Essays

The Pleasure and Surprises of Used Books

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My husband only buys new books, and they must be hardcover editions. To him, these are “real” books.  As for me, one of the greatest pleasures in my life is going to a used book sale at the library and filling bag after bag of books loved by someone else. Each of these books tells a story.

Many times when I open up the book, notes, letters, clippings tumble out. (I’m waiting for the day when a $100 bill falls out.) Last night, I pulled out a book called The Wildflower Meadow, a gardening book I purchased at the Prince Edward County library book sale in the fall. It’s an older edition, with yellowed pages and a wrinkled cover. It looks like many hands have held this book. Out from the foxed pages tumbled a sheet of yellow ruled paper. “Jane called at 11:30 a.m.” was scrawled in the upper right hand corner; below was a note that read in part,

I know you can’t see the changes I’ve made around here to the landscaping, but I plan to do more.

The trees, the shrubs and the flowers all need changing.

It will take time but each year I will accomplish more and more.

The note wasn’t signed, and was followed by other notations, in different pens but in the same beautiful penmanship, notes related to species and varieties of plants. I’m guessing the author was taking notes and dreaming on paper about the changes he or she (I think it’s a she; the writing looks feminine to me, but who knows?) wanted to make in her garden.

It’s these little finds that make reading used books so much fun. One time, I bought a book about how to create a spiritual retreat at home. It was a book filled with ideas on how to create home altars, prayer spaces, daily retreats. Out tumbled a bookmark dedicated to St. Therese of Lisieux; in the middle of it was a square of cloth said to be touched to a relic of St. Therese. At the time, I had just moved to Virginia and joined the parish of St. Therese of Lisieux in Farmville, and it was a wonderful feeling to hold that bookmark, given to me quite by chance when the fellow in my book club sent it off to me. Or was it by chance? I wonder…

I also finished reading the book A Naturalist Buys and Old Farm, another book purchased at the local library book sale. From these pages, a newspaper clipping from a 1970s paper tumbled forth. Badly yellowed, so dried it was cracking, it was a clipping about the book’s author on a speaking tour of Virginia Beach. I wonder if the original owner of the book was from Virginia Beach and moved to my area of Virginia?  There was a note scrawled on the clipping: “Bob. Saw this and thought of you. Hope you like the book.” No signature.

I’ve found dedications inside books, loving thoughts and words written to students, children, parents. One volume of sheet music I picked up of Bach had a note written from a piano teacher to her student, “May you always cherish Bach and the lessons he taught you.”  It is dated 1946.

It is these moments in time that connect reader to reader, past to present, as a cherished volume is passed along, sometimes to a friend, sometimes to a stranger. If books could talk, they would have even more to say than they already do!

1 thought on “The Pleasure and Surprises of Used Books”

  1. Wonderful. I love used books myself. I’ve got a problem, though: I really have a mania which is to leave my own books as pristine as possible. So, if they ever get sold and bought again, they will seem new. For some reason, this is sad. I should start making marks on them more often…

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