Book Ghosts

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:

Christmas, 1974

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.

Much love

Diary of Anais Nin, Volume Five, Dedication

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!

Marilou Nutting
1001 Walnut Ave.
Syrasuse University.

Short Stories for Study, Inscription

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
of characters

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?

High School

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
No. 2

Prose and Poetry, Inscription

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.

Great Poems of the English Language

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?

Class Schedule

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, Essay

A Summer Garden, Essay

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.

5 thoughts on “Book Ghosts

  1. Sarah,
    If I remember right (not a sure thing so much any more) Mom played Cello in the orchestra.

    She always loved to read, and actually got me into reading Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler(my favorite to this day), Ken Follett, Sidney Sheldon and even Tom Clancy. It wasn’t unusual for me to stop by her house for a quick visit and come home with a shopping bag full of paperbacks that she had read in the previous 2 weeks. She would get a ride up to Ulbrich’s at the Hamburg Plaza with a friend and buy 10 or 12 books at a time, often coming home with 1 or 2 that she had already read.

  2. Beautiful post, Bims. Older books are indeed ghostly and magical and filled with the
    essences of all who read them. I was so excited last night when you came across the letters and notes and was hoping that you would blog in detail about them. Actually, I was certain that you would. 🙂

    Yes, believe it! Your blog-lurking / list-lurking husband has finally surfaced with a post! Surprised? Yeah, me too.

    Trust an old book (or an old husband) to surprise you, huh? I know you love surprises. And I love you!

  3. Hi,
    I hv the same feel like you. Like all the yellow pages books & their smell.
    That why i buy most of the used in some centre.
    May be you can also set up online used books store.

  4. What an awesome post! I can tell you don’t get easily swayed from delectable tasks like packing, by reading all the things you’re packing. I’ve been known to take four days to pack a single bookshelf.

    My dad and I both share a love of books and have all kinds of conversations on what we’re reading/we’ve read/we’ve liked, etc. For Christmas this year I asked him to send me a listing of a few books he’s read that he’s enjoyed, and I’ll tell him which ones (if any) I’ve read, and ask him to “surprise” me with one of the ones I haven’t read. He surprised me by sending me his own copy of “Travels with Charlie,” a John Steinbeck somewhat autobiographical account. I was honored.

  5. i am so glad i came across your site- its is very interesting. I too had experiences with old books (which literally fill up my 1 bedroom apt). The most perplexing was a book I got from Strand Bookstore. Inside it, I found a love letter to a woman whom the owner wrote too. He talked about Pablo Nerdua’s work and hoped that she would like the book. Alas! I think the romance turned sour thus she had to sell the book.:)

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