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It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was shining. There was a light summer breeze. People were out and about, drinking coffee at side-walk cafes and window-shopping down Main Street in Old Ellicott City.
But I was inside a dark, dingy, and musty building – way up on the third floor of a sprawling antique store – where I stumbled upon a small section of old books. My friend and I browsed the huge selection of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Bobbsey Twins collections. I discovered a unique illustrated edition of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” and a copy of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (pencil dated 1939), and those came home with me to join my collection.
As I browsed those “pre-owned” books, I got to thinking about the material-life of books. Some used books are filled with marginalia, folds, and even small tears that show wear. Some suffer from cracked spines. Others are pristine – as if they were never used – perhaps very gently and carefully read but not used. A musty smell is activated when you open an old book – the pages so old and dry, yellowed brown, that when you turn them, they “crack.” You wonder about the last time someone had touched this book. It’s an experience that engages all of your senses and sparks your imagination.
All of this made me go home to revisit my bookshelves and open up my old books.
When I look at my three copies of Defoe’s Roxana I notice three different books. The first copy is a large, beautiful hardcover edition by The Heritage Club purchased by Miss Lee Baack – when I purchased the book at a used bookstore, it included the receipt and the publisher’s brochure. The second is a regular old Oxford World’s Classics copy that I used to study the novel for my thesis (notice all the post-it papers sticking out of the pages). The third is an early or mid 20th century sensationalized pocketbook edition. Although all three tell exactly the same story , the cover design and the physical appearance of the book beckon different kinds of readers as well as varying reading-purposes.
Inside my 1896 copy of Robinson Crusoe – of course, also by Defoe – there is an inscription: “R. Stacey Christmas 1903”. The “£2” written next to the name reminded me that I had bought this book during my year abroad in England.
They do that, you know. Old books – they remind me of specific times, events, people, and even feelings. My broken and tattered copy of Macbeth will always remind me of my awesome, wonderful high school English teacher who was also a real-life hippy who rode the motorcycle to school wearing his Grateful Dead t-shirt. Memories. Inside the pages of that book, I keep a photo of the Lady Macbeth statue that I took in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Each book – not the story, not the literary, artistic work that’s in it, but the physical book – has a life. Our reading habits, what we do to our books end up shaping how we communicate with the future readers (our future selves or other people). Our reading habits change the thing of the book. What we do to our books pass from one reading circumstance to the next not only the writer’s art but also the experience of its being read – through various creases and folds, underlines, markings, and writings.
In “A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson,” Sam Anderson shares images of marginalia he made in 12 different books in 2010. He writes, “The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain.” In another article, Anderson says this about his practice of marginalia: “I basically destroyed my favorite books with the pure logorrheic force of my excitement, spraying them so densely with scribbled insight that the markings almost ceased to have meaning.”
Excitement is not exactly what I found in the marginalia of my Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. Inside the cover I found this: “A.J. De Armond 1980- review copy”. Then a note to the future readers of this book from A.J.: “Borrowers: please don’t confuse me by adding further notes to mine.” I’m trying to hear the tone of this message – is it a polite plea or a bossy command?
Speaking of marginalia-over-marginalia, the copy of The Stranger on my shelf, it turns out, is not my own copy. It’s my brother’s – he says the book was new when he read it for school. In it, I see marginalia in my brother’s handwriting with only a few notes in my hand. I also found on the first page of Chapter 5 a message from his classmate named Saidat who apparently wanted credit for helping him study this novel. But when asked about it, my brother said, “Who the hell is Saidat?” Oh well.
I can’t help but smile when I read inside the cover of my Crime and Punishment a penciled writing by 19-year old me: “Nothing had changed but me. That was all that was needed to change everything 8.26.1998.”
Dear readers, I invite you to browse your own bookshelves and revisit your old books. I invite you to go to a used bookstore and rescue a book, take it home, see where it came from, and create a new life for that book with your own reading of it. The thing – not just the art – of the book has much to tell us.