Monday, November 14, 2005

Left Behind Ten

I prefer to buy books new from a bookstore. I budget my book money so I can afford to, and it's direct support of other authors and booksellers, plus the books are usually in the best condition. Thus we all win. However, when a book goes out of print, I have to resort to buying from rare/used book dealers. I will also buy used books at charity auctions, church rummage sales and friends of the library sales to support those institutions.

Used books sometimes come with surprises inside them left behind by the previous owner. Usually makeshift bookmarks, but often things you don't expect to find in a book. Like the $20.00 bill and shopping list I found in one of my grandmother's books on Watergate. On the list were three things that I loved as a kid: Oreos, Hires Root Beer and Jiffy Pop.

The strangest thing I've found in a book sparked the plot for one of my early unpubbed novels, Safekeeping. I bought a box of books at a Baptist church silent auction without looking too carefully through the box. When I got home, I discovered that one of them, a Bible, had been used as a stash. The original owner had glued the pages of the middle section together and I could see the center had been cut out. Because it was completely sealed, I had to use a razor blade to open the homemade cache. Inside I found three Polaroids of a woman's naked torso.

I doubt anyone wants to do a study on what people leave behind in books, but just in case you're curious, here are:

Ten Things I've Found in Used Books
(most frequent to rarest)

1. Hand-written inscriptions -- most often on the inside front cover, usually birthday or Christmas messages. Almost always on hardcover books; rarely in paperbacks. Longest: one newly-wed bride wrote a long and affectionate letter to her husband on the inside cover of a how-to home repair book. Oldest: a little girl named Sarah Jane Carman in Hempstead (England?) practiced writing her name on the inside leaf of an 1860 edition of Byron's complete works. She also dated her inscription August 14, 1860.

2. Bookmarks -- Used and new bookstore bookmarks are the ones I find most frequently, but I also find the laminated "gifty" bookmarks with braided tassels. Rarest one I've found was a hand-drawn bookmark with a pencil sketch of a tree that looks pretty professional but has to be fifty, sixty years old. My personal favorite: a Beauty and the Beast TV show bookmark with a photo of Vincent and a quote from my favorite of Shakespeare's sonnets, the 29th.

3. Margin notes -- usually in pencil, sometimes next to passages highlighted in yellow or pink. I find these most often in nonfiction books. They're annoying as hell, too.

4. Objects used as bookmarks -- things like hair ribbons, photographs, pieces of plastic or cardboard, a flattened beaded bracelet, cereal box tops, and business cards. The most unusual object I've found was an ancient curved piece of hand-tatted blue lace that was probably part of a collar for a lady's blouse or dress. Most recently found was a red satin A-B honor roll ribbon from a local elementary school.

5. Student notes on notebook paper -- inevitably in nonfiction books I pick up at library book sales. Written in pencil are okay, but the notes in blue, black or red ink sometimes transfer to the book's pages if left in there long enough. The neatest thing about student notes are the doodles they draw on their papers.

6. Newspaper and magazine clippings -- recipes, ads, comics and articles that have been clipped or torn out, as well as whole pages from magazines folded in half.

7. Index cards -- you may find some of mine in a book one day; I use index cards while I'm reading reference books to make notes and then use the card I'm writing on to mark my place.

8. Mold and water marks -- I once borrowed a novel from the library that was so moldy I literally could not read it; the odor was too much for me. Books that get soaked from a roof leak or flood swell and mildew. These are the hardest books to detox and clean so I've stopped buying any used books with this sort of damage.

9. Cigarette ash -- not so much in these days of non-smokers, but it was a real problem in the seventies and eighties. Today's reader seems to eat more than smoke while reading; lately I'm seeing more food and drink dribble stains.

10. Letters never finished or mailed -- To date I've only found three letters left in books. One is a fan letter to the author of the book in which I found it (gushy one); one was a newsy couple of pages from a daughter in Florida writing to her mom up North; and the last was a single paragraph of Hi, how are you, I am fine, the weather's nice writing.

And finally, one thing I've never found but that I leave behind in books on purpose: my poetry, always hand-written, always unsigned.


  1. Anonymous12:43 AM

    In a used book I bought once, I found an index card that had what looked like an early outline for a chapter of a book somebody was planning to write. It looked to be for a book about the history of religion. I hope the person who wrote the outline didn't really need it.

  2. Anonymous1:46 AM

    You find much more interesting things than I do.

    Once I grabbed a box of books from my workplace that someone had brought in. Their uncle had died and they didn't know how to give away the books. They were cool stuff, too--books on picking locks and such. Problem was, they stunk so badly of cigarette smoke that I couldn't bring them home.

    The weirdest thing was an inscription in a book of fairy tales for kids. It had been a gift from a friend of mine to her neice. It was quite a shock to see my friend's name in there. I'm still not sure if I should tell her; what if she's disappointed that her neice got rid of the book?

    Harry Connolly

  3. I picked up a 1955 1st Ed of Martin Magnus on Mars from a UK book dealer recently. Tucked inside was a 1956 bill for motorcycle parts, hand-written in pounds, shillings and pence. Nobody read the damned book since the original owner cracked it open?? And it took me years to find a copy, too.
    The other nice surprise? We lived in the UK for a short while in 1983, just after leaving Spain and just before we emigrated to Australia. A UK rellie gave me an Australian banknote to spend when we arrived, and I stuffed it in my dictionary under 'Australia'. Found it almost five years later ;-)

  4. Anonymous8:37 AM

    You have led me directly to my newest find. Details below.

    First, here is my best find so far: In an old German Bible, I found a penciled receipt dated June 10, 1931, from Slinger, Wisconsin.

    "Received of Philip Beine the sum of six dollars, part payment of Pew Rent from Jan. 1, 1931 to Dec. 31, 1931. FC Heutgen, Secretary of St. Peter's Congregation."

    As I got out this Bible to look at the receipt and type it out, I leafed through the book, sticking my nose in for that old-book smell. And though I've had it for over a year now, I've not searched it closely.

    At one point, I opened it from the back, and found another receipt pinned to the back fly-leaf.

    This date is Oct. 9, 193_; the same Philip Beine purchased one "EVERHOT---complete" and two "pkgs. Packaged Heat" from an Everhot Chemical Sales Co. Distributor in Milwaukee. He put down a deposit of $1.50 cash, leaving a balance of $3.00.

    Now I'm off to Google "EVERHOT" and find out what that's all about.

    Thank you for posting such interesting things and making me find stuff. :)

  5. Anonymous10:33 AM

    In a used copy of the science fiction classic Brother to Demons, Brother to Gods (hard back) I found one of those old cardboard stabilizer inserts for a computer that took a 5 1/4" floppy disk. The younger members of this little community may never have seen those old floppy disks, but they were big and they really were floppy, unlike the hard diskettes we have today. I still have the book and the cardboard insert is still in place.

    You all know about geo-cashing? Well, you could do some book-caching like PBW does with her poetry. Insert something interesting in books at libraries, used book stores and even new book stores just for the fun of thinking about what people will do when they find it. Ever think about tucking a few $2 bills (you can still get them at your bank, but you may have to order them) inside some children's books? Wouldn't that be a lot of fun to find as a kid? Makes reading more entertaining too...

  6. Now I want to do a "message in a book" experiment, like people do with messages in bottles. I want to slip a note inside a copy of a book, donate the book somewhere and ask whomever finds the note to write me. Maybe I'll do a stamped postcard instead. *g*

  7. hee hee, I thought this was going to be a post about the "Left Behind" fiction series. . . there are at least ten books in the series : )

  8. I remember the old floppies. Heck, I'm old enough *sigh* to remember the carbon paper blueprint copying machines that used some sort of alcohol - I'll never forget the smell of the yellowish paper that came out of these.

    Our library once had an exhibition showing things they find in returned books - the worst was a piece of skin from some sausage. Eew.

    The best I got was the complete collection of biology and chemistry books of my great uncle complete with tons of lose papers with notes stucked in them. He was a teacher, and I thank all my nice A-s (and my continuing interest) in Biology and Chemistry to those notes. Fascinating stuff.

  9. It was not too many years ago that someone was good enough to inform me that the 3.5" disks were not called "hard disks" (as I thought)but floppy disks, because my elementary school days with Apple IIs had the big floppy floppy disks as well as the little hard plastic ones, which somehow became "floppy disks". Who knew?

    If you work for an estate lawyer, part of your job is to go through the deceased's library looking for money hidden in books. Apparently very common. One family paid ofr a whole funueral that way.

  10. Anonymous3:37 PM

    a little girl named Sarah Jane Carman in Hempstead (England?) practiced writing her name on the inside leaf of an 1860 edition of Byron's complete works

    Those little whispers from the past are thrilling, intimate, and sorrowful at the same time.

  11. I buy a lot of rare books when out and about. Interesting things I found:

    1. First edition of Faulkner's Light in August. Worth: about $300-1000. Paid: $.50.

    2. Signed editions including Ogden Nash.

    3. Uncut pages in a collection of Longfellow poems. It was a great set bound in leather. Paid: $20.

    4. Other rare books dating to the mid-1800s.

    5. And, to come around to the polaroids: my wife and I bought a copy of Michener's Poland and inside was a polaroid of a spread-eagled woman. Naked. Yeah, I'll never look at Poland the same again.

    If you keep your eyes open (or in some cases, might be best to close them), you can find some really awesome rare books.

  12. My daughter brought home a Nancy Drew book she picked out at a used bookstore. When I flipped open the cover to take a look, I found an inscription. To me, from my grandmother, on my 10th birthday.

  13. Anonymous7:12 PM

    Recently, we bought a furnished cottage which had been build in the 1930s and was largely unchanged. It came complete with books from the original owner (a priest), despite the fact that the second owners had the cottage for 50 years! Inside the front cover of an old book of Bible stories, the priest had listed his kin's names and dates of birth/death all the way back to the early 1800s.

    There was also a guest book (with wooden covers) which contained comments from as far back as the 1940s.

  14. I would love to find things like you find. It's always fantastic to find a good book, but to find a little secret treasure as well would make it even better.

  15. You find some cool things in used books!

    The strangest thing I've ever found in a book was a nest of baby scorpions...but it wasn't a used book. It was MINE. *shudders*

  16. Anonymous5:20 PM

    "It was not too many years ago that someone was good enough to inform me that the 3.5" disks were not called "hard disks" (as I thought)but floppy disks"

    They are right that they aren't hard disks, but actually, they aren't floppy disks either. Only the 5 1/4" ones are floppies. The little ones with the plastic case are 'diskettes'.

    And I'm starting a book-cashing trend right now. I'm off to the library where I'll put three $2 bills in three different children's books. Who else is up for that?

    -- F


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