Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Secret History of Second-Hand Books

Philip Harvey
Theory, or more accurately Jacques Derrida, has given us the idea of the trace. These are the absences that are part of the presence of a text, and vice versa. If that’s how we want to understand Derrida. But readers, and librarians in particular, come across another kind of trace in books that is more physical and often loaded with its own meanings. This sort of trace is described in ‘The Immortalities’, a novel set in a library and written by the Australian theological librarian Nathan Hobby:

He came into the journals’ twentieth century. Morgan’s entries were obsessed with the books he had acquired. A few times a day, Tom would get up from his desk to find one of the books mentioned. A couple were missing, no record of them in the card catalogue. An early King James Bible was in a display cabinet, permanently opened to Ecclesiastes and a film of dust over the glass. A number of others were in the Rare Book Room, which he didn’t want to ask Sinclair IV for access to. A good number of the others were on the open shelves, waiting for him. They had carried on through ten or eleven decades or more—so many of them having a history before they even came to the library—outliving people, and he could turn the same pages Morgan had turned in 1900. Was the fine, white strand of hair between the pages of a Lewis Carroll Morgan’s? In Bleak House, he found a shopping list written on a slip of paper used as a bookmark. The reader—perhaps Morgan, although he was unlikely to have done the shopping—had apparently not finished it. A hundred years or so ago he or she had intended to buy a packet of tea, apples, a bar of soap, a pound of flour and a ‘Tatler’—whatever that was. He loved the survival of something so ephemeral. 

Morgan had wanted more than anything for his remains to survive and for an epigone to re-create his life from the traces. But what could Tom write of this process in the biography? He contented himself with the experience, which he saw as a kind of communion with the dead man. He imagined it flavouring, infusing the biography with the melancholy joy he felt.

The ephemera found in donated books, or even just any of the library  books really, is a part of the librarian’s job that is rarely recorded and for which there is no prior training. Working in a library with an active donations policy and an established program called the Bibliographical Heritage of Religious Institutions (BHRI), I regularly discover in my sorting almost every imaginable kind of bookmark and reader’s marginal notes. Like Morgan, with his strands of white hair and shopping lists, these objects not only have their intrinsic meaning, they tell me something about the readers and about the history of the book itself.

When I find a 1976 tram ticket at page 10, this is not a good omen for this book. Why did the reader stop at page 10? Had they started it hastily on the tram, knowing it had to be returned to the library that day? Or had they read up to page 10 on the day of borrowing and given up? Did the borrower spend as much time reading the ticket as the book? A whole collection of tram tickets from all eras could be assembled, if one had the time and forethought, but of course they usually end up going direct to the recycler. Certainly in a tram city like Melbourne, this is one of the most common lost bookmarks, and for all I know some of them could have a market value.

When I recall objects that have fallen out of books the list includes the following: envelopes with old stamps affixed, letters to colleagues with reasonable (usually) opinions about the book in hand, lecture notes on tear-out sheets, covering directions for review copies, old fashioned boarding passes from European airports, business cards with six-digit phone numbers, Christmas cards, pressed flowers, restaurant receipts, postcards passim. Money is acceptable, my favourites being $50 and $100 notes; thus far the highest finds have been $20 notes, though I keep an eye peeled. One is conscious while sorting on such a scale of the many readers who have gone before, closely reading through these books by day and deep into the night. This awareness is made more immediate yet by the objects that are found, or fall out of, preloved pages.

Second-hand religious collections contain a large proportion of religious ephemera, not all of it uplifting. Bookmarks abound of smiling pooches complete with a cheerful biblical quote beneath, examples of what New Testament scholar Dorothy Lee has called ‘Fluffy Dog Spirituality’. Two types of bookmark are common in donations to the Carmelite Library: images of Mary with or without Child, and prayer cards for recently departed priests and religious. As it happens, the Library holds the largest Mariology collection in Australia and previous librarians started a huge ephemera collection of every available image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Interest in the iconography of Mary is constant, so not only are all small reproductions of icons and other great images of Theotokos included in the file, but we have more than our fair share of rosy Raphaels and other famous Renaissance works. Cards from Marian shrines are a vital addition, and popular devotional cards and holy pictures of any vintage must be included. Memorial prayer cards however present awkward moments. The card asks us to remember the deceased in our prayers, so for wavery seconds I remember the named person whom I have never met, perhaps extending the thoughts to others. These cards prompt thoughts about the people who kept them, their special intentions and their reading interests. But soon I can be remembering the author of the book itself, the people who published the book, the readership of the book generally. A great cloud of interested parties is present in the moment. Not, of course, that I have any use for the prayer card itself.

One collection that told me how these found objects are not just random interests was given to the Library some years ago by a woman of formidable intellect and wide interests who was also the member of a women’s religious order. The academic interest of the titles alone was riveting, but of more than passing interest were the objects that clung, looped, drooped, depended, hid and otherwise abided thoughout the books. Sister had the practical habit of placing review cuttings of titles inside the book in question. It has always been a hard decision whether to remove these at cataloguing and I confess sometimes to leaving them inside the back cover, their rarity as valuable as their contribution to the scholarly debate. She determinedly visited churches on all continents, to judge by the number of church guides and postcards of these places secreted in her books. Crochet was a favourite pastime, at least she had a penchant for the crocheted bookmark in different shapes, including filigree strips, comets and crosses. Rome and New York were regular destinations, according to the plane tickets. Plenty of powerful religious verse kept a presence between the pages, as well as feminist Mary cards. It’s when the photographs started falling out of books that I decided to keep them in a special file and return them to her sometime: photographs of family gatherings and special services and group shots at conferences. An adult life could be traced through these photographs, of little meaning to the librarian but something to touch off personal associations in the mind of the original owner. Gradually a private world of interests, attractions and pursuits was revealed, first through the types of titles that Sister wanted in her own library, but then by all the objects that came with the books. Needless to say, the objects often brought into relief the nature of their reader, her character and likely interactions with the text. Some of them were the prompt for a new novel by Nathan Hobby.

Interest in the life of individual books and what they accumulate is not new; we only have to witness the centuries’ old academic pursuit of marginalia, especially that of great authors. But interest in the personal life of books and their collected ‘acquaintances’ has taken on a new life in recent years and is part of our reassessment, I believe, or rediscovery of the book as valued object, now that it vies for time and attention with its electronic counterparts. The book’s place in our lives and society is changing, and our perspective on what is a book. The ephemera that attaches itself to the book is evidence that each individual book has a life of its own and a meaning in time and space.


1. One such excavation or reminder of the many telltale relics contained in used books was an exhibition mounted last December at Foyle’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London, called ‘The Secret History of Second-hand Books’. The curator was the enthusiastic bibliophile (or is that extra-bibliophile?) Wayne Gooderham and the blogs to this online report are also worth reading:

2. A marvellous and more extensive discussion on the history of reading and the intersection with other ‘remains’ in the book is by Jennifer Howard in The Chronicle Review for December:

No comments:

Post a Comment