Considering the Second Lives of Books

I just watched a lovely video by Reading Bukowski, where she talks about receiving a box of second hand books and how the thought of the book’s previous lives affected her. It’s got me thinking about my own library, my previous books and their second lives.

I’m not a person to keep books I disliked or think I’ll never read again. In fact, some of my reactions to books has been so strong that I literally couldn’t have the thing in the house with me any longer- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith had such a profound effect that I’m still repulsed by the sight of the cover, at least 4 years after reading.

But what about the books I just didn’t like enough to keep? I sometimes wonder where they are, who took them next and what they thought of them. Did they like them? Did they hate them? Have they even been read, or are they still sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting for some attention?

Heavens, it sounds like I’m talking about a dog.

I love finding second hand books with the previous owner’s name in them. Even better, a bookmark, marking the page of abandonment. Or really, any other little trinket left behind. Even if it’s my own book, I get a bit excited. It tells me of another time and place, where the book was the focus of a person’s life, even for a few hours. A train ticket, a tissue, a receipt… hell, once I found a $50 note jammed into my copy of The Order of the Phoenix, that I’d stuck in there somewhen and forgotten about. Now THAT was a happy day. I believe it went straight into buying more books!

I think this is why I like writing my name into the front of my books, making little notes, underlining lines that I like. I feel like it gives a snippet of my mindset to the next person to pick up the book, be it myself or someone else. Of course, I have books I would never give away, so I like coming across these little notes next time I pick up the book, just to remind me of my reaction the first time round.

I think this is why I’m still somewhat resistant to the ebook thing. There’s no tangible object to pass on to anyone or to flip back through at any time. True, they don’t take up space…but once read, the moment is gone. You can’t tell an ebook has been lovingly read and considered… or even dropped in the bath. There’s nothing to show.

I do wonder what will happen to my books after I’m gone. Will they end up in a shed, eaten by insects like a lot of my grandfather’s paperbacks (which I would give my left leg to have back unscathed), or will they live on, read by a new owner? Will physical books even be valued in the future?

What are your thoughts?

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6 thoughts on “Considering the Second Lives of Books

  1. I once found a love note hidden away in a book… unfortunately it wasn’t for me!
    Sometimes, when I pick up a second hand book in which there’s a really beautiful, loving inscription inside, it feels a bit like I’m intruding on an intimate moment. There’s always the mystery of what happened to the owner- did they get bored and throw the book out, did they break up?
    I do like seeing other people’s notes in books though, where they’ve highlighted a particular passage. It feels as if you’re connecting through reading…

    • Oh how romantic! I think I’d have a heart attack if I found that!
      Me too, a particularly nice inscription always makes me feel like I’m intruding, but I always want to get that book too, to make sure it has a safe place and won’t be lost.
      It really does, I think that connection is so beautiful… it traverses time and space so beautifully.

  2. Honestly, I used to get annoyed when I would pick up a secondhand book and find things written in it (because I like my books pristine 🙂 ), but now, I can see where it might add to the book’s charm. A couple months ago, I went to a library sale and picked up an old book with a stamp inside that read, “War Service Library.” Apparently, the book was donated to the military for soldiers and sailors to read and I found a note in the back of it! I still haven’t been able to read the person’s handwriting, but it’s still interesting to think about who might have owned that book before me and what he might have done.

    • That’s so cool! Handwriting is such a struggle sometimes!
      I struggle with that too… I do like my books pristine but I know I’m so tough on them that they won’t stay that way anyway 😛 new books I won’t accept anything less than perfect for though.

  3. I feel the same way about ebooks. I need that physical quality in what I read in order to properly be able to appreciate. I know that sounds weird and it’s something I’m working on trying not to do, but I can’t help it. I grew up reading physical books, and I think I’ll always prefer them over mere words on a screen. Great post!

    • I love that physical quality of books, particularly good books. I’m all over having the shoddy romances on my kindle!
      I also just love looking at them! It’s like having a pile of old friends 🙂
      I hope physical books are here to stay.

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