Well-Used Book

It always surprises me how many of the “used” books I buy from local thrift shops and book sales do not look used at all. The covers are immaculate, the bindings are stiff, and the pages are pristine. I’m guessing that a lot of them were gifts that sat demurely on a shelf for a decent length of time before being discreetly edited out of the collection. I don’t have to tell book-lovers that giving books as gifts is a hit and miss affair, and I believe a certain number of those misses are now living with me.

One recent acquisition that was evidently a hit is my copy of The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen. I do not know who owned the book previously—there is no name in the book—but I think I can safely say it was someone who thoroughly enjoyed it. It is marked from beginning to end with pencil underlining and bracketing as well as removable sticky flags. The non-permanent nature of these markings suggests that the last reader likes to take good care of books. Though some of the signatures are threatening to come away from the glued binding, the spine is uncracked and there are no dog-ears or other damage to the book.

I have an idea of where the book might have come from. In the bibliography I found a bookmark from the Bookshelf bookstore-cinema-bistro in Guelph, Ontario (which itself warrants some investigation). Judging by the Bookshelf’s website, they cater in part to the university crowd. Was the person who bought a book a student who came to the University of Victoria to do graduate work? On the back of the bookmark is written www.habitat.org. Was the last reader inspired by the book (which is about issues of poverty and community, among other things) to get involved with Habitat for Humanity?

I also know where the book has been. Near the front of the book I found a ferry ticket for a car and driver travelling from Pender Island to Galiano Island. For those not familiar with this area, Pender and Galiano are two of the Southern Gulf Islands, which contain one of the highest concentration of hippies outside of the San Francisco Bay area. It is most definitely the natural habitat of someone who is deeply interested in social justice. Does this mean the book was living on one of those islands for a while? The ticket is time-stamped 6:47 am, January 25, 2008, so it would have been a cold, dark morning voyage. I can imagine the owner of this book hurrying from their car to the warm lounge on the little inter-island ferry, perhaps huddled over a hot cup of coffee while reading this book and contemplating the day ahead.

I love that this book has so many clues about its history in it. I have a feeling I would get along with its previous owner. I imagine someone with a thirsty intellect who cares about the world and is perhaps willing to lend a hand, and who loves books enough not to permanently mar one. When I find a book with markings in it I usually erase them, but for some reason it seems a shame to do it in this case. But perhaps now that I’ve immortalized them in this blog post I can wipe the book clean and start from scratch.


8 comments on “Well-Used Book

  1. Alex says:

    Helene Hanff, who wrote about her love of secondhand books in ’84, Charing Cross Road’, also loved those volumes in which she could see the hand of the readers who had gone before. Frank Doel once apologised for the fact that the copy of a book they were sending her had notes written in it and she wrote back and said that that was exactly the kind of book she best liked to receive.

    • Sylvia says:

      I think I remember that from the film. I think it’s possible for a book to be too marked up, but a few notes are interesting.

  2. Stefanie says:

    What a wonderful find! Will you be adding your own marks to the book?

    • Sylvia says:

      I expect so, in which case I’ll have to erase the old marks, which will be no small job because there are few pages that are not marked. I’ve done that before with library books. In fact I’ve had a couple of library books that were marked up by the same person in an ideosyncratic way. Very annoying!

  3. Fay says:

    You reminded me of a book, almost ten years old, about Coleridge’s marginalia, for which he was famous. I found a review of it in The Guardian.

    “When Professor Jackson excitedly showed a librarian some annotations made by Coleridge in a book that had remained unnoticed for 160 years, the response was: ‘People aren’t supposed to write in our books.’ Well, yes – but this is Coleridge, possessor of one of the finest literary minds this country has ever produced.”

    Jackson also wrote a general book about marginalia that has been on my TBR for way too long,.

    • Sylvia says:

      Was that book from the London Library? I’ve read they have a number of books annotated (vandalised?) by famous writers. Fame covers a multitude of sins, eh?

  4. Kara says:

    I know this post is hardly recent, but I had to smile at the mention of one of my favourite independent bookstores I’ve ever set foot in. If anyone happens to be in the Guelph area, do be sure to stop in at the Bookshelf.
    I found it during my university days and have enjoyed its selection ever since.

    The clues found in the book itself are so interesting. I, too, love guessing at the origins of a found object 🙂

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