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What Lies Within

Clues to the adventures my used books may have had
by KateKintail
December 20, 2006
Some people use books to make their homes and offices look important. Others might use them to help level a wobbly table. But I believe most people would agree that the greatest gifts books can give us lie within their pages. They teach us about humanity, they let us escape to far off places, they paint incredible pictures, and they set our emotions aflame. Since I started buying used books from my local libraries to BookCross with, however, I have been gifted in another way with what these books held.

To put it plainly, I am beginning a collection of items left within books when they were given up by their readers. Most of these items were presumably used as bookmarks or simply slipped into the back of the book for safekeeping and then forgotten about. But they give me interesting insight about the readers who left them there, and I cannot help but let my imagination wander.

In a copy of A Separate Peace by John Knowles, I noticed some lines underlined in blue ink. Presumably someone named Sue or Jim did this (both names were scrawled in the book) while reading but the notes stop abruptly at page 22 when, from what I imagine, the reader went to the movie theater to see “10 Things I Hate About You” and lost all interest in the book, leaving the stub as a marker. Tragic, really, as it’s one of my favorite books and only gets better from there.

A recent discussion on the BookCrossing forum about what people use as bookmarks caught my eye and comes to mind again every time I find something like that movie stub in a book. I have found airplane itineraries and I’ve imagined that the book traveled the whole route with the reader, from one side of the country to the other. I’ve found Amtrak train and Metro tickets and imagine readers coming home after a trip to curl up and begin a new book. I have found receipts from fast food restaurants, and I’ve imagined readers sitting in the establishments wiping greasy hands on napkins before turning pages. 1 cheeseburger, 2 hamburgers, 1 order of onion rings, and a water: $4.47. Letting the Hardees around you fade away while you read Voyager by Diana Gabaldon: priceless. (Incidentally, those are March, 2001 prices which was the date on the receipt.)

I frequently find bank transaction slips. My favorite ones were dated September 19, 1988 (I registered the book September 23, 2006) and showed a very small bank account in Syracuse, NY. I imagine a struggling, budding actor hoping to land a part in a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The actor carried the play around everywhere, learning the part, and stuck the slips in the back to remind him- or herself of finding financial freedom through that lifelong dream.

A copy of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin contained a handwritten letter from one friend to another. It was a note written from Shannon (of San Diego, CA) to Lisa (of Burke, VA, where I reside). I felt a bit as though I were invading their privacy as I unfolded the letter, written on beautiful stationary, and read it through. But curiosity got the better of me and I rationalized it as one would the finding of oil in the backyard of a house he or she bought — I bought the book and whatever was in the book was now mine to do with as I liked. The girls had both attended the high school down the street until one moved to California. But they kept in touch through letters and wrote about everything from which boys they thought were cute to what they were learning in various subjects. I like to imagine that Lisa slipped the letter into the book quickly at school when she wasn’t supposed to be reading it, forgot about it, and left for college years later. When her mother decided to do some spring cleaning, she gathered up lots of Lisa’s old books and donated them to the library without checking the books first.

One of my personal favorites was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel for young adults. It was a former library book. I recently adopted the show as one of my favorites and thought I’d get a kick out of reading the book. The bookmark used was a library slip from a year ago showing that the patron, Wesley, checked out two books (one of which had loose pages, according to a librarian’s handwritten note on the slip). The books were both by Jude Watson and in the Star Wars Jedi Apprentice series that I’ve always thought would make an excellent guilty pleasure for me. I suddenly felt a kinship with young Wesley, who enjoys reading books in two of my favorite fandoms.

I try to remember to mention the numerous items I find in books when I register them. To me, it’s just a little bit of interesting information about the history of the book. Sometimes I use those items as bookmarks, myself. Sometimes I keep the items in the books when I release them. In the case of letters with addresses and statements with bank account numbers, I naturally shred them for privacy’s sake.

I am always excited to open a new book for the first time, with clean, untouched pages of words and stories to devour. But there’s a different sort of pleasure when reading books which have clearly been read by many before my eyes have seen them. I think that pleasure is integral to what BookCrossing is all about. Where have these books been? What lives have they touched? For most books I pick up used, I will never know much more than their ratty covers, occasional bookplates, or dog-eared pages can tell me. But, as I register the ones that contain extra items, I can only hope that what I can imagine of their previous adventures are only the beginning for them.

Are you sure you want to delete this item? It cannot be undone.