The best part of buying a used book is the history that comes with it. Tucked in the pages, one finds photographs and letters used as bookmarks; on the inside cover and in the margins, long inscriptions to, from, about. It’s true the printed text pulls us into the life of the author, but it’s these little discoveries that pull us into the life of the book. Suddenly, the physical paper in our hands is given its own life. We are not its first owners, and as all things come and go, we know we will not be its last. Our shelf is merely one stop on its private journey through many hands and homes.
As someone who’s owned plenty of used books, I’ve come across all kinds of interesting examples of marginalia. For example, a few months ago I purchased from the Book House in Dinkytown a copy of Bukowski’s Post Office (1971). In it was inscribed “WET KISSES,” signed “Emily.” Right above it on faded yellow paper dated May 10, 1983, was her obituary. What I held in my hands was more than a book: at one time, it was a shrine.
More recently, while wandering through a bookstore in Columbus, GA, I found an example that captured my imagination. In a copy of Deirdre Bair’s Anais Nin: A Biography (1995), someone (appropriately) began a diary of their trip to France.
15.7.96 [July 15, 1996]
Purchased — yes, purchased — on my Quatorze Juillet [Bastille Day] trip to France. Inscribed at the Le Pre aux Clercs at the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Rue Jacob. I stayed (in the Hotel dex deux continents) (50 mtrs. from here) down the Rue Jacob last year on my coming back from America and I was told what a good and rare bistro the Pre aux Clercs is. Tonight, the wide-ranging walking got hold of me, after the night cap beers at the Horse’s Tavern, I got up at [?]30 in the morning, shouldered my bag, went to the Hotel Delavigne, didn’t go in and started to move toward the Rue the Vangirard, first hesitantly, even unsure of my movement up to golden-hipped black fence-bars of the Jardin de Luxen [???] further out from the Senate. Then I moved with sureness, up the Vangirard to the Montparnasse left to the Bowl Mich (-a racehorse elegant pansien model was shot in the morning cold by fashion photographers on the Montparnasse, at one point she mouthed a frustrated colde merde [“Shit!”], she of the golden Parisian hair, overbred with long and elegant and small face, long slender fingers clasping her tight black outfit.
At that same bookstore, I came across these (Burroughs-esque) diary entries in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (1988):
August 17, 1993. Tonight I thought that Ulla’s smallest child, Yarrick, born 9-8-91 is a reincarnation of my father. Beri’s words, spoken with by me perceived emphasis: “Mein Bruder.” Beri, looking out for his brother. Protecting his brother. “Mein Bruder.”
August 18, 1993. “Moaning Lisa.”
August 29, 1993. Have energy tonight. Horizons. Things to do. I’ll stay here in my apartment.
Of course, these are only a sampling of what’s out there. There’s so much more waiting to be found and for us to write. As I said, our shelves are only one stop on a book’s journey. The notes we scribble, the letters we stick between the pages — remember, we’ve others looking over our shoulder.