December 19th, 2011 / 3:10 pm

The marks we leave on borrowed things

I used to have a real problem with people who messed up their library books. This is to say that I had a problem with myself. Even when I worked at a library, shelving books some thirty hours a week, I never got over the habit of eating while I read, and I never stopped eating the worst possible foods, the ones most dangerous to books — green curry, pasta with tomato sauce, soup, coffee, etc. I made stains. I shed hairs and skin into the books. I dog-eared pages that I wanted to look at again, sometimes. I left the books face-down, open on the arm of the couch, so that the covers warped. Still, it made me angry to see that others did the same things I did (and probably less often). One time I was reading (I forget the book) and my nose started bleeding. I didn’t know why. One fat drop landed on the page. I don’t remember what color it turned.

Several months ago I moved with my wife to Iowa City. We checked out the public library. The one I worked at several years before, in Indianapolis, is I guess considered one of the best in the country. The fiction collection at a given branch was usually pretty thin, and they were a little slow to pick up on the trend among libraries toward stocking graphic novels, but you could get what you wanted if you were patient. In Las Cruces, where Tracy and I got our MFAs, the library situation wasn’t good. The university library had a lot of things, but then it didn’t have others. (The comics collection was crap, for instance, not that I blamed them.) Iowa City’s public library is solid. The fiction collection is broad and deep: if they don’t always have the book I want on the shelves, they usually have something else by the same author.

I guess I’ve changed. These days I feel like the gunk between the pages — the pubic hairs, the tomato sauce, the coffee stains and pages malformed by water, dried into interlocking waves of sticky paper — is special. I can get a clean book no one else has really handled from the bookstore, from Amazon. I like the weird smell of library books, and the way the smell differs. I like seeing how people ruin what they borrow. I like knowing what I’m reading, this object, has been read some dozen times before. I like imagining how these other people (hands, mouths) felt when they saw what I’m seeing.

I wanted to do a whole series reviewing the stuff I found in the spines and stuck between the pages of the books I borrowed. At first the plan was going well. People really messed up a copy of Dennis Cooper’s God Jr., for instance. But ever since then it’s been slow going. Dull stuff. A couple hairs here and there. That’s all, though. The books are clean. The Iowa City public library is maybe weirdly vigilant about the appearance of its books. Their patrons are some of the worst I’ve ever seen — loud, inconsiderate, entitled — but the books are usually in good shape. It feels perverse to wish they weren’t. Still, though, I do. I miss the human residue.

What’s the best or worst thing you ever did to a book that wasn’t yours? Library or otherwise. What’s the best or worst thing you ever found inside a book that someone else had handled?

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  1. joe

      Best: Stole
      Worst: Stole

  2. Bambi

      Bad things I do include using the pages as blotting paper – for my forehead or my chin.

      One time I found a razor blade in the pages of a library book, I still have it.

  3. Helen

      I feel sort of ill now. I know this residue means love, but it also means used, deposited upon, smeared. 

      I’ve never smelt an old book intentionally nor never gone into raptures about same. Give me words that have been lightly handled, please, with the crispness of birch bark, the purity of woodland snow.

  4. gabrielle gantz

      i threw up in my social studies textbook in 3rd grade. i’ve always felt bad for the person who got it after me. 

  5. Anonymous

      Hi, I’m a librarian.  I once found a 1980s drivers permit from India in a book.  I kept it on my refrigerator for months afterward.  I found a 60s voter registration card.  I’ve seen a book that had only circulated a handful of times returned with the entire contents falling out from the covers (it was a paperback, and probably a poorly-glued to begin with, so I don’t fault the patron), and some other bad food and liquid damage.

      Thankfully, the damage in books is usually pretty minor.  DVDs will get cracked to shit in a few months of circulating, though.  I have never seen anyone make a DVD break in the way some of these DVDs break.  I honestly don’t know what they’re doing to them.  We even tried to intentionally be rough with some of the ones that were about to be weeded once to see what they must be doing to them, but we couldn’t replicated the damage.

  6. Mike Meginnis

      When I worked at the library I always loved finding shopping lists in the books.

      The Indian drivers permit is kind of blowing my mind right now.

  7. Anonymous

      It was amazing.  It had a photo like would be from a photobooth that was just glued on the front.  No lamination or anything.  Just a paper drivers permit with a picture of a young man in large glasses on it.  I think I scanned it and put it on my livejournal at the time.  I’ll see if I can’t dig it up and post it here.

  8. Shannon

      I love finding things in books. The best thing I found in one was in a copy of Stand Still Like a Hummingbird was a handwritten note that just said, “Be my Henry”. It was old and crumbly and I kept it until it fell apart. 

  9. E.T.

      Working as a shelver at the local library, I once found a book where someone took a blue ballpoint pen and crossed out every semi-colon and then replaced them with a comma and a coordinating conjunction. 

  10. Mike Meginnis

      oh my god so awesome

  11. Ester

      E.T., your comment, and Mike’s post itself, has called to mind this poem by Alastair Reid.


      One noon in the library, I watched a man–
      imagine!–filling in O’s, a little, rumpled
      nobody of a man, who licked his stub of pencil
      and leaned over every O with a loving care,
      shading it neatly, exactly to its edges,
      until the open pages
      were pocked and dotted with solid O’s, like villages
      and capitals on a map. And yet, so peppered,
      somehow the book looked lived in and complete.

      That whole afternoon, as the light outside softened,
      and the library groaned woodly,
      he worked and worked, his o-so-patient shading
      descending like an eyelid over each open O
      for page after page. Not once did he miss one,
      or hover even a moment over an a,
      or an e or a p or a g. Only the O’s–
      oodles of O’s, O’s multitudinous, O’s manifold,
      O’s italic and roman.
      and what light on his crumpled face when he discovered–
      as I supposed–odd woords, like zoo and ooze,
      polo, oolong and odontology!

      Think now, in that limitless library,
      all round the steep-shelved walls, bulging in their bindings,
      books stood, waiting. Heaven knows how many
      he had so far filled, but no matter, there still were
      uncountable volumes of O-laden prose, and odes
      with inflated capital O’s (in the manner of Shelley),
      O-bearing Bibles and biographies,
      even whole sections devoted to O alone,
      all his for the filling. Glory, glory, glory!
      How lovely and open and endless the world must have seemed to him,
      how utterly clear-cut! Think of it. A pencil
      was all he needed. Life was one wide O.

      Anyway, why in the end should O’s not be closed
      as eyes are? I envied him. After all,
      sitting across from him, had I accomplished
      anything as firm as he had, or as fruitful?
      What could I show? a handful of scrawled lines,
      and afternoon yawned and wondered away,
      and a growing realization that in time
      even my scribbled words would come
      under his grubby thumb, and the blinds be drawn
      on all my O’s. And only this thought for comfort–
      that when he comes to this poem, a proper joy
      may amaze his wizened face, and, O, a pure pleasure
      make his meticulous pencil quiver.

  12. Jenny
  13. puzzlingcreativity

      I haven’t found particularly interesting things in library books, but I have in used books that I buy at secondhand stores. I like finding margin notes as I can read what another person was thinking as they were reading a line I was currently reading. Some profound things are when I find inscriptions on the cover flap with best wishes about birthdays, meaning the book was clearly a gift, which makes me sad that the book had been callously sold.

  14. M. Kitchell

      This note fell out of a 1976 issue of the Yale Literary Review while I was photocopying Mark Polizzotti’s English translation of Maurice Roche’s “Canvas,” which I had to shrink down to 80% of the original size to fit the 2-page spread onto a single 8 1/2 by 11 inch sheet of copy paper:

              I’m sorry.  I
              got confused
              so I thought
              I’d just give
              you the 2
              troublesome volumes
              to look at.
              Seeing is believing.
      so i turned it into speculative fiction

  15. mimi

      i want to print out that poem and fill in the O’s with a tongue-touched pencil-stub – it has a lot of O’s in it

  16. mimi

      When I was in high school I checked Stendhal’s The Red and the Black out of the public library to read over the summer. At the end of the book, next to the line “… alone in her draped carriage, without anyone knowing, she carried on her knees the head of the man whom she had loved so much” someone had written in the margin “and a ham salad sandwich for lunch”. True story. I’ll never forget that.

  17. sarah san

      really great/lovely article. i feel good. 

  18. David

      In a returned copy of “French Women Don’t Get Fat”, I found a restaurant packet of sugar used as a bookmark.

  19. Feelingpauly

      i once left my passport in a book at shakespeare and company. True Story. 

  20. Feelingpauly

      actually, did anyone find it?

  21. Micaela

      I ordered Paradise Lost used from Amazon and it was full of some girl’s notes from her 12th grade Lit class. I looked her up and found her on Facebook.

  22. Anonymous

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  31. Merzmensch

      Best thing I did to the books: I’ve just saved ca. 200 books from beeing wasted (sic!). An University Library was about to throw away the whole library of the Slavic Studies Institute! Imagine this modern autodafé. I saved:
      1) first publication of Pasternaks “Doctor Zhivago” (Feltrinelli Edition)
      2) many samizdat and tamizdat editions
      3) Soviet newspapers and magazins from 1950ies and 1960ies.
      4) many another unique books

      Worst: I couldn’t take the complete edition of Leo Tolstoy in 90 volumes. I’m sorry Leo. 

      P.S. I’d love to write for HTMLGiant about this cultural catastrophic everyday in Germany.