Secondhand (part 2 of 2)

Buying and reading secondhand books is a little like riding public transportation. You have no control over your companions. Mostly, they are perfectly civil. Mostly, especially if you ride early in the morning/read a book early in its circulation, you won’t even know they are there. Everyone is privately engaged. Maybe there is a stray cough from the back of the bus, a murmur of conversation, a highlight, a faint stain on a page margin. But that’s all. Not enough to drag you out of whatever reverie you find yourself sinking into: the scenery, the language, etc.

But occasionally, your companions do strange things. They leap off the page, distract the driver, and the bus swerves, hits the rumble strip. Now everybody’s wide awake and looking.

A few years ago, I bought a copy of David James Duncan’s Riverteeth, a collection of stories and essays that I cannot recommend. (Duncan is a fine fiction writer, but his nonfiction is a bit polemical). As usual, I bought the book used online, from this time. What’s strange about this particular copy of the book is that a previous reader had used the flyleaves as a kind of writing experiment-cum-confessional. The reader is named Sarah.

Although she’s written on both the front and back flyleaves, her story begins at the back of the book. (My transcriptions follow the image; I’ve tried to render it exactly as it appears, down to the punctuation).

click for larger view

back flyleaves, click for larger view


My friend, Mary, is writing a novel in a month. A daunting task I’d like to mimic. But what to write about. I could start with last night and tell the life I led up to the moment of fear. Fear that I’d lose sight of my goals and never make anything of myself. Or I could start in the middle of the life I’ve led up to that point and work my way up. I chose to start somewhere else.

I quit smoking the first time somewhere around Sept. 23, 1997 [or 1998?].

That day it was raining. I’d been in Seward, Alaska two days on a fishing trip. Up until that point it was a reading trip. The Milagro bean field wars to be exact. My friend Stu was on the phone w/ a woman somewhere in the lower 48. He stood in the kitchen while I was in his living room by the picture window that displayed the pine trees of Seward. My nose was deep in my book.

“You have to come up here,” Stu said. “There’s this man who just broke up w/ his girlfriend. He started Outward Bound up here. You’d love him.”

My ears pu

“What about this guy,” I said. “I think I’d love him.”

“Excuse me,” Stu said. “Um Sarah he’s not your type.”

I put my nose back into my book. This vacation sucked. I had no interest in Stu as a lover but he had other ideas. I sighed and read on.

The next day Stu pulled me away from my book. I was told that I was needed in a game of Ultimate Frisbee. I reluctantly put down my book to head over to the field w/ him. My knees hadn’t been doing well. I told him I’d play as a sub. He responded w/ “It’s 3 on 3, no subs.” I was thrown into a game of townies vs rangers. Little did I know the man Stu talked about the day before stood next to me on the field. All I knew was he was a tall, awkward but attractive man who caught my eye. It wasn’t until later that I figured out, this was the man I wanted to spend my life with.

I know that sounds cheesy but when one figures out the person next to them is “the one” life changes forever.

back flyleaf and inside back cover, click for larger view


That’s what happened to me. It happened not at the bar (when I heard him talking about building a Strawbale house) or when I teased him in the bowling alley during ladies only night. I knew when I suggested that we ditch the boys and go buy candy @ the video store. When he said yes, I realized this man was my second half. I don’t know when he knew but it was close to the video store. This man, Mike, changed my life. For good or bad I am forever changed. He gave me pure love. The only pure love I’ve ever known. When that love disappeared, the grief consumed my soul. But it’s too early in the story to talk about that. ¶ He ran across the street with me from the bowling alley to the video store. That’s We pretended to sneak across by hiding behind cars, street posts & garbage cans to the front door of the video store. The candy selection was immense. We choose gummy bears, chocolate and red hots. We were paying when the rest of the boys found us. We all laughed except for Stu who glared. Shrug that off and cool ranger Kevin asked us to come celebrate his last night as a ranger @ exit glacier. Stu needed convincing cool ranger Kevin talked him into the party [sic].

Life has a funny way of trapping you into a story. This story becomes your life forever. You can close the book but it remains on your bookshelf next to all the other favorites. Sometimes you glance over it. Other times you open it back up. The story remains forever. It may be love, death, drugs, work, whatever the story maybe. The point is, once the story is written it will never go away completely. It always comes back to haunt you.

→ Go somewhere else w/ the story come back to this later [different color ink]

His name was Micheal Adrain Vanbeek [sic]. The stories we told in the beginning were not issues, our last lovers or what we hoped to be. The stories began with our greatgrandparents. By the time our affair ended we were starting middle school. I never knew of the angst between him or his father, nor he of mine. It was beautiful

At this point, Sarah continues writing inside the front cover. The effect, then, is that, when later readers open the book, this is the first thing they see:

inside front cover and title page, click for larger view

We made love, or actually laughed throughout our first night together. This night began when Stu left the party mad. Kevin convinced him to leave me @ the cabin. “She’ll be home safe in the morning.” Mike and I got drunk. Sexy, cliques [sic—cliché?], I know but when I returned from the outhouse and saw him stacked w/ pillows, blankets, keys and condoms in his arms like logs, I didn’t hesitate. I would sleep w/ him. ¶ He stood mortified in front of me. “Kevin told me to put out my arms.. I couldn’t stop him. I…I” “Let’s go,” I said.

“Really,” he said. I was walking towards the door.

He held me, laughing, as we told stories. He moved w/ me as we laughed. That night was the most fun. We finally fell asleep toward dawn, only to be awaken by the head ranger on rounds. She had found our clothes flung from the door of the cabin, up the stairs, to the bed.

When she saw us, she screamed and drop [sic] our clothes and ran. Mike was up trying to calm her. He didn’t catch her.

“I hope this doesn’t hurt my chance w/ the forest service,” he said.

The existence of this—and the fact that, rather than keeping it on her bookshelf, as she describes, Sarah has sent this, her story out into the wide world—raises many questions for me. I am interested in the fact that there are no actual annotations inside the text, just this. I am interested in the fact that she chose this book. Did it simply have the most whitespace of all the books on hand? Was there something about Duncan’s book that prompted this outpouring? I am interested in the fact that she misspelled the name of her true love. (I’ve never met a Michael who spells it Micheal, or an Adrian who spells it Adrain). But mostly I am interested in the decision not just to write this but to sell it online, to launch it, unseaworthy, into the tides of commerce.

So Sarah sits on my bookshelf, closed mostly, next to all the other favorites. Her story, as she says, remains. Now that it is written, it will never completely go away.


  • Melissa says:

    This is so fascinating. I have tons of questions, too. Did she read the book? Did she realize that her writing was in there when she got rid of the book? Did she leave it on the subway or something? Also, I dug the voice in the first few paragraphs. Is that weird, that I’m evaluating this work that she may or may not have purposefully sent into the world?
    This is somewhat related: The Rumpus linked to this article today, about a 1561 edition of Chaucer that’s been sitting in a library’s rare books room, in which they found a love poem (in Latin) pasted in that was written by a woman in the 16th century.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I don’t think it’s weird at all to evaluate it as a “published” work. It is published now, whether she intended that or not. I find myself wanting to evaluate it too. I thought the paragraph on stories was especially interesting, more so in light of her story’s fate.

      Thanks for linking the story about the found 16th c. love poem.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Did someone else sell it? This is so cool — a great mystery to participate in.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      Maybe., who sold it to me, is an independent online-only used bookstore, and I don’t know how they acquire books. But, anyway, I didn’t buy it directly from her, as you would through Amazon or

      I do love the mystery part of this.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    I love this so so much! I’m glad you posted it!
    I’m so intrigued by this for so many different reasons. (many of those reasons have already been addressed by you or Melissa)
    I kept wondering how much is biographical and how much is fantasy. Such a wonderfully weird thing to have come into your life!
    Also, I think a great title for her piece would be “We choose gummy bears, chocolate, and red hots.”

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      I hadn’t even considered that it might be made up. That would add yet another layer of strangeness. I think that, ultimately, I lean toward it being true. The kinds of details she includes ring true to me in a way that smells more like reality than fiction, which rings true in a different way.

    • Jonathan Frey Jonathan Frey says:

      another title: Blankets, Keys, and Condoms in his arms like logs

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Also, just wanted to praise the opening paragraph to this post…you enter this story so nicely. The bus metaphor.Solid.

  • Wow, what a bonus. I haven’t found a whole story in a used book before, but I love reading previous readers annotations–which is usually what I get. A while back I found a photo in a used book. Two young women with their arms around each other are grinning into the camera. They’re dressed up for some kind of event. It’s been months since I found the photo and I still wonder who they are and where it was taken. Now I wonder about your Sarah too.

  • Melissa says:

    Just came across this: The Guardian is starting a new column to “look at a different secondhand book and dedication from my collection each fortnight.” (And yes, I did include that quote solely because it had “fortnight” in it.) There’s also a link within the article to a blog dedicated to featuring dedications found in secondhand books. Cool stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *