Notes in an Old Book

Lately, I have been studying some of the writers and books here in the shed for a writing project of my own—reading old classics, modern-day inspirations, and obscure beauties. Some of the books stacked in the shed are used, copies I had purchased in secondhand book stores or off Amazon’s used books pages. And these are the volumes now offering me a little mystery and a tug at the heart.

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Inside a tattered, secondhand copy of Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, are the handwritten notes from previous owners. I use the plural here (owners) because there are notes more faded than others and written in different colored ink, notes that are a window to the past, a kind of informal history of this book. It’s as if those past readers — readers from possibly decades ago, as the book is a 1959 edition — have returned to allow me to see how they had interpreted Borges’ words, how they had been touched by them.

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Many of the notes are about craft, metaphors, questions on Borges’ approach. Maybe a writer’s notes? A student? There are words circled in blue ink and passages underlined in black; there are questions in the margins. On the title page is a handwritten woman’s name: Mary Sowers. I wonder who she was.

Not long ago, I read about a man who had found a particularly personal note in one of his used book. The previous owner had written words to his daughter about how they hadn’t always seen eye to eye but how he still loved her. I wondered how the book, not knowing the title, had been linked to their relationship. A few years ago, I discovered in a used book store another book with a personal note inside. Again, I don’t remember the title, but I have never forgotten the note I found inside: This is one of my favorites and I hope you, one of my favorite people, enjoy it as much as I have. It made me a little sad that it had ended up on a dusty shelf in the basement of a used book store.

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I, too, write in books. Not extensively, but when I see a particularly striking passage, I rarely hesitate to mark it, underline it, circle a word or two. I’ve also written notes on the title page of books when given as gifts, and of course, when I’m asked, I sign my own books to new readers, always asking if they would like me to write a personal note to them or someone else. Some do and some don’t. But I’ve found that the ones that do ask for a note from me are usually giving the book as a gift to a friend or family member and know exactly what they want me to write.

There are also the preservationists. I have friends and colleagues who would never think of writing in a book. For lack of a better term, these are the archivists, the book lovers to whom the book is an individual work of art, like a sculpture or an oil painting, the whole of it holding a significant impact as a singular entity. The pages are never dogeared; there are no coffee stains on the cover. They love their books, it seems, in a different way than I do. Maybe they revere the book’s existence and I, on the other hand, see books as a communal experience—something to be shared with my own inner self and with others. It’s not better; it’s just another way of savoring the the art form.

And so with this, I again page through Borges’ book, reading not the author’s words but those of long-ago readers, discovering how intimate a book can be, and how in some way those past readers may have wanted future readers to know what this book had meant to them.

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4 thoughts on “Notes in an Old Book

  1. Sweet! I’ve lately wished that I’d included more notes in my favorite books so that I could revisit my old self when I read them again.

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  2. I am most definitely a preservationist and always have been. I am no more tempted to write marginalia than I would be to flipping an open book onto its pages and leaving it, splayed, on a nightstand or coffee table. Perhaps, as my wife would observe, I’m too anal. Perhaps. But I see the books I choose to bring into my possession, the physical book itself, as a precious thing, worthy of meticulous care.

    Interestingly, I have a few books passed on to me by my youngest brother, supplements used as part of college courses in literature, history and philosophy. He was an avid text-marker, and I’ve derived some enjoyment and a deeper understanding of the material thanks to his notes.

    Now, reflecting on that last paragraph, I’m reminded that I do have a very few books in my library that I HAVE marked up, but only with a highlighter. These are books with deep, complex, even foreign concepts. I have found, when returning to these writings, those bright yellow passages reinvigorate my thinking and give nuance to my perception.

    I suppose, along with my reverence for the unsullied page, I don’t feel as though I have any particular insights or impressions to leave for future readers. And even if I did, might there not be the risk of spoiling the satisfaction the reader would enjoy making his own discoveries, uncolored by my interpretations.

    But here’s a thought I might pursue: Placing a small note — a slim sheet of paper — somewhere in each of my books. Like a message in a bottle, it would connect down through the years, perpetuated from one reader to the next, a small voice from the past: “What you’re reading was once very special to me. May it be so for you and those who follow.”

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    • Absolutely LOVE the idea of leaving a note! This accomplishes both goals —of the preservationist and the margin writer. And yes, a margin writer’s interpretation might take away from a new reader’s own discovery, but it might also offer a discovery the new reader might never have considered.

      Either way — this debate will never be settled. But isn’t that the beauty!

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