Monday, February 19, 2018



One of the reasons I love used books is they sometimes hide second-hand secrets within their pages. Frequently these secrets are in the form of margin annotations, jotted down things to do lists, phone numbers, or random scribbles. Other secrets can be uncovered when a used book is found to be the unintended archive for disposable scraps such as old grocery lists or gas receipts, occasional unpaid bills, airplane boarding passes, traffic tickets, or other paper detritus. 

Most often these items are employed as makeshift bookmarks, either haphazardly left between pages, or purposely placed to mark a finished reading location of the book’s previous owner. Whatever form these ethereal doodlings or tangible ephemera take, they can all be found residing in used books picked up from Friends of the Library exchanges, local used bookstores, the stock of Internet book dealers, or marked down for quick sale in local garage sales, or the equivalent. 

Several times, I’ve found dollar bills slipped between a paperback’s pages. Once, I had the luck of the devil, finding a greenback twenty sandwiched between the last sheet of a paperback and it’s cover. Clearly, it had skittered in by accident, but as I held it, I conjured up groundless speculation about the book’s previous owner. Had he or she searched everywhere for the twenty dollar bill? Was it needed to finish paying the rent or face eviction? Or was the previous reader so financially irresponsible they actually used twenty dollar bills as bookmarks, and lighted cigars with a handy stack of Benjamins?

Two individuals of my acquaintance found lottery tickets hidden inside scruffy paperbacks. One of the dog-eared tomes came from the crowded shelves of a Goodwill thrift store—the place where famous authors’ bestsellers go to die. The lottery ticket was a scratcher. It had been torn in half—clearly a bad investment of a hard earned dollar. It was as worthless as the bloated prose of the modern-day doorstop techno-thriller in which it was found. However, it did mask a viable secret. 

The thrift store where my acquaintance bought the book was in Los Angeles, while the lottery scratcher was bought in the state of Michigan. Hmmm—what happened on the cross-country journey? Was the book originally bought in Michigan and read during the trip? Or if it was purchased out west, what was the story behind the valueless lottery ticket? And what if the book had been through a series of foster homes before my friend rescued it? When and where did the book and the lottery ticket get married? Inquiring minds want to know. 

The other lottery ticket, was found in a cover-curled copy of a Travis McGee adventure. The book had been scrounged for a dime from a shady looking vendor at a swap meet. The previous owner of this lottery ticket—presumably, the one-time owner of the Travis McGee novel—had spent ten dollars for the ten random sets of numbers emblazoned upon it, each giving the purchaser a chance to win the California Lottery Mega Millions. 

The ticket was pristine, appearing to have never been taken back to the local stop-and-rob to see if any of the numbers were winners. It might have been worth millions. My friend, however, chose not to find out. Instead, he put it in a small frame, which he placed on his desk next to the obligatory photo of his wife and twins. He claims he gets more pleasure from daydreaming about the possibilities of being mega rich than having his fantasy shattered by finding out the numbers are all losers.

Most items found in used books don’t carry the possibility of millions, or even of being worth the equivalent of a beer and a burger. There is negligible, if any, monetary value attached to these items. No secrets important enough to bring down political regimes or pointers to buried treasure have ever been documented. However, through the use of imagination, they can become a bookaholic’s armchair Indiana Jones adventure. 

Is this flirting with ridiculous minutia and off-the-wall Sherlockian deductions absurd? Absolutely—but it’s all part of the fun for those fascinated by these articles. Acknowledging the whimsy of this process allows guilt free, unsubstantiated, theorizing and guesswork to proceed with wild abandon.

Among book fiends there is a heirarchcy of significance applied to these items. The older the item—especially if it predates the book in which it is found—the higher it’s intrinsic curiosity. If clues about a book’s previous owner can be gleaned, you have discovered a horde of plunder. The gold standard of these items would be lost love letters or photographs.

Correspondence and snapshots easily lend themselves to extrapolation. But what can be revealed by a simple supermarket receipt used as a temporary bookmark? Can anything be inferred from date and time printed on it? Was it simply a random day on the calendar, or was it a national holiday, or Valentine’s Day, or perhaps a date of significance only to the book owner. Possibly the purchases reveal more. 

The date of a national holiday might have hot dogs and buns, mustard, and soda, or charcoal and lighter fluid purchases. This would indicate a social gathering, but was it with friends, family, or obligatory co-workers? Last minute flowers and a quickly grabbed Hallmark sentiment might be there on a receipt dated February 14th. It’s easy to infer a certain desperation from those items. Candles, cake, ice-cream, and balloons could give credence to a birthday celebration—but what turning of a year is being celebrated? A child’s, a teen’s, somebody who needs the fire department on site before their candles are set afire? 

Maybe there is no significance which can be attached to the date and time, but are the items purchased staples like bread and milk, or are they beer, chips, and other party items? What would you conclude if the items were baby food, Pedialyte, and extra strength Tylenol? How about Ben & Jerry’s, generic tampons, and Midol bought from a 7/11 store at midnight? 

At one time in the distance past, I was a collector of first editions—a dreaded purist. I distained all scribblings inside a book other than the author’s signature without any personalizations. At one point, however, I realized these unsullied tomes were soulless albatrosses. As I gradually moved them on from my bookshelves, I gained an appreciation for the joys of previously read paperbacks with garish covers, unpretentious expectations, and the crinkled crow’s feet of character. With this new attitude came an appreciation of the written scars found inside books and the further uncovering of found items with second-hand secrets.

I recently came across a bookplate (those sticky narcissistic declarations of book ownership) in a used copy of Louis L’Amour’s Last Of The Breed. I once despised these pretentious affectations, but today I find them entertaining. The ornamented scroll work pictured on this example of a bookplate was designed to indicate Jack Reith had attended Yale. Jack had not signed or printed his name on the bookplate. He’d typed it on before sticking it in the book. Any guesses about Jack’s OCD or anal-retentive personality?

The poor man’s versions of bookplates are the return address labels meant for the top left corner of outgoing envelopes. Almost all examples of these small sticky rectangles—usually stuck inside front covers—are the free variety sent out by various charitable organizations. After receiving a dime’s worth of these along with a begging letter, does anyone actually feel guilty enough to donate? 

Another Louis L’Amour book, a faux leather copy of The Cherokee Trail, turned up the following interesting sentiment...

Larry, Thought you might enjoy this...Come the 1996 elk season, I’ll be hanging my hat again in Colorado. May your wood be dry, your bull upwind, and your aim steady...Jerry

Sounds like a serious bromance is going on with a lot of bonding over elk hunting and campfire building. It might have been more interesting if this was written in a copy of Brokeback Mountain.

Last week, I came across a perfect example of second-hand secrets when I picked up a copy of David Morrell’s The Brotherhood of the Rose from my local Friends of the Library bookstore. I’d read the novel years ago and could only recall a few plot points, but I did remember how much I had enjoyed it. Hoping to recapture the same reading pleasure, I paid my fifty cents and headed home to my favorite reading chair.

As the text of the prologue in this paperback edition comes to an end on page 9, the bottom three-quarters of the page is blank. Or at least it was until it had been adorned with ink in a flowing script... 

I know I’ve told you before but...you are responsible for the big smile that’s occupying half of my face. Coconuts in Hawaii, huh?

It didn’t take a course in graphology to determine the handwriting definitely belonged to a female—including the stylized smiley face used as a signature. I was immediately distracted trying to analyze the phrase Coconuts in Hawaii, huh? Had the two people involved in this one-sided conversation been to Hawaii together, or was the term a fancy way of saying, crazy, huh? I eventually started reading again...until I hit page 15. In the middle of the page there was a blank text gap, indicating a change of scene or character point of view. Tucked tightly into the gap was more of the flowing script...

you’re my best friend

This was followed by what appeared to be a scribble signature or initials, but it was indecipherable to anyone not familiar with the scrawl. Is this a girlfriend trying to get the attention of her thriller reader boyfriend? Another scrawl turns up on page thirty-three...

Pretty neat, huh? 

Is this referring to the clever explanation of the piece of spycraft being reveal in the novel’s text, or to the romantic vandal’s previous comment? Things quite down until the blank space at the bottom of page 125...

You know...If you blink your eyes periodically, you’re lubricating them.

Is there an undercurrent of censure in that statement? Is it an indication of potential future relationship problems once this couple is beyond the infatuation stage? On page 127, however, there is possibly a quick apology...

Geek J

Is this a referral to the writer or the reader? If the writer is referring to herself then she is acknowledging a shortcoming with cuteness. If she is referring to the reader, is this further censure softened by the addition of a smiley face? There is one further, more blatant attempt on page 156 to get the reader’s attention away from the novels prose...

Kiss me when you get to this part J 

This is definitely in the same hand, but there is an interesting switch from cursive to printing, as if the writer is trying to get her message across by lowering her expectations of the reader’s intelligence—if he can’t read cursive, I’ll try making my message simpler by printing.

I was hoping to find out what she was going to ask him to do when he reached the end of the next chapter, but alas, she either got his attention with kiss me, or she got frustrated and gave up before the guy realized he could have gotten lucky. Of course, being hidden in a David Morrell book about assassins, I also wondered if the scribbling was all some kind of secret code for real world assassins.

There is a dark side to book ephemera, a scourge of epidemic proportions—superglued price labels and bar codes unconscionably welded across covers by evil used bookstore owners. At the slightest attempt to remove them, these vile and sticky minions rejoice in tearing the cover artwork beneath them. Books which fall prey to these villainous practices must be rescued and treated with loving care. The liberal application of lighter fluid, or placing the sticker under a cheap towel and applying a hot iron, are the only cures known to dissolve the toughest adhesives. In a perfect world, readers would form teams of vigilante nightriders to backtrack these pariahs and reinstate the ritual of tar and feathering.

Let’s all take a deep cleansing and calming breath and return to one last example less destructive and more intriguing ephemera. People who disperse their books when they are finished reading often do so to various different outlets. So there is joy to be found when you realize you have reunited two books from the same previous owner, which you found perhaps years and miles apart. I’ve heard of this happening with books once owned by Harlan Ellison or Isaac Asimov, but these instances remain unverified. Perhaps they are simply intriguing fictional tall tales about fiction tomes. It is all fodder for speculation.

What are your tales of second hand secrets?

1 comment:

  1. I once found a lottery ticket in an old book and so figuring this was an omen I used the numbers on that ticket to that that week's lottery - I din't win but I enjoyed the book.


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