me, but how the describing is done. Sometimes the sentences are profound and inspire in me feelings of awe and tinges of envy. I wish that I could write so beautifully. My notes in the margins would tell someone that I was an English major at one point in my life. The cracked spine tells a person that it was a book I read many times over, the excitement over that particular adventure worthy of being relived again and again.
People often say that books have a soul and this is a statement with which I am inclined to agree. When they say this, they are referring to the story that is told within the pages and text. And while this is true, they are forgetting a significant piece of what makes a book special and what it is that gives it a soul. The soul of a book grows more complex and interesting when it gets read by more than once by the same reader, when it is handed over at Half-Priced Books or Prospero’s or whatever your local used book store may be called and picked up by somebody new. Each time I read a book, it becomes worn and it reveals its soul and that soul is reflective of who I am and how I am with the story that the book tells. Left behind upon those pages, in my own ink, in the creases, within the inscription, in that spine and in the shelf-wear is the story of the owner and of the relationship the owner had with the text. And that itself is a beautiful story all its own.