The Hidden Life of Used Books

Every once in a while I buy used books. Though I prefer to buy new in many cases, or digitally in others, sometimes I have no other option than to trust the book’s dubious condition as described by the sellers is readable. Russian roulette, anyone?

But for all of my trepidation I rarely have been slighted by a book’s condition and is usually in the condition which I expected. But, you know, as odd as it seems, sometimes when I receive a book I feel that it has an elaborate existence; should I have to sell some of my books, the purchaser would never know of my brainstorming difficulties as the book sat in the shelf, or lied open as I pushed through some interminable thesis. They wouldn’t understand the multitude of highlights and underlines or my odd ramblings… it is there, just not in a direct way. So, is it not safe to assume that when I buy books the same history is attached to those novels and anthologies? I believe so.

Used books have a history– they have a certain smell, coloration, and ontology; between annotations and odd splotches, between loose pages and lingering aromas, when you buy a used book it is not unlike adoption or childbirth. You never know what you are going to get.

Now, of course, I am only speculating with the following remarks. But I feel that the following stories could be salient explanations. Or, at least in my bored little mind they provide that oomph, that backstory. So, without further delay, here are some of my remarks concerning used books that I have bought.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

This was the Norton critical edition version I had to buy for a university course. Because the new copy was just a bit too pricey for my tastes, the cheap used copy was calling my name.

When it arrived it was packaged as no other used book that I had before bought.

Inside the mailing envelope it was wrapped in an additional layering of paper. Inside that paper was a coating of newspaper to serve as additional protection against the elements. Upon delicately opening each successive layer as a small child would a cherished Christmas present, I took the book out and picked it up. The first thing that I noticed about it was its smell. It had a noticeable aroma of cigarette smoke.

My mind’s eye created a fiction for this book: it was owned, perhaps, by an older book lover, maybe a retired professor; now having ample time to simply enjoy her Golden Years surrounded by her books, she spent the days now in her sunshine drowned living room with her piles of literature. She would read all day as she chain-smoked pack after pack of death sticks. Able to enjoy herself in peace without the hassle of grading sloppily written Undergraduate papers, she one day decided to sell some of her vast amounts of texts, perhaps not wanting to inconvenience her family upon her passing. So, with a heavy heart, she lovingly wrapped a much beloved classic, the book that I ordered, and mailed it off, happy that another reader would discover its beauty.

Wonderful, is it not? It makes you feel at ease and peaceful. You can practically feel the hormones releasing the happy juices in your head.

Alternatively, however, the book could have simply been sold one day to a large distributor of used books by an uncaring man in his mid-thirties who didn’t know how he came into possession of a large sum of worthless Victorian literature. Then, it would hardly be a stretch to imagine, that this large seller was like many such merchants of used literature and would smoke all day long as his piles of barely organized merchandise was around to absorb the cancerous smoke.

You know, whatever, either one.

Volumes 1 & 2 of Hal Draper’s “Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution”

For this my mind’s eyes gleaned the following: a down-and-out 70s radical cleaned out his basement and was taken aback to find case after case of revolutionary literature and theory. Gingerly opening up the cases, he found many relics from his youth and ‘active’ days of when he used to defy the system. Now, however, a traitor to the cause who supports the lesser evil, whoever that may be, he no longer cares for the anti-capitalist cause. So, he needs to make room in the basement for other more relevant items, like… uh, a masturbation machine. So he sells everything wholesale and is glad to be rid of the dusty artifacts from his naive youth.

My copies of Hal Draper’s books– copies which, years later, I have yet to read, believe it or not– came with a library like smell to them. They were not of library binding, mind you, they just had what I call ‘The Storage Smell.’ Clearly, they had been in storage for a long time. Their pages had that aura to them and aroma wafting off of their many pages. They had not been touched for many years, I imagine.

So this was in great contrast to my Thomas Hardy novel which reeked of human contact.

The only markings which the books displayed were slight pencil underlines pointing to controversial sections of Draper’s text. I imagine that once upon a time, my imaginary radical had closely read this text and used it as part of his Trotskyist ramblings against other Trotskyist sects. Perhaps this was one books in a vast pile which he had used to denounce opportunistic Anarchists and counter-revolutionary Stalinists.

Alternatively, perhaps this book’s story is as simple as it being a copy of a former grad student who had to use it briefly for a paper in a class she despised.

‘Le Morte Darthur’ by Thomas Malory

This book came in decently good condition. The cover was well-worn and crinkled which led me to imagine that the copy had been passed down from user to user as a second hand copy in a university book store. An additional hint at this legacy was its difference in annotations– sticky note fragments, pen underlining, and glossary highlighting.

It if possible that this was only owned once, but this seems unlikely. The edition dates back to 1998 and so would be unlikely to have been in the hands of but a single student.

The sort of annotations I saw did not appear to be remarkable. Some sticky notes indicated important groupings of pages while underlines in the same cluster brought to attention certain key concepts. In other words, they appear to be the notes of an Undergraduate (grad students tend to highlight infrequently and only the most relevant areas in pencil, preferring instead to take separate notes on paper so as to preserve the physical integrity of the text and keep its purity for future readings; this is, of course, subjective).

My mind’s eye created the following fiction: a young, male student, maybe a Sophomore entered a medieval lit. class only to stare googly eyed at a girl he had a crush on, or perhaps just to hang with his buddy who had to take the course as part of a general education requirement. For the entire class he only put in the minimum of effort while his mind was preoccupied elsewhere.

This would explain the only occasional and seemingly transient annotations– he disliked the class and couldn’t understand the value of the subject matter. He would roll his eyes in agony every time a critical theoretical concept would come up and would count the minutes until he could leave and hang with his bros out on the quad and rue the day that he signed up for a literature course; “SO MUCH READING!” he would scream, as he passed his roughly handled copy onto the next “poor” unsuspecting sod.

Or, alternatively, perhaps this was a cherished copy used by a studious scholar who simply decided to buy a more recent edition one day and so sold this copy to make room for the newer version.


Well, that is it for now. Maybe in the future I will write another one of these posts after buying some more used books. Let me know if you enjoyed it by liking it or commenting with your own used book imaginings.


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