I tend to prefer second-hand books over brand-new. Second-hand books usually come cheaper, meaning I can get more of them. But old, used books also sometimes have something that new ones do not: the preserved thoughts of their previous readers.
There appears to be two or three people who made notes in my tattered, 1920s copy of Euripides’ Electra. It looks as if one of them drew a tiny candle, just before the start of the play. Blocky letters, curling cursive, blue pen, red pencil, and dull pencil make the page lively—colour commentators, quite literally. It is the abundance and variety of notes that spark my interest in this shabby old paperback. I want to know what piqued the interest of the readers who came before me. I must be sure to make my own notes with a unique writing instrument.
When I was reading Les Misérables, I kept a pencil as a bookmark. I knew I’d need it, since I was so often underlining passages and making notes. Saying so makes me sound insightful, but in truth I was young and dumb, and most of my notes show more dorkiness than scholarliness. In book two of part one, when Jean Valjean is climbing the wall with uncanny skill, I have written: ‘He is Spiderman!’ I laugh at Marius’ anguish, scribbling down ‘ha ha ha!’ My notes in Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship are a little more sober. There was much to underline in that book, and I wouldn’t mind reading it again and making new notes—perhaps this time with a different sort of pen or coloured pencil, to mark how my thoughts might have changed over the years. I hope whoever eventually gets my copy of The Cost of Discipleship will see how I’ve appreciated it, and l hope my enthusiasm will also be passed down.
I kind of like whoever previously owned my copy of Gregory of Tours’ The History of the Franks. S/he had a snarky sense of humour, at one point referring to the revered historian as ‘Gregsy-poo’. But in book six, chapter thirty-six, after Gregory quotes Romans 8:28, there is a note in big, blocky, capital letters: ‘NOT TRUE’. Despite the sardonic tone of many of the notes, I was startled by this one. I wondered what could have caused such an emphatic denial. It made me sorry, especially since this was a one-way discussion. A similar thing happened when I was reading through a bible, and found that someone had written ‘not true’ beside Mark 7:19, specifically referring to the section in brackets about food being purified. I am of the firm belief that bibles ought to bear the marks of their reader, highlights, underlines, connected verses, etc. But this appeared to be editing according to the previous reader’s affronted traditions. I was disturbed, but the memory of that significant little note was one of the things that drove me to investigate my own traditions and values.
Even if I don’t particularly like what my predecessors had to say, I have some food for thought that may help me down the road. Even if what I have to say isn’t all that enlightening, I’m putting up memorial markers where I was entertained or intrigued. I like to be able to read what previous readers thought, compare notes, and add something of my own for the next reader. Reading and writing notes in the margins isn’t quite the same as having a good conversation—but it’s the next best thing.