Everyone knows that books tell stories. Fantastic myths, grand epics, tales of romance or adventure—we expect to find these things when we leaf through the pages of a work of fiction or history. Yet contained within the covers of a book are also smaller, more everyday narratives.
Each book tells us something about the other people who have come into contact with that particular copy. Reading a second-hand book can feel like a process of investigation or detection; there are frequently tangible clues about those have touched its pages before us. It becomes clear that people don’t just read books: they use them, misuse them, exchange them, arrange them.
Books can be used as a form of storage, becoming a museum or writing desk within a library. We slip letters, keepsakes and relics within their pages, hoping that they will be kept safe and hidden from everyday sight. Second-hand books, texts removed from their original home, facilitate an economy of objects lost and found.
Working at her local library, my Great-Aunt Gertrude had a particularly horrifying encounter with the everyday life of readers when she opened a returned book to find a fried egg staring back at her, sunny side up. Our collective family imagination has failed to come up with a convincing explanation of how such an item could possibly a) get into a library book and b) stay there. Nonetheless, the anecdote illustrates just how intimate our relations with books can be.
Texts carry (often indelible) traces of their readers’ experiences, and turning the pages of a book can feel like looking over the shoulder of a previous reader. A law student friend, for example, was recently not quite surprised to find blood stains in the library copy of a land law textbook.
Among my favourite—or most baffling—discoveries of the last few weeks in the Oxfam stockrooms have been a promotional leaflet for the Church of Latter Day Saints found in a copy of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, an effusive letter written in Italian tucked inside a travel guide to Tuscany, and a detailed print-out of someone’s student loan repayments hidden away in an old sociology textbook. Often it isn’t appropriate to keep such material (photographs, for example, seem too intimate to let loose in the world, and anything which includes personal details has to be put aside).
However, sometimes objects seem an important part of the book and are left in place, as finding traces of past readers—their thoughts, their stories—is surely part of the pleasure of opening up old books. On several occasions, we’ve found newspaper cuttings about the author (most recently T. S. Eliot’s obituary inside an attractive hardback of the Four Quartets), which it feels right to keep with the book. Of course, much of what readers leave behind in books is actually written in the pages, and a future blog post could explore some of the questions raised by inscriptions and marginalia.
In a series of satirical columns for the Irish Times during the 1940s, Flann O’Brien (writing under his pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen) proposed that there might be a market for a Book-Handling service, whereby the owners of libraries could pay to have their books ‘well and truly handled’ by professionals in order to look well-read.
The basic rate would include the insertion of ‘a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article’ acting as ‘a forgotten book-mark’. Deluxe handling would leave smaller books with old theatre programmes punctuating their pages (playbills from Paris cost a little extra), while those who chose to invest in the Superb grade of handling would find their books enhanced by misplaced letters from ‘some well-known humbug’ thanking them for their patronage—each missive an ‘exquisite piece of forgery’, of course.
O’Brien was mocking those who see books as decoration for the home, choosing to purchase a complete library rather than collect it over time, and then displaying their new books as a projection of an ideal self. Although he simultaneously ridicules the notion that texts have to be damaged, scribbled in or invaded by the debris of everyday life (preferably an everyday life filled with the ‘high’ culture of Parisian theatre, say) in order for an authentic encounter to have taken place, his piece relies upon the fact that to read is to leave material traces of ourselves inside books.
Books can also contain damning evidence of having not being read: for example, a handful of books in Alfred Tennyson’s library still have most of their pages uncut. Likewise, despite the impressive architecture, Jay Gatsby’s ‘high Gothic library’ in The Great Gatsby is full of books that haven’t had their pages cut (at this time, books often didn’t have the edges trimmed during the manufacturing process, so opening up a new book in order to read it required some effort with a paper knife).
With every advertisement describing a book as ‘Like New’, there is an untold story of an unfulfilled intention. My need to write about these in negative terms (untold, unfulfilled) makes it plain that while previously-owned books may well conceal extra objects or information, they also leave us with gaps, absences, or unanswered questions.
In his beautifully measured work The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010), a book profoundly aware of both the power and the limitations of objects, Edmund de Waal describes turning the pages of his grandmother’s collection of poetry books, searching for traces she might have left behind (‘comments in the margins, scraps of forgotten lyric, a lost letter’). Yet when he does discover things—a photograph, the handwritten address of an unknown acquaintance—he feels it as a kind of ‘trespass on her reading’, transforming ‘real encounters into dried flowers’.
This, I think, is an important point: even while scrutinising physical traces of earlier readings, a more immediate question is the extent to which we, and not the books, have been changed by the encounter. Just as a dried flower is a shadow of both the living plant and the memory associated with it, the ephemeral material found within book covers merely attests to something vital and precious located elsewhere.