Walking into a quaint second-hand bookstore and accidentally discovering a book that one has been searching for are two necessary ingredients of any bibliophile’s dream. In case you have already conjured up an image of this dream, you have me for company. Memories of stumbling upon childhood classics or rare out-of-print novels in ‘Bookworm’ or ‘Murthys’ Select Bookstore’ have come rushing back as I write this article. While some of you might opt for your books to be fresh and unused, I usually prefer second-hand copies, which have carefully preserved the experiences and memories of the previous readers within its delicate pages.
By being held in the hands of several other individuals, second-hand books have an irreplaceable charm. Be it the inscriptions on the flyleaf, the dog-eared pages, or the hand-written notes in the margins, these elements serve as a culmination of the previous readers’ personalities giving the book a unique identity. The tangible marks and intangible memories tucked in the book give the reader ‘the sensation of being a small link in a long chain of book owners’ (Fadiman, 1998) even without meeting any of its past owners.
When I browse through my home library, I become aware of my role as a protagonist in the journeys undertaken by second-hand books to reach their present destination. Be it Erich Segal’s ‘Doctors’ that made its way from a reader in Dhaka to a bookstore in Goa where I bought it or A.G. Gardiner’s ‘Leaves in the Wind’ that was presented to a daughter in the early twentieth century by “her instructive mother who finds the contents very entertaining’, every book is brimming with exciting stories! By undertaking a journey from one pair of hands to another, the book brings together individuals from different walks of life in a serendipitous manner. To hold a weatherworn book and know that many others have held it before can be a comforting thought. Perhaps it is this perspective that helps convert the reading of a second-hand book from a solitary activity into a communal one.
The inscribed flyleaf
While the second-hand book serves as the constant medium in the formation of the community, another factor that is essential to this process is the act of ‘letting go’. Only when a reader lets go of a particular book can the latter continue its journey to reach another individual. While a book-lover might find it difficult to part with his/her literary companion, it is this separation that essentially brings the community together. Once the book has been handed over to a store and given shelter in a bookshelf, its destiny takes it to a new person who accidentally discovers it while browsing. Thus, the invisible community becomes bigger and the book’s journey continues!
In addition to making the reader aware of the community, the stories held within a second-hand book also influence one’s book-reading experience. Seeing a phrase in the book that stands out for the reader already being highlighted or having the definition of an unknown word jotted down in the margin are precious moments of joy that can enhance the process of reading a second-hand book. For instance, my second-hand copy of Paul Gallico’s ‘Scruffy’ has this particular phrase highlighted in a bright yellow by a previous reader: “He was a fresh-faced boy with rosy cheeks and curly hair with the still innocent eyes of one who had not yet discovered that most men will lie, cheat or steal to gain their ends.” What was this person thinking while making this phrase stand out from the rest of the text? Did this phrase remind the reader of someone s/he knows or was it a reflection of the reader itself? It is the process of pondering over such questions that enhances one’s overall experience of reading a second-hand book.
For those of us who are lucky to get a book where an earlier reader has written down his/her personal experiences, these notes serve as an opportunity to understand and analyse the book from a different perspective. Unfortunately, I haven’t received a second-hand book of this kind yet. However, if my copy of R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends were to reach another reader, s/he would have a ball knowing how I would have punished some of Swami’s enemies! Lastly, if these previous markings happen to be more interesting than the book itself (!), the reader will have a delightful companion to help plough through the pages. It is such perks that make the formation of such a diverse community a pleasurable endeavor.
So, the next time you are letting go of a book, do preserve your memory of it by making a personalized note or keeping a little memento in it. It might enhance the book-reading experience of the future readers in ways beyond your imagination. After all, isn’t that the spirit of the community that forms based on the common love for the book?