I’m terribly fond of second-hand books. Not only are they cheap and smell wonderfully dusty, but I don’t feel guilty if I inadvertently spill spaghetti sauce, beer, or shampoo (don’t ask) onto their pages. If I buy a crisp new novel, then accidentally splatter ink onto its virginal paper, I feel like a defiler. With a second-hand book, I’ve merely added to the endearing evidence of its having been ‘well-loved’.
The other reason I prefer second-hand books is because you often get more bang for your buck. And by ‘bang’, I mean the strange ephemera to be unexpectedly found within the pages of the book: business cards, forgotten bookmarks, and other vestiges of the readers that have come before you. Some recent finds of mine include a receipt for bananas and toothpaste from 1997 (Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing), a Mars Bar wrapper stiff with dried caramel (Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger’s Eye), a birthday card (Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White), a fingernail (Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Vol. I), and hair (Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates).
The latter tends to feature a lot within the pages of second-hand books. There’s something quite unnerving about being absorbed in a novel, turning the page, and discovering a curled hair sitting snugly in the margin. You know it’s not yours. It’s a stranger’s. Evidently, a dark-haired man or woman, whom you’ve probably never encountered, has read these words before you. Such a find is both fascinating and slightly gross.
Less icky, but more disturbing, can be the ‘notes’ slipped into, or written within the margins of second-hand books. Especially those addressed to future readers.
In 2003, I was in a second-hand bookstore when I found a splendidly creased copy of New Zealand author Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry. I had read her autobiography and several of her short stories previously, and I was eager for more. However, as I flicked through the yellowed pages, I noticed that someone had written something under the title:
‘Read it if you dare,’ the message said. ‘This novel is an exercise in self-control: nine out of ten people who read this delightful novel commit suicide.’
Naturally, I was taken aback. Nine out of ten?! Surely not. The writer was either one of the fortunate tenth readers, or sadly misinformed. I suspected the latter. After all, Owls Do Cry is something of a modern classic and features on university canons across the globe. Surely it would be an occupational health and safety risk, let alone a poor economic decision, for universities to include a novel that would inevitably kill their students off in spades, cut down enrolment and probably affect their government funding.
However, the note had been written with such vehemence (the pen had torn through the paper a little), and in such foreboding black capitals, that I eventually put the book back on the shelf. I was feeling a little emotionally fragile that day (a bus driver had yelled at me and made me throw my lunch in the bin), and I didn’t want to risk turning what was already a fairly miserable morning into, well, my last.
Only slightly less disturbing, but much more interesting, was the note I very recently discovered, mid-read, in a second-hand copy of Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman. Not only had my $2 (great find!) bought me 154 pages of insight, but I had also, unknowingly, purchased a handwritten recipe titled, ‘Witchy Brew’.
More curious than alarmed, I examined the note and tried to decipher the spidery handwriting, written in violet ink. ‘Rosemary,’ I read. ‘Garlic, [untintelligible] extract…’ Had it not been for the title, and for the words ‘ashes’ and ‘hair’ a little further down, I would have assumed it to be the recipe for a nice lamb marinade.
This note might have been very cute if I’d discovered it in a children’s book, say Roald Dahl’s The Witches, or even in a well-thumbed Harry Potter novel: ‘How delightful! A forgotten piece of a child’s game accidentally shut up within the pages of their inspiration.’ But in The Sadeian Woman? A feminist reading of the ‘moral pornography’ of the Marquis de Sade? Hardly children’s material. The context of my find was wonderfully disturbing.
Needless to say, I kept that ‘Witchy Brew’, as I’ve kept the birthday card and the receipt for bananas. (The hair and fingernail have been hastily shaken into a bin.) I tend to use these scraps of paper as bookmarks. I’ll never meet the people who inadvertently slotted these little pieces of their lives into my second-hand books, but it’s nice to know that they existed, and that they too, probably felt the same horror, delight and gratitude that I feel after reading these books.
Has anyone out there found something awful, moving or just plain weird in a second-hand book? Let us know! Leave a comment.