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What's in a book?

posted on 30 Aug 2015

What's in a book?

Anyone who buys second hand books will know that one of the associated pleasures is finding slim items between the pages left behind by previous owners. You can never be sure whether this is the result of simple forgetfulness, an oversight, or whether the item has been left there deliberately as a gift passed to the new owner to puzzle, delight or even annoy them.

In my experience by some way the most common find is the bookmark. These are mostly utilitarian advertising for a bookshop, either current or long gone, but occasionally there will be something more elaborate in tasselled silk or one which has been hand made by a romantic and usually incorporating pressed flowers of some description. There are, of course, times when you know that the bookmark measures the moment when the first owner simply lost patience with the novel or autobiography and just tossed it to one side vowing to shift it on the next time a charity came calling.

Then there are the newspaper cuttings. These are usually articles from broadsheet newspapers about the recently deceased author or maybe reviews the book received on its release. Sitting just inside the front or back covers they moulder gently, growing yellow and fragile as they dry out. I, for one, particularly dislike this unwanted deposit. I can see no good reason why someone has felt it necessary to entomb old newspaper articles in this way - what possible use can they be in the future? Does the miscreant go back to the them, unfold them and think their taste validated because their chosen book merited a review? And this is always an act of vandalism towards the book that is forced to house the cutting because newsprint had/has a high acid content that over time and with the help of a little moisture will burn a disfiguring brown shadow onto the page its in contact with. I make it my mission to remove news cuttings wherever I find they've been tucked away inside a book - it's a mission of mercy.

 

By far the most diverting finds inside old books are postcards and letters. These are delightful and often teasingly enigmatic messages from the past that can entertain you for a brief moment or, if you feel like some research, quite a lot longer. Postcards are nearly always cryptic because, robbed of their immediate context, what does the message presage? Was the card kept for the sentiment of the words, the attractions of the picture, some moment in time or space the card represents or simply because it passed muster as a book mark? Letters on the other hand spin you a longer yarn but that in itself is no guarantee that they will make more sense. There is, however, always the possibility of a heartfelt confession, a declaration of love or enmity or a bit of dodgy dealing and it's always slightly disappointing to find it's a letter from Aunt Maud confessing she had forgotten a birthday and is enclosing a postal order.

I have to admit that over 30 years of second hand book buying I have never encountered anything genuinely exotic inside a book - the closest I think I came to that was a young child's sock pressed between the glossy pages of a coffee-table art book. There are, possibly/probably apocryphal, tales of large denomination bank notes, rare stamps, stocks and bonds - all of which it is, I think, possible to construct a believable story around. But at the more disgusting end of the spectrum I find it almost impossible to credit that rashers of bacon, cheese slices or (used) condoms are likely items to mark a readers place - or even that a book might be a remotely logical alternative to a fridge or a toilet bowl.

One thing is for certain, making serendipitous finds inside second hand books adds a frisson to the book hunting experience. You don't get that when you visit the supermarket.

Terry Potter

August 2015