Used, but Infinitely More Interesting

On their way to make s'mores.

On their way to make s’mores.

In the romantic comedy Serendipity, Kate Beckinsale’s character writes her phone number in a used book and tells John Cusack’s character that if faith wants them to meet again, the novel will find its way back to him. The movie isn’t very interesting after that, but that scene outside the bookstore made me think about the treasures I’ve found in used books.

In a copy of Drowning Ruth, by Christina Schwarz, a picture of two young women had been used as a bookmark by a previous owner. I bought the book because it was an Oprah’s Book Club pick, but never finished it. Maybe because the unknown people in the picture were more intriguing than the plot. They’re wearing summer dresses, smiling, and posing in front of a pine tree. I like to think they’re at a gathering of good friends in a back yard somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After the picture was taken, they lit the outdoor fire pit we can’t see, and sat down to drink wine and make s’mores.

A friend of mine lent me her copy of The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville. My memory of the plot is hazy, I confuse it with The Eight by the same author, but I do remember how much I enjoyed the process of reading the book. My friend comments and underlines while she reads. I’d find “Who’s this guy again?” or “How much more must she endure?” in the margins. Plot twists were underlined and “Whaaaat?!” written above. Reading her book was like having our own private book discussion, or maybe more like a private peep-hole into my friend’s mind.

Half-way through Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adam, a yellow Post-it stuck between the pages asked “Do you know who you are? And if so, how do you know who you are?” The note made me pause my reading for several minutes, contemplating the answers to both questions. Not reaching any conclusions, I stuck the note on my bookcase, where it resided for months until a friend’s dog ate it. Maybe the spaniel didn’t like existential questions, or maybe the glue tasted good.

A colleague borrowed one of my guidebooks. Two years later, I visited the same country (again) and found a receipt inside the book from a café where my colleague and her husband had eaten lunch. Just for fun, my travel buddy and I went to the café, ordered the same meals, and by fluke had the same waiter. We took pictures and emailed them to the people who borrowed my book. They immediately emailed back a picture of the two of them waving. When the server saw the couple, he remembered them as super friendly and big tippers. As a result, my friend and I got our meals on the house.

As much as I love my e-reader, I’d miss books if all prose went electronic. Not just because of the tactile feel of paper brushing my fingers, but also because I’d miss the extra pleasure of discovering that someone who read the book before left something of themselves between the pages.


  • Jere Jaline says:

    I will always love books. I have to make myself stay away from bookstores because I can’t leave without something. So now I ingratiate myself to local librarians and try to curtail my book bingeing. However, my bestie gave me her Nook, so I no longer have to lug 4 books around in a carry on when I should be packing underwear and socks. Great “Bark” as usual, Asa!

  • Virginia says:

    I’ve found an original birth certificate, a plane ticket and a receipt from an onboard purchase on a Holland America cruise ship inside used books. Best experience of all was the book on the possible influence of Buddha on the teachings of Jesus. The book had many underlinings, thoughtful comments in the margins, and the person had even penciled in some words in Greek next to their translations in the book. The original sales receipt from a B&N in Minneapolis was also in there. I looked online and there was a listing for a seminary school which made me wonder. I imagine a very open-minded seminary student as the previous owner. The notes the person had penciled in the book were challenging and complex; not defensive. Love that book. The actual, physical book in this case :)
    Great post, Asa.

  • Anders Broren says:

    Hey Sis!

    I remember when I was a little boy that my interest in history led me to dig a bit in our parents’ archives I got a very different picture of our dad as a schoolboy when I found his history book from school. Let’s say it was fortunate that our Dad Became a salesman and not an art critic. It took me a few years to realize that the Mona Lisa had no beard, and the 14th Apostle of Jesus was not a stick figure at the last supper. He didn´t even exist.

    But another thing that can make me even more curious about a book’s previous owner, on the verge of frustrated. It is when you can not read the notes. But maybe that is the beuty of buying, getting “old” books. Not only the book tells a story, but also it covers.

    • Ha! I had no idea you read Dad’s old history books. We’re going to have to talk more about this. When I dug around in mom and dad’s bookcase as a teenager, I found a book with naked people trying out sexual Yoga poses. I’m very happy there were no notes in that–I’m scared enough as it is. :-)

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