I buy them mostly because they’re cheap, I must confess. At the Strand, hardcovers are $2 apiece, and most of the paperbacks are just a dollar. Some of them are even cheaper, at 48 cents. So of course I buy them.
But what really makes used books wonderful is not their cheapness, but their history. Someone owned that book before it ended up on this shelf. Perhaps they read it in high school, or college. Sometimes they leave notes in the margins. Sometimes they leave things in between the pages. These traces offer clues as to where the book has been, and whose fingers have flipped through its pages.
In my copy of Don Quixote, which I bought used several months ago, the following is written in the front cover:
I googled “Andrew Berger” and found the LinkedIn profile of an attorney who graduated from Cornell in 1966, and from Cornell Law in 1969. Amazingly enough, he and I live in the same neighborhood! I sent him a message letting him know that his old copy of Don Quixote ended up in my hands. He may not respond, but that’s fine. If he reads my message, I hope he finds the whole thing mildly interesting.
I also found this photograph in my copy of The Fountainhead:
I have no idea who these people are. There are no names written in the book, and there’s nothing written on the back of the photograph, either. But somehow I’m connected to these people, which is pretty cool.
Finding these notes and things in my used books has inspired me to put stuff in all of my books, so that if/when I sell them or give them away, someone else can discover what I have left. Maybe they’ll figure out who I am and try to contact me, as I have tried to contact Andrew Berger. I’d probably be interested in getting to know the sort of person who would do such a thing.
Fifty years from now, I hope that someone else will end up with my books, see what I have written in the margins, and wonder who I am, marveling in the same way that I am now. To say the least, it’s pretty cool how connected to one another we all are, and it’s a shame that we so often forget to be amazed at the world.