I buy secondhand books. My collecting habit began in New York, when I was young. We could go to the remainder floor of certain publishers located in Manhattan and buy hardback books for twenty-five cents or a dollar. Paperbacks were five or ten cents. These were books that no one wanted, had been returned by bookstores, and often they were classics with damaged sleeves. There were other books, too. Romances that no one loved. Failed textbooks, or biographies of people no one had ever heard of. Half of what was available, I didn’t want, either. But over a warehouse floor full of tables covered with upturned books, there were treasures among the unwanted. I could walk out with bags of books for ten dollars and spend weeks reading.
That was forty years ago, but I still have some of those books and have never lost the delight of picking through literary remains. Library sales, secondhand bookstores, and in the last couple of years the unloading of paper, especially reference books in favor of digital options by all sorts of people and places, means used books of all sorts are available for the picking. Hunting for secondhand literary delights is a cheap thrill.
J.T. Barbarese relates other little rewards of bibliomania in “The Last Word Goes to Scribblers in the Margins.” People who like (or dislike) the books they read will write in the margins as a last word in their mental argument or agreement with the author. You can find anything from brief blasts or exhalations of adoration (“love!”) to running commentaries in the marginal scribbles of some books. That can be fascinating, depending on who the sub-author was. Or it can be, “‘Pure b.s. if you think abt it,’ for instance, likely from a student unimpressed by a Pulitzer winner’s (truly dull, in fact) poetry. Or ‘Does anybody actually know wtf this means?’ (written beside the words “objective correlative”).”
This was my favorite paragraph,
Sometimes a three- to four-word rebuttal rockets around the edges, or through the center of a paragraph and down the side, like the writing of first-graders. I know how this happens. You’re moved by Emily Dickinson’s description of afternoon sunlight on a window in January. There will never be sunlight or a window like it again. The sunlight on all windows is now hers. You write a poem at the bottom of the page and it runs sideways back up the page. You break the window.
I have done that. Haven’t you? Though how do you ever get rid of a book that you have made so much your own? Well, my children will unload mine, someday, when I ditch my books by dying.
One of the shocking things that I say to my students is that they should write in their books. I encourage them to buy their literature and truly make it their own. I tell them that they can win every argument that they have with a book, because the author is not in a position to argue back. He made his point and it is up to the reader to judge it. As Barbarese says, you get the last word, especially when you are the last owner of the book and can even comment on the comments. (“Oh, yeah?”)