Books of greater minds: creases and ink notes

“And because I often fold down page corners and scribble in margins, it is best to keep me away from first editions.” – Annie Proulx, “Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales,” Writers on Writing, pg. 186

Writers on Writing

Writers on Writing

Give me used books. Give me paperbacks with worn spines, with name and title cracked like old fresco. Give me hardcovers where the pages peel away from the binding, yet still find themselves together. Give me books with all of their pages. Give me first editions, second editions, anniversary editions, and editions you detest. Most importantly, give me a book where someone wrote comments in the margins, where someone underlined a vivid image, where text was annotated with stars and exclamation points.

The idea of being the first owner of a book is one of strange excitement. People may sit in the chairs by the coffee counter in Barnes & Noble reading a book they don’t plan on buying, but the moment that book leaves the store, it ceases to be a good for sale and becomes “my copy.” You can borrow “my copy” when I’m finished reading. Please return “my copy” in good condition.

Used Books

Examples of used books I own

But what of used books? The other day, I went to the Goodwill with my mother. The thrift store book section leaves much to be desired, but I picked up five books that cost between $14 and $20 for $1.67 a piece. As a former student, I know the importance of looking for the best deal on books, and if you can find a book you want, I don’t think anything will beat a thrift store bargain.

Price alone isn’t the only advantage though. Those books have a visible character, often seen in the crease of a dog-eared page where a previous owner found something compelling. The condition of a second-hand book can suggests a great deal about fellow readers. Sometimes, the previous owner is a student who never learned the right amount of highlighting, black text overpowered by yellow fluorescent streaks. Sometimes, former owners comment on passages, asking philosophical questions about the direction of the book.

Torn pages in Leaves of Grass

Not all used books are perfect. Multiple pages are shredded in this copy of Leaves of Grass.

Discovering how others have interacted with text is just as exhilarating as the actual book itself. A well-used book implies that one or more people found great enjoyment in these pages. A book in excellent condition could mean the previous owner cared too much about it to let it be damaged, revering it as a sacred text. Some owners care nothing about condition, mishandling pages until they rip and tear and are rendered unreadable.

Getting a glimpse into the mind of another book reader is also useful when creating fictional characters. In considering whose chickenscratch is existing next to the words of a published author, you have to brew a back story that suits the details of the book’s condition. If you are one of those people who can generally fit handwriting to gender, age, or occupation (this one is easiest with doctors, if you believe the stereotype), then your imagination can begin to explore a new depth.

Margin notes in a used book

Margin notes in a used copy of Voltaire's Candide. To me, the writing suggests a female student in a philosphy class or a course examining the treatment of Jews in literature.

Fundamentally though, a well-used book brings forth the shared experience of reading. A book that carries evidence of another hand is an implicit recommendation, the value of another’s words measured by the value of another’s words.



Filed under Essay

4 responses to “Books of greater minds: creases and ink notes

  1. I’d be interested in hearing a step by step breakdown of what a however-selected used book you’ve bought says about it’s previous owners–a kind of case study. That would be neat, chirp!

    • Thanks for the idea. I think the next time I go book hunting, which might be next weekend actually, I’ll pick up one that’s filled with notes and creases. I want to examine a book that I’ve never looked at before. Be sure to look out for that follow-up piece. I’ll be sure to give you credit for the idea.

  2. I often go book hunting on the streets…you never know what gems you land. And old books, they carry so much soul…

    • I’m always surprised by the conversations that start when people go book hunting. Word-of-mouth reviews and recommendations about similar authors are always helpful when starting or expanding a book collection.

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