I love old books. Not just for the smell, or the delicate pages, or the heady recognition that many different hands have held this book, some of which are no longer alive. Old books have secrets, and when one happens to share even a hint of its past with me, I suddenly feel like the luckiest reader in the world. When you find one of those treasure troves of old novels or poems, tucked into little crowded bookstores, on the very bottom shelf that has you down on all fours, you just know that something brilliant is about to introduce itself.
Inscriptions are somewhat sacred—a beautifully scrawled dedication to a lover or dear friend, in a manner that has long been forgotten, a persistent declaration of the existence of someone before you. These can offer a beginning, a glimpse of the first hands that held your book. But I look for the tale hidden between the pages and behind the lines. Little mementos of sunny afternoons in a field of wildflowers—purples, cobalt, and corals—one of which has made its way to the beginning of a chapter that says so much more than its words. The postcard from a lonely soldier missing his mother; tear-stained edges worn with wear because the mother kept it near in every book she read, until her baby finally came home. Or a lovely little valentine, with an embossed purple heart against a bed of crimson poppies, declaring ardent love for “My darling Gemma.”
Some of my favorites are simple—receipts detailing purchases of buttons and ribbons, or pretty scraps of paper that brightens the yellowing pages. But my most treasured find from an antique copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was a photo of a young woman astride a proud mahogany horse, her laughter clear in the genuine smile that’s been captured. I guestimate the photo was taken in the 40s based on the smooth curls around her shoulders and the jaunty dark cap on her head. She’s got that effortless glam look going on and I can’t help but wonder if this book belonged to the person behind the camera, someone who made this beautiful girl laugh. And then I questioned how something like this is lost. But truth is, much to my dismay, I too have lost this treasure in the mix of one too many moves. I like to imagine the next reader who will happen upon this prize, and which of my books will give it up. Will they consider all the possibilities of its origin? These tokens of the past become immortal with every journey, telling a new story to each reader lucky enough to find it. And you realize that these little secrets aren’t yours to keep, but just a glimpse into the life of a book that has chosen to share it with you.
I recently found a fabulous little website called Forgotten Bookmarks, run by a rare bookseller. Pages upon pages of things found in books are photographed and shared, cataloguing the brilliant and unforgettable. I
have could spend hours looking at them, searching for that one hint that tells just a bit more than usual. And I consider all the things still out there, tucked between the pages. All those little secrets, just waiting to be found.