When I open a book I am always in a position to find something—information, a thrill, a moral insight, a happy turn of words—but to find an actual something in a book, an object I wasn’t looking for, stirs up an awareness, often an uncanny one, that somebody was there before me. An unexpected channel of communication has been opened and my dialogue with the author isn’t as exclusive as I had assumed. But there is nothing fuzzy about a thing found in a book: it is entirely present to the senses. A postcard falls from a book like a worldly anchor from a sea of abstractions. Here’s a card mailed from Miami on 20 July 1976 and received in Shaker Heights. I have the names and addresses of the sender and recipient, the canceled 9¢ stamp, a knowledge of what the writer has been doing, a specimen of the handwriting, and a contemporary view of Miami’s skyline from across Biscayne Bay—all in the capsule of a postcard slipped from the pages of a book on Franklin Roosevelt.
Invoices, jottings, news clippings, travel stubs, theater tickets and pressed flowers all have this effect on me of waking me from a reverie of verbal symbols and asking me to consider the world at hand. It’s their tangibleness that compels me. The book, like a picture frame, a tabernacle or an urn, contains the object and sets it off, and the object in turn breathes the ironic breath of life into the book. The two together—the book and the thing inside—become for a moment a third thing, new and arresting.
The most money I ever found in a book was a dollar. The strangest thing I ever found in a book was a condom. Why do I say strange? You don’t normally find a condom in a book, that’s all. Not a real condom. Did you ever find a postcard somebody took the trouble to write but not to send? An unsent postcard is sadder than the dried butterfly I found in the pages of a children’s book at a hospital charity book sale.
You’ve probably found bookmarks in books. Every item left in a book is a sort of bookmark. By leaving things in books, people bookmark moments of their lives. The previous owner of Make Anger Your Ally tucked into the safekeeping of Chapter 41 (“Keep An Anger Diary”) a highlighted article clipped from Investor’s Business Daily on the “magic” of financial compounding: “Even Small Amounts Become Large Over The Long Haul.” He had determined to manage his anger by channeling his squandered energy into becoming rich—is how I interpret it. As a rich man he would have no reason to be angry. It’s a happy tale of a troubled soul’s commitment to self-improvement in the American way, and I hope he succeeded. Given the crackup in the stock market that year (the article is dated March 14, 2000) I worry that his principal was compromised—that he lost money.
People who leave things in books open hyperspace windows on their lives. The reader of Viscount Samuel’s Belief and Action: An Everyday Philosophy (Pan Books, Revised Edition, 1953) may have been wrestling with life’s ultimate questions and yearning for an answer or an escape. Mortality weighed on him. Why do I say this? A yellowed advertisement for Malloy Memorial Services rests between pages 60 and 61 in the chapter titled “Religious Possibilities”:
Simple burial or cremation: a dignified death. Malloy Memorial Services offers an alternative to the traditional funeral. Simple and prompt burial or cremation, followed by a dignified memorial service — held by your clergyman — in your church, synagogue, or home … Memorial cremation service $225 Memorial burial service $325
I wonder if Malloy Memorial Services, if they are still at 19120 Detroit Road in Cleveland, Ohio, still honors these prices. There is no expiration date. At $225 and $325, I’ll take the cremation and the burial.
One more thing is left in Viscount Samuel’s Belief and Action, a flattened matchbook whose cover advertises
U.S. Land Only $7.71 Per Acre
Canada Land only $5.31 Per Acre
Own your own land for vacationing, prospecting or retirement …
There are two unused matches in the matchbook and I know they’ll burn because I’ve just burned the third. I imagine the reader of Belief and Action lighting a candle late one night and rubbing his eyes in despair or decision. What should he do? Get the cremation? The burial? Light out for Canada and become the trapper he always wanted to be?
Belief and Action is a “stimulating book that points a way out from the confusion of our time,” the blurb says. A way out is the key phrase. Our friend may have faced the death of a loved one or his own death, but a way out of confusion, a new chance at life, is what he longed for. If he ever sent to the North American Land Information Bureau in Chicago the 25¢ which he was instructed to send if he wanted to receive the “fact-packed booklet” that would tell him how to get low-priced real estate, I don’t know.
Unanswered questions are the norm. I’ll never know if the dollar bill inserted at page whatever of After Many a Summer Dies the Swan marks the spot at which a reader’s interest fizzled or whether she simply put the dollar there when she was in a hurry and forgot about it. The condom in the Kerouac—did a man or woman put it there? I guess a man, but you may guess otherwise. Did he use it as a bookmark? He obviously wasn’t afraid the bulge in the book would give him away. Did he intend it as a humorous poetic tribute to the novelist? Or was he using Dharma Bums as a hiding place, one he wouldn’t fail to remember at a crucial moment?
A moment which never came, alas. The Kerouac at least was opened. The condom never was.
To find an old photograph or a calling card in a book is to be certain that somebody was there, that a human heart hurt or rejoiced there. It doesn’t matter, in this sense, if the thing was left deliberately. Without it you would never know someone had been there. The authors don’t mind. They want their books opened. Better to be a vessel for a fragment of human ephemera than never to be opened. It doesn’t happen as often as it should. The rate of objects-in-books to books is, I don’t know, one in fifty? That’s optimistic.
You seldom find things in new books. People who only buy new books don’t want to find things in books that aren’t supposed to be there. They’ll never have the pleasure of turning a page and coming on a penny postcard marked Austin, Texas, 1950. My own collection of books has been cobbled together by the laws of serendipity, according to which the finding of things in the books mirrors the finding of the books themselves. I see what turns up. Which is scary, come to think of it. Should my reading be guided, my mind influenced, by mere chance? Freak fortune? But it’s really no scarier than trusting a book reviewer at a newspaper or magazine. If it weren’t for serendipity I would never have read Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time or St.-John Perse’s Anabasis or Kerouac’s Dharma Bums or a number of other good books. Besides, luck isn’t as pure or fortune as freakish as it appears. You can’t make landfall before you’re at sea. I mean you’re not likely to bump into Anabasis or Hero of Our Time at the laundromat. You have to go to the library on the day of the book sale with some jingle in your pocket and an attitude of adventure if you’re going to find what you’re going to find that day. You don’t spin the wheel at the door—you tip your chances by gravitating toward the section of books that interests you. You may not find what you’d like to find, but—have faith—you’ll find something of value.
Isn’t travel the same? To travel to a foreign land is to put yourself in fortune’s way.
Of course London had to be beautiful the day I left, but I was sick of traveling. (Oh, the agony!) These 5 weeks have been very hard on me yet very good also; a real learning experience and eye opener!
That’s from a 1999 postcard mailed from Paris (“je pense à toi”) to Palm Springs. I found it in a music dictionary. Books and postcards are closely associated with travel, and it’s no accident that postcards are commonly found in books because the two are so commonly thrown together (or used to be) in the hands and handbags of travelers.
One of the pleasures of finding something in a book is to be provoked to questions of chance and design, of fate and freedom, themes which may occupy the books themselves. Was I meant to find this object? Whose was it? Was it left deliberately? I once bought a handsome illustrated Anna Karenina for two dollars at a library sale and was disturbed to find inside, printed in pencil on a much crumpled, much smoothed paper:
[margin-div]natalie I wish I could see you again I miss you so much I miss all of you I wish our moms wouldn’t be fighting cause it is Separating us if you knew how much I cry for you you would understand[end-div]With love,heather
I wish your mom would adopt me
The words are printed in a shaky, juvenile hand and I doubt Heather or Natalie is the one who folded the note into a copy of Anna Karenina. I surmise that Heather’s or Natalie’s mother discovered the note and in either case it was a thoughtful heartbroken woman who buried it in the breast of Tolstoy’s sad novel.
In my experience, though, it’s unusual to find such rough scraps of life in a literary tome like Anna Karenina. Better to look in schlocky novels and current affairs and self-help books. People who read the classics may be too self-conscious and careful to leave pieces of themselves scattered about like illegitimate children. On the other hand, I’ve found lots of book-of-the-month-club editions of the classics in which an earnest subscriber or well-intentioned autodidact stowed, inside the front cover, an obituary or portrait of the author or a review diligently clipped from the newspaper. Frankly such “objects” don’t appeal to me. They lack mystery. They express a plodding reverence. Only ten minutes ago I slipped the news of Pavarotti’s death into a fat book on opera. It’s a commendable act, but it’s shallow and unambiguous, lacking in spontaneity and psychopathology. It’s not a candid moment preserved in time. Chance has been stripped from it.
There’s another category of things found in books—bookplates, bookshop stamps, library perforations, inscriptions, marginalia—that impose a physical alteration on the book. I object to this. You can’t remove a bookplate as easily as you can a condom, a Sunday liturgy, or a notice of the next AA meeting. Speaking of bookplates, this is where the owners of literary classics come out of the woodwork. They’re only too happy to be identified as shareholders in magnificence whereas you’ll never find a bookplate adorned with posies and engraved with an Emily Dickinson quote inside a copy of Get Fit and Lose Fat in Ten Minutes. Marginalia especially annoy me. The things people write in margins are sophomoric. The things I once scribbled in my own margins are idiotic. Nevertheless, a book stamp or a handwritten inscription can delight me, can inspire, no less than a postcard or a bill of sale, a modest revelation.
Certain guileless inscriptions—“To Jack, smart as a whistle and wise as an old man”—I prize. I enjoy knowing that a woman named Helen was reading South Wind in Capri in 1929 and bought the book at Capri’s Libreria Arcadia (orange sticker, deco script) for the asking price of 20 lire. I like to tsk-tsk the Bridgeport Public Library for long ago getting rid of this gorgeous first edition of The Wild Grizzlies of Alaska. Knowing a book’s provenance and something of its previous owner(s), I ponder the lines of fate that brought it to me. In the case of the paperback titled The Nazi State, first edition in the Fighting Forces Series, June, 1944, it makes good historical sense that I found it in a bookstore in Honolulu, Hawaii where our entry into the Second World War was clinched.
A shiver of melancholy may accompany the unearthing in a book of a lost message or a forgotten object. With time everything left in a book becomes a memento mori. Books are destructible, but they have an aura of immortality, of outliving the people who read and write them: they are collections of disembodied symbols, distillations of the human psyche. In contrast the things left in books bespeak time and place and evanescence. So many names, addresses and dates long past. The Property of … From the Collection of … This book belongs to … Not anymore it doesn’t!
Imagine mailing a postcard for a penny, getting your television repaired for $6.30, or having your body cremated for a dirt-cheap $225. If you went shopping in St. Joseph, Missouri in the 1890s, you could have bought excellent children’s shoes for between $1 and $2 a pair. That’s according to an ad I found tucked into Story of the Wild West and Camp Fire Chats by Buffalo Bill (1888). This fat beaten-up colorful volume I picked up in a Maryland used books store in 1987 for five dollars. With the book came an additional treasure, not just the aforementioned shoe ad, but also an account statement stamped Sep 29 1897 for Townsend & Wyatt Dry Goods Co. at Fifth and Felix Streets in St. Joseph, itemizing the purchases, amounting to $31.36, of an account holder named Bartlett, including a blanket for $8.50—a pricey blanket, it seems to me, and an indication of the economic status of the Bartlett family in 1897. St. Joe was Mark Twain’s jumping off point in Roughing It, if I recall, but I’m not implying that the proprietors of Townsend and Wyatt were engaging in frontier price gouging, not if they were selling children’s shoes with as much humility as this:
We have sold thousands of pairs of Boys’ and Girls’ shoes, some of the poorer kinds but mostly of the better grades, and if our judgment is worth anything, we would say, always buy good shoes for the children. If economy must be exercised, practice it on the grown folks.
Buffalo Bill’s Story of the Wild West became a literal time capsule on the day somebody deposited into its stronghold these documents from Townsend & Wyatt Dry Goods.
“Ahem,” a voice says, “the point of a book is to read it. Have you read Buffalo Bill’s chronicle?”
No, the truth is I haven’t. I haven’t read most of these books. I bought them because they crossed my palm and came freighted with some ineffable quality of life crystallized in an object left behind. It’s ridiculous, I know. Why else would I own The Causes of World War Three by C. Wright Mills (New York: Ballantine Books, 1960). The cover asks: Are You Alarmed By The Drift Toward War? Are You Worried by Recent U.S. Blunders? Yes, as a matter fact, to both questions. But I wouldn’t have bought this browned and brittle Cold War paperback, not even for the dime it cost me, if it hadn’t been for the circumstance that on August 29, 1961, eighteen days after the day of my own birth, a man named Tiff who lived at 2852 Central slipped into the book his duplicate copy of a television repair order amounting to $6.30 in parts and labor.
I had no sooner picked up The Causes of World War Three and found the service order inside it than I had a vision—saw a ghost—of an informed, well-meaning, forgotten citizen of 1961 loosening the knot of his tie on his drive home from work, the repaired television leaning cantankerously in the back seat. He was sweating, he was worried about his family, given the state of things at home and abroad, and he seemed to say to me that if I, a man of the future, rescued this old book for a dime and saved it from the incinerator, then things would be all right, his wife would make him a martini when he got home, and life would go on from there.
I was certainly a sucker for believing him. I am a fool to be weighed down by such sentiments and by the shelf of books that comes with them. But still, the riddles of accident and destiny are irresistible. A book that comes my way containing a lucky lagniappe is a special book, and when something special comes my way I like to believe there’s a reason for it, and so I feel in a sense responsible.
Why else would I pay money, even a quarter, to bring home Around the Year by Adelaide Curtiss (Bolton, Vermont: Long Trail Studios, 1936)? Why except that I feel somehow bound? The chapbook contains dozens of little poems inspired by nature and by the poet’s travels. The printing is lovely, the font is antiquated, and the verse stilted. It’s a familiar production: the poems originally appeared in little magazines like Cycle, Expression, and L’Alouette. Inserted among the leaves are typed manuscript poems by Adelaide Curtiss herself, along with a page torn from a literary magazine called Driftwind which published her “Winter Fires”:
Inside the pleasant room
The hearthfire blazes brightly …
This copy of Around the Year was clearly the author’s. She went through it with a punctilious pencil and changed fresh to rich, world’s to worldly, and Who through these spaces used to pass to Who through these portals loved to pass, and so on. I am sure Adelaide the artist suffered nagging regrets that she didn’t get the poems right before she published them. This copy may be the only record of her effort to make things right.
Folded inside the front cover of Around the Year is a letter dated January 31, 1936, written to Adelaide by F. P. DeWitt, Assistant Cashier of the Trust Department of The Fifth Avenue Bank of New York. Adelaide was living in Scarsdale at the time, at 6 Sunset Drive.
Dear Miss Curtiss:
Referring to your letter of January 29th, we find that your will has been in our custody since 1927, and we have accordingly arranged to send it to you by registered mail. Upon its receipt, you are, of course, free to make whatever disposition you wish, but you will probably not wish to destroy it until you have had a new one prepared. We regret that you have concluded to change your executor, and hope that you find it convenient in the future to make use of services of this bank and will feel free to do so, for we assure you of our desire to be of service.
Surrounding this typewritten text are frantically scribbled notes concerning medieval architecture and romanesque sculpture. Did she attend a lecture? Was she doing research? An inky vortex of mossy, tenebrous words swirls around the banker’s stark communication. Adelaide was an interesting woman. I wish I could find her heirs and return her book to them. I’ll pay postage. I am too busy myself sinking into the tar pits of time to continue clinging to Adelaide’s or to any of these books. I have become her executor in a way and as we enter the age of virtual books I am ready to be unburdened.