Pristine books are rare in second-hand bookshops. Instead the books you find there each bears the marks of their past lives. Online second-hand stores grade their wares with descriptions such as ‘nearly new’, ‘good as new’, ‘used’ and ‘fair’, but though a fresh book is special, so is one that shows its age. It shows how every book is unique, each demonstrating the history of its past ownership. A book only gains meaning once it is owned (you may borrow a book, but you are still borrowing it from its owner). It accrues greater meaning with a history of ownership and the signs of the passing of time. It is what makes second-hand bookshops so particularly alluring. They invite us back into the past, willing us to make some part of them belong to the present again, simply through the act of reading.
Here are some things to treasure about second-hand books (though it is possible to have an alternative view):
1. The owner’s name written on the flyleaf – what other personal objects do we have in which we write our names? Not as a means of recovering the object in case it is lost, but to mark out its uniqueness. Books are published in multiple, identical forms, but writing one’s name on the flyleaf confers true possession. Sad as it may be that such a possession eventually find its way (perhaps posthumously) into a second-hand bookshop, but it confers some kind of immortality. We live on through our taste.
2. The donor’s name written on the flyleaf – on what other gifts do we write a personal greeting to the recipient? It is clearly the nature of paper that invites us to write upon in it the way that we would not for, say, a pair of socks or an iPad. The good intention lives on, even if the book’s presence in a second-hand shop suggests that the recipient was not as grateful as they might have been. Or maybe they read it avidly then passed it on, because shelf space was limited. It’s possible.
3. Ex Libris and ‘This Book Belongs to’ labels – nothing denotes more pride in the possession of a book than a personal label. They are often so beautifully designed, and one has a picture of someone’s shelves filled with carefully selected, lovingly cared for, and very personal books, that collectively made up what that person wanted to be said about their intellectual life. Coming across any such label in a second-hand book is an insight and a privilege.
4. Cut corners – in these days of conspicuous consumption and electronic stores, who bothers to hide what the price of a gift was? Cut corners on books (to remove the figures giving the price) are mementos of a kinder age that would have nothing to do with such ostentation.
5. Split spines – poor book, but at least your condition shows that someone read you eagerly. The pristine book with uncut pages tells a sadder story.
6. Pages missing – mystery, and now a challenge, because I must go and find another copy of the book, and complete this time. Each time I relish the quest.
7. Over-priced – competition is the life-blood of second-hand bookshops, and having seen a book I believe to be over-priced I know that a fair-priced copy must therefore exist somewhere. It affirms my sense of what is right. And another quest begins.
8. Books I already have – there is a mysterious fascination about these. I feel a particular pride in having a past choice confirmed. “I’d buy that if I didn’t already have it” I tell myself, or any uninterested companion. On one or two occasions I have actually bought that second copy. Something in the act of buying the right thing feels worth repeating.
9. Books put aside that someone else then buys – there’s something about seeing a book that I found on a shelf and decided to buy next time has been purchased by someone else that is satisfying. I’m not alone after all. Someone else gets it. And next time I’ll know to buy it when I see it. A lesson is learned.
10. Faded jackets – kissed by the sun.
11. Foxing – slightly foxed but still desirable – how true. Such signs of the changes brought about by time can be beautiful to look at, and worthy of contemplation.
12. Food stains – someone could not put this book down, even at mealtimes. It bears a kind of badge of honour.
13. Underlining – so handy if you are studying something and someone before you highlighted the key bits. So fascinating when you find yourself disagreeing with their sentiments and feel compelled to write down a contrary statement yourself (well, almost).
14. Missing volumes in a series – another quest! Not just to find the right edition, but one in similar condition so that one could never tell that the set you eventually possess came from different sources. Another thing to point out with pride to the politely indifferent.
15. Folio Society – another indication of a love of books and a belief in the imperishability of classics.
16. Book society reprints – away with book-buyer’s snobbery – these are often handy to find, and more often than not as sturdily made as the originals.
17. Vanity publishing – I find these fascinating. In an age before self-published books clogged up the pages of Amazon, so that one hardly knows what ‘published’ means any more, the vanity publications of years passed took great effort, money and self-belief to produce. What possessed people to produce that which no one would want to read? It must be pride in seeing that deep part of yourself marked in physical form. It makes you believe in yourself.
18. Faber paperbacks – I have gained so much from Faber & Faber’s good taste.
19. Library stamp – books with a special history, intriguing to think about, as you imagine the book being acquired for a serious purpose, handled by many, imparting understanding, and now passed along to new adventures.