Sunday, December 05, 2010
The thing about buying a used book is that sometimes you can get two stories in one.
The first, of course, is the book itself; the thousands of words the author has pulled together in an effort to enlighten, amuse, outrage, or otherwise entertain us.
But another story--or at least traces of one--can come from the book’s previous owner—inscriptions, notes, doodles, and even the underlined sections that someone has put on the pages before they belonged to you.
They are incredibly small pieces of other lives and that’s probably why I enjoy them so much. It's fun to imagine who these people were and what they were thinking when they decided to write in their book.
A few years ago I picked up a copy of the “Spiritual Diary,” a book of a yoga master's inspirational sayings, at a used book stand on the Upper West Side.
An inscription by the previous owner, dated Jan. 1, 2001, read “As an art journal of sorts…all soul, babe, Love, D.” It’s followed by something I can’t begin to make out.
Whoever “Babe” is, his birthday is apparently January 13 because there is a heart-shaped photo of a woman holding up a sign reading “Happy Birthday” stapled to that particular page.
The November 4 page has a cut-off image of a diving woman in a bathing cap all tucked in and ready to hit the water. The book seems like a nice gift, but for whatever reason, Babe decided to part company with it.
I’d love to reverse the book’s history, learn more about Babe and D and why this gift ended up on book stand on Columbus Avenue.
Things got a little more personal last month when I ordered a paperback copy of “The Pistoleer,” a novel by James Carlos Blake. The book, which tells the story of the notorious gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, had received good reviews, so I decided to go online and get a used copy.
I haven’t started reading the novel yet, but when I first opened it, I saw there was an inscription on the inside of the cover page: “Merry Christmas, DAD. Love ya.” I can’t make out the signature, but I think the name is “Christine.”
So who is Christine? Where does she live? Why did she give this book to her father? And why was this book--with its very personal message--put up for sale?
Part of me fears the worst. Maybe the father died and Christine found the book to be a painful reminder of his loss.
Perhaps he didn’t have room for the book in his house—I know that story—and decided to let someone else have it. I hope the father and daughter didn’t have a falling out and the book was sold in anger. But that's just me fearing the worst again.
Looking at that inscription got me thinking about my relationship with my own father. I don’t think I ever told him I loved him, at least not as an adult.
I must have said it to my mother thousands of time, but it was different with my father. I think it’s different for a lot of sons and theirs fathers. You don’t really do the “I love you, man” thing.
I bought plenty of books for my father over the years, but I never wrote any kind of inscription in them; it never even occurred to me to do something like that. I guess I thought I would be defacing the book if I wrote in it--especially with my handwriting.
Once on his birthday I got my father an autobiography of Paddy Chayefsky, author of “Marty,” “Network,” and several other great movies. My father had grown up with Chayefsky—back when he was called “Sid”—and he told me he had gotten such a charge out of reading the book and remembering his youth.
He seemed so moved that I wish now I had written something in that book. I see that it’s a stealth way of getting your message across without blurting out your feelings and embarrassing everyone. I could have told my father that I loved him and only he and I would have known about it.
And if that book ever ended up being sold, the person who bought it would know, too--which would be just fine with me, babe.