I love used books. Especially old ones—everything about them. They way they smell, all dusty and musty and a little bit like outside. I love their yellowed pages printed on crinkly thin paper; the way their spines are too tired to crack; the early editions with their often out-of-place cover art; how they stand on the shelf weathered and smug next to all the shiny new paperbacks.
It’s not unusual for me to leave a used book store with five or ten at a time. Often, I might not pick them up again for years, having amassed such an ever-increasing collection that grows disproportionately to the time I have for reading. Still, I need them. I need them for that “someday” when I have the time to devour them all. They’re like old friends; they remind me why I write and why I fell in love with words. I love them for everything they are—not just the stories within or the lives of the authors who left their souls on the page, but for the ghosts of all the people who read them before me.
There are old suspicions about homes or clothing or jewelry—people believe that some objects hold spirits and energies from their previous owners. For me, books carry forward an imprint from their readers. Perhaps it’s because I feel such an emotional connection to the books I read. I underline meaningful passages and dog-ear my favorite pages, marking them off with mini post-its. My reading reflects my mood and my mindset; the things and people and feelings that affect me most at that time in my life. In that way, books parallel my history.
I like to think they do the same for all readers.
I started boxing up books tonight in preparation for our move. Most of them will go into storage for several months, and I’ll miss seeing their spines along my walls. I sat down and flipped through some of the older books that I haven’t yet read; books I picked up used or took from my grandmother’s house after her death in 1989 and haven’t really looked through.
That’s when I found the ghosts.
The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume Five, 1947-1955
I picked this book up at the Housing Works Used Book Cafe in Soho several years ago after reading and falling in love with Nin’s first diary. She’s one of my favorite authors—I pick up part of the collection whenever I see it.
When I opened volume five this evening, I discovered this dedication:
Dear Kathryn (aka Katlin)
Merry love + much Christmas.
In the first volume of the diary, Anais says “This diary… is my drug and my vice. Instead of writing a novel, I lie back with this book and a pen, and dream, and indulge in refractions and defractions… I see in the echoes and reverberations, the transfigurations which alone keep wonder pure… otherwise life shows its deformities and the homeliness becomes rust… All matter must be fused this way through the lens of my vice or the rust of living would slow down my rhythm to a sob.”
You, dear friend, are a rust cleaner for whom I am grateful.
How did this book find its way to a shelf at Housing Works? Did Kathryn/Katlin and Barbara have a falling out? Did Barbara die, rendering the gift too painful for Katlin to keep? Did Katlin die, leaving the book’s fate to her family? Maybe Katlin’s alive and well and, having read the dedication and the book 33 years ago, simply passed it along.
I wonder if Barbara knows that the “rust cleaner for whom she is grateful” isn’t so sentimental herself. Who are these women?
Short Stories for Study: An Anthology, 1941
Here’s one from my grandmother’s house in Hamburg, NY.
If found, please return—I need it, you don’t!
1001 Walnut Ave.
I like this girl. She’s serious about her studies. Well, aside from the minor misspelling of her town’s name.
A preliminary Google search turns up nothing on Marilou Nutting, though she and Joanne M. Bourke (the previous owner) made a number of helpful notations on the short stories within that I look forward to reading later, including one on the page facing the inscription:
In all stories
Notice how much author
tells you descriptively
Prose and Poetry, Eighth Year
Here’s another one from Grandma’s collection.
I’m not sure why her books so heavily feature texts that have been lifted from various classrooms across New York state. I had no idea she was such a rebel! Hmmm… does stealing books make one a bad student or a good student?
CITY OF BATAVIA
1. This book is loaned to the pupil free of charge.
2. It must not be marked upon with ink or pencil, and must be kept clean.
3. If pupil loses or unnecessarily defaces or injures a book he or she must pay for it.
4. The book must not be taken from the school without the teacher’s permission.
AUG 16 1933
I wonder what the City of Batavia would consider necessary defacement or injury of a book? And how did Prose and Poetry, Eighth Year find its way out of school and into Grandma’s possession way back when she was the age of the characters in my books? Did the teacher give permission? Did my grandmother have a pen pal in Batavia that shared her apparent love of literature (and sticky fingers)?
Great Poems of the English Language, 1936
It seem that Grandma was a doodler, as evidenced by her Charles Fenno Hoffman squiggles (a spear and a peacock feather?) on a piece of yellow tissue paper found in the Hoffman section of Great Poems. In 1936, she was 19. According to her inscription on the inside cover, she lived on Spring Street in Rochester, NY. I never knew that.
Literature and Life, Book Four, 1935
Yet another book pilfered from the school district. This one, however, held the real ghosts.
My grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Knack, was born in 1917. She died just before I turned 14 in 1989.
After her death, I took this book because of my own love of literature and as a way to remember her. Tonight, flipping through its pages, I found her class schedule from Hamburg Public Schools (where I attended junior high). I didn’t know she took orchestra! I wonder what she played?
As I continued to flip through the pages, I found some of her notes from an art class she’d taken and this, tucked away in the folds of the book for so long that its pages have barely yellowed.
A Summer Garden is an essay she wrote for senior literature class at Buffalo Seminary on September 26, 1935—15 years before she had my father. 40 years before I became her granddaughter. And 72 years (to the month!) before my own love of literature would lead me to become a published author.
What was she like back then? What was she thinking about when she wrote this? Was she happy? What were her hopes and dreams? What made her laugh and cry and love and hate? Was she like me? Am I like her?
I really don’t know. All I can do is read her books and run my fingers over the loops of her handwriting and wonder.
I love old books. I love the ghosts pinned within their pages and everything they come to mean, making me remember and imagine and dream. It’s why I read. It’s why I write. It’s why I can’t imagine doing anything else.