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.

9 thoughts on “Noteworthy

  1. Dearest Shennachie ~ I’ve enjoyed this post, and it made me think of what I like about used books, too. Yes the price, but also the DISCOVERY of a gem in the used bookstore, and the longer it was sought after, the greater the joy of discovery! Generally, I like my used books to be free of the previous reader’s highlighting and underlining, but I do enjoy reading their marginal notes. I love the idea of you rereading some of your books read in childhood, and re-notating but using a different colour ink/pencil. No matter one’s age, the responses are sincere and profound for the level of sophistication of thought/growing depth of life experience. Thank you!


  2. I prefer new copies of books, not old copies of book. Yes, I do mark up in the book, but the bookmark is an actual bookmark itself. I just keep the pen next to the book. Les Misérables was marked- wrote in names of songs and underlined important passages. The musical helped me get through the entire book without skipping anything


      1. My interpretation of the Les Mis characters are a combo of book, musical, and my actors/actresses


  3. I’m quite fond of notes in margins, particularly when they’re somebody else’s. (I pity whoever ends up with my assigned reading from last semester; then again, I would not have objected to a copy of Red Clocks with the profanity already blacked out for me, so perhaps I oughtn’t feel guilty.)

    The denial of Romans 8:28 makes me so sad. That’s such a beautiful, hopeful verse, and it must’ve taken a hurting person to make such a cynical note. 😦

    I love the concluding sentence of this post so very much. 🙂


    1. Blacked-out profanity is an acceptable form of marking books, I’d say.
      Yes, I was very sad to read that– still am. Whoever they are, wherever they are, I hope they find their ‘not true’ to be not true.



  4. This has made me DETERMINED to start taking notes in books. For some reason I always want to but never do – I guess it’s a combination of I get so into things I forget and I’m also, much as I want to be, not really very scholarly.
    Oh my, I just found The Cost of Discipleship at a thrift store TODAY! I flipped eagerly through, but no notes. Ah well. Whoever eventually receives your copy will be luckier. I also got an old geology textbook, and that has plenty of notes and highlighting and stuff, so that’s fun and halfway makes up for it.
    Once my friend lent me a book she loved, and she had left notes tucked in almost every chapter all the way through. That was lovely. And finding notes left NOT specifically for you – discovering them by happy happenstance, as it were – must be even lovelier. Or certainly very thrilling.


    1. That’s encouraging! I’m more slacker than scholar, truth be told, so I’m afraid I don’t make as many notes as I would like. I’m trying to work on that.
      Excellent finds! Though I don’t think I’m ready to give away my copy of Cost of Discipleship. After I’m dead, maybe.
      Your friend wrote book notes for you? That’s so thoughtful!


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