Monday, March 25, 2013

Reading a Used Book

I'm reading The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. I bought it from a new bookstore many years ago and recently discovered it in a piece of carry-on luggage otherwise stuffed with dust jackets and samples, sales tools left over from a long forgotten sales trip. The bookstore had new and bargain on the first floor, textbooks on the second floor, and used books in the basement. This is the Harper Perennial edition, trade paperback, from 1998; I think I bought it in 2007.

I read slowly and occasionally put books aside for years. Used books with notes penciled or penned into the margins by previous owners slow me down even more. In the first paragraph of this book, the word "bluebottles" is underlined. I wonder why somebody would underline this word and I look it up. While it can mean cornflowers, it also means blow flies, as it does here.

Some underlines are in pencil, some in pen. The pen is all ballpoint, all blue, with one exception. The pencil varies more. Some pencil markings do not grow wider as the line continues, some do. I think the latter must be wood-clad pencils, while the more even lines were made with a mechanical pencil. Also, the person who used the pen was always consistent: some words are outlined completely, some are underlined, all with great care. The wielders of the wood pencils left flourishes at the ends of some lines, little calligraphic upswings that show some enthusiasm. The blue pen writer made a few notes in the margins. "Like untouchables," and "History House," very carefully written. One longer note compares this book to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and I think of my sister Jane, who is, among other things, a professor of comparative literature.

And then I found one page, about half way through the book, where there are two words circled in red ballpoint, without consideration of the nearby words: "chromebumpered sharksmile." This time the pen indented the page slightly, I can feel the ridge as I brush my finger over the surface. I know I would have thought these two words together wonderful; now I find them even more so. This is not entirely due to the fact that they so aptly describe the front of an old car, a weakness of mine.

There is something about the personalities of the people who read this book before me, something of those people that remains within the pages. Some were most likely college students. Near the bottom of the spine there is a sticker, old and partly picked off, bright yellow, that says "USED." I know this sticker. Off and on over the years I have sold to college wholesalers and this sticker told their customers and employees where this book should be shelved and how it should be priced. It told the end customer not to expect this book to be anything like new.

And yet everybody who has ever read this book, and it has definitely been read, probably several times by several people, has treated it with care. Nobody has dog-eared a page, though the bottom corner of the front cover is a bit dog-eared from many trips in and out of back packs. The spine has never been bent back to the point that it cracked or creased, as have the spines of many if not most used paperbacks. I'm terrible at this, but I know I won't do it with this one, having been shamed by my ancestor-readers. There are no stains or chips. All of the pages are securely attached; there are no page edges coming up out of the gutter.

I can see where some pages have been read over and over again, favorite passages or especially dense prose.

I sense that others before me loved this book as I do, and have treated it accordingly.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Since I wrote this post over a year ago, I have seen the strengthening of independent bookstores and, at the same time, growth in sales of e-readers and digital book sales. I keep thinking about used bookstores and how they make such a great counterpoint to all of those screens, back-lit or otherwise.

There have been a few posts on other blogs, mostly in the comments sections, from nasty sounding sorts who seem oddly angry or resentful that some of us still prefer old fashioned books and don't mind saying so. It might be that there's something threatening about the continued strength of real books. The old ways are not disappearing as fast as the digital types would apparently like.

I think many of these folks were never book readers. They are not lost to us "bookstore cultists" (the name they have given us!). They discovered books after they were made cool by technology. It's great that they are now reading and supporting authors, and I hope their numbers grow.

Still, I also hope a few of them, now and then, walk into a used or any bookstore and give it a try. We might then get a few converts to our cult.

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