Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Books that tell a story

Like hard candy, coffee filters or husbands, there are some things that just aren't as good used. On the flip side, there's plenty of stuff that's even better after being broken in. Like books. I was going through my home library the other day, trying to decide what books to keep and what books to give away. And, because I am weird, I can usually remember where and when I got certain books. For me, it's the used ones that stand out most for me.

One reason, I think, is because used bookstores are always infinitely more intriguing than your run-of-the-mill Barnes and Nobles and Borders. For example, I can look at my raggedy, crumbling copy of Gulliver's Travels and remember, ah, this one came from that bookstore that smelled like wet terrier where that one-eyed guy waited on me. Or, yes, this is from the stash I took home from The Strand. I always feel like a miner when I go to a huge used book store, digging my way through the stacks to find those lost gems that I can't believe no one else claimed before me. I want to lift the books over my head at the check-out counter and cheer like a big loser because, yeah, baby, that first edition Dorothy Parker is MINE!

The other reason I love my used books is because they have a history of their own. In college, I wanted to read some Sherlock Holmes short stories. I found a beautiful hard-cover collection filled with all of Conan Doyle's short fiction. I was happy just to find all those great stories in one spot. My prize was made all the better when I got home and looked at the frontis piece and found a name inscribed there with details telling me that it had belonged to a young private in the days of World War II. Suddenly, my book had a history. I wondered if the soldier had taken this obook verseas with him. I wondered if he'd stayed behind in the states. I wondered if he'd been injured or did he make it back home safely? My book became its own mystery and I think of its previous owner every time I open it up. I love that.

The same with reading margin notes from those who read before me or seeing what they underlined. It's like having a book club with people I've never met -- but who obviously have great taste because, hey, we're reading the same novel, aren't we?

I also love that used books connect me to other eras. For years, I was a dedicated collector -- some would say chronic hoarder -- of first editions from the 1920s and 1930s. Dorothy Parker collections, as I mentioned above, followed by Robert Benchley short stories. The day I was in London, tucked away in the basement of a used book store, and uncovered a manuscript that was owned by W.H. Auden -- well, I can still remember my heart thumping as I clutched this piece that had been held, read and studied by a poet I admired so deeply. It was like touching history, the closest I'd ever come to meeting a mind long gone.

Plus, hey, nine times out of ten, used books are a heck of a lot less expensive than the brand-spanking-new kind. So I can get my history, get my touch of personality and be a total cheap skate all at the same time. What's not to love about that?

8 comments:

Michelle said...

The BIG bookfair is happening next Friday for me and I'm already plotting my strategy (as I do every year.) I realize this makes me a nerd of epic proportions... but as a testament to the magnitude of dorkiness, I don't care!

Lisa said...

Have you tried Bookmooch yet? It combines the thrill of finding great used treasures with the exciting anticipation of receiving mail!

http://www.bookmooch.com

Josie Thames said...

WHY ARE YOU GETTING RID OF BOOKS????

The Hubby said...

Josie,

because we have no space in our house for the multitude of books that are taking up much needed space would be my guess.

Josie Thames said...

Well, I suppose, if you have absolutely NO ROOM, then the books must go. Y'all have to have a place to sleep. I guess.

Liz said...

Josie, it pains me to get rid of books...which is probably why it's taken me years to even attempt it and even now, I've only advanced as far as "this is my stack I think I want to get rid of" and "this is my stack that I can't bear to part with" and yet, both stacks are still sitting there. It's a mess. Sigh.

Josie Thames said...

I feel your pain. It would be like getting rid of children, or good friends.

The Modern Gal said...

I love how soft warn pages are and the smell of used books or at least the ones that don't smell like a wet terrier.