The Story Used Books Tell: An Illustrated Tale

Used books are great for many reasons. After having served one life, they are sent into the world to serve others. There is a smell to used books that bibliophiles appreciate. The pages yellow, they often look used. The binding might be split, the cover might be missing a corner. I like to think of them as well worn. For me, used books feel more comfortable than new books.

Used books have a story tell, one beyond the words on their pages. Some used books come complete with highlights and marginal notes. Sometimes you can see where someone stopped reading. Other times, used books are filled with unexpected treasures that enrich the book and its story.

Years ago, I got a 2-volume set of Civil War books from a cousin who was going through her father’s attic after he’d passed away, The History of the Civil War in America by John S.C. Abbott. volumes I and II. These are first editions, volume I having been printed in 1865 and volume II coming along a year later in 1866. It was hard for me to believe these books were that old given the good condition they were in. I was convinced a few years later when flipping through the first volume, I came to this unusual bookmark within.

an open copy of THE CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA, Vol I with a crisp $100 Confederate note stuck in as a bookmark

At first I wondered what would compel someone to use a hundred dollar bill to mark a page in a book, but I suppose in the aftermath of the Civil War, Confederate money wasn’t worth very much, so marking a page provided some amount of utility.

Our church has an annual book fair and a few years ago, I picked up a complete hardcover set of Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time. All 6 volumes cost something like $5. I took them home, and found a place on a shelf for them and didn’t return to them until a year or so later when I was reorganizing my bookshelves. There, I discovered two amazing things. First, tucked into Volume I was a 1986 obituary of Malone from the Washington Post, written by Martin Weil.

clipping of Dumas Malone's obituary, found in Vol I of Jefferson the Virginian

As it happens, Weil still writes for the Post, and when I discovered this clipping, I sent him an email telling him about what I’d found, and he wrote me a nice reply.

The second thing I discovered were that volumes I and VI in the collection I’d picked up were signed. I wonder if the people who gave the set away realized this?

signed copy of The Sage of Monticello

I once picked up a 4-volume set of H.G. Wells’ The Outlines of History and flipping through them one day, found this American Legion note being used as a bookmark. The note indicates their next meeting will be on May 14, 1947, which means whoever stuck it between those pages did so nearly 75 years ago.

Vol I of The Outlines of History with an American Legion note from 1947 slipped in as a bookmark

Later, the (same?) person opted to use this little slip to mark a page. After that, they must have run out of things at hand because they began folding the pages. Seeing a page folded like this, I wonder if the person ever made it past that page?

In a copy of The Wellsprings of Life by Isaac Asimov, I found this business card? from someone in Canoga Park, California.

copy of The Wellsprings of Life with a Penneys business card

I’ve discovered letters, receipts, and bookmarks within the used books I’ve gathered. But the most common thing I find are autographs. I rarely notice this ahead of time. Two examples follow, both obtained at the wonderful Iliad Bookshop formerly in North Hollywood (and now in Burbank, I believe) in the late 1990s. First, in a copy of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History, I discovered after I’d brought it home, that it was signed.

Second, in a copy of In Joy Still Felt, the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, I also discovered that it had been signed. It is one of three Asimov books that I have with his autograph, none of them, alas, was I able to ask for on my own.

Signed copy of In Joy Still Felt by Isaac Asimov

Reading a used book, no matter what it is about, I feel like I am in some kind of communion with those who held the book before me. What did they think of it? Did they like it, hate it? Sometimes, marginal notes or underlined paragraph’s give hint. Sometimes, the book has a name inside: “FROM THE LIBRARY OF…” and I wonder what that person might be doing today, or if they are still alive.

I’ve often daydreamed about writing something in a book before giving it away, especially one which is well worn, with plenty of annotations and scuffs. It might say something like, “Dear Reader of the Future, I wonder what your world is like as you sit down to read this book. I wonder what you’ll think of it. I wonder what you’ll think upon seeing this note from the past. Will it be, as Seneca once wrote, that ‘there will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are plain to them?’ What things are plain to you, that were not plain to us here in 2021?”

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  1. I have a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that was obviously borrowed by a someone a few times. It has personal thanks and notes of encouragement in the cover as they enjoyed the book through a “dark” time. This makes it one of my favourite books.


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