Tuesday 14 September 2010

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

"What's the point of pursuing apparently distorted 'readings' of the novel - i.e. Marxist/feminist?

AO4 expects you to acknowledge the effect the book has on different audiences - especially ones not guided by English teachers. (The teacher's reading is influenced by need for clarity - a key to help write quick fix essays)

Also helps us avoid over-simplifying - there is no need to distinguish between our/my
sense & sensibility reading and the intentions/character of the author; the former suggests a fairly dry/conservative figure; but how does this tally with her appetite for humour/nonsense and biographical sources.'

The above words were part of a typed note left in my copy of Jane Austen's 'Emma', sandwiched between the last page and the book's back cover. The text was longer but I've edited it for the purpose of this column. The words were not the only sign that betrayed the novel's second-hand bookshop look. Little scribblings, some less illegible than others, adorned the margins of the pages. The cover was slightly tattered.

Notes in passed-down books tell their own story. Over the years I have been exposed more and more to such tales as I have become a regular user of amazon.co.uk marketplace. Have you ever wondered why the previous owner highlighted that particular section in the book you're now holding? Or why did she or he circle that one specific word?

The note in my copy of 'Emma' did not make any sense to me. But that's because it wasn't intended to be read by me. Like Crusoe's sudden realisation that there was human life on the island he inhabited (even if it was just cannibals visiting his abode on a regular basis to kill and eat their prisoners) the only connection I was able to make with that other person was through a common bond of humanity. Footprints on a page. Speculation was another nexus, too. Reading the little-more-than hieroglyphics on the margins of the book prompted me to make up a mental image of this fellow Austen enthusiast. She was probably a woman, and here I was following the decades-old cliché that dictated that most readers of the Brontë sisters and Austen were female. Shame on me, but let's carry on, shall we? She was probably in her late thirties or early forties, financially independent, liberal-minded and interested in feminist issues. Her age was chiefly determined by linguistic factors. The language she used pointed at someone who was comfortable with the English vocabulary as opposed to those cardigan-tuggers and navel-gazers one encounters nowadays who pepper their conversations with words such as 'so', 'like' and 'kinda/sorta' instead of 'somehow/somewhat'. I pictured her as someone who was not slave to fashion (she probably used charity shops) but who wouldn't mind coughing up a bit for one of this season's apparently must-have items: a Cropped Military Jacket from Selfridges.

It's very likely that one of the reasons why I enjoyed 'Emma' better this time around (I first read it in uni and didn't like it at all) was because there was a subplot running alongside it that brought out the Sherlock Holmes in me. How else to react when you're reading a passage that has been underlined with the caption 'piss-taking' next to it?

That's the beauty of second-hand books as I've learnt over the years. And of second-hand CDs, too. I remember last December that when I ordered a copy of Aziza Mustafa Zadeh's 'Seventh Truth' I received a message from the seller telling me how much he and his girlfriend loved the record and the only reason they were parting with it was that they had an extra copy. I e-mailed him back telling him that I loved Aziza's music and that my two favourite albums by her were ' Dance of Fire' and 'Always'. He then replied to my missive saying that those two were his favourite ones, too. Needless to say I gave him a five-star rating on amazon.co.uk marketplace.

Like a message in a bottle, whose purpose is to reach out to the wider world, a book that has been previously owned carries a history hard to ignore. Those coffee/tea/food stains, telephone numbers scribbled down in a rush on a torn page and then left behind ('I'm sure that I wrote it somewhere, I know, I had my book in one hand and my mobile in the other'), highlighted passages to be re-read and analysed afterwards with the intention of being discussed online (yup, that's me); this is all part of the reading - and writing - experience. It's one of the reasons why I read and why I love buying second-hand books.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 16th September at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I love using and reading second hand books, too Cuban and for similar reasons. I particularly enjoy finding the odd train or plane ticket, a laundry coupon, or some other marker from the previous owner or reader.

    They are like traces of the past and add layers of meaning to the book, as you so beautifully describe here.

    Thanks, Cuban.

  2. I love second hand books! Like you say, there's the subplot of where the book has been and all the hands and minds it's passed through.


  3. How will this work in the age of ebooks? I've ordered a Kindle whick claims I can make, and share, margin notes. I acquired a secondhand guidebook for my upcoming trip to Holland: Amsterdam's red light district is highlighted...

  4. Such a fun post! I love finding little notes written in books. Often I feel like I understand exactly why they circled or underlined a word or phrase.

    I often give books away to libraries and wonder if some reader thinks the same when they find hidden secret messages left by me...

  5. You knew I would adore this post. The treasures found in second hand books truly are messages in bottles. Wonderful to see you at WM! I've missed you! xx

  6. "a message in a bottle"

    I am a frequent buyer of Amazon's used wares, but had never thought of the scribblings/stains/highlighting in quite this way. Thank you!

  7. No iPad or Kindle for me.

    Cuban, You bring second-had alive with "Those coffee/tea/food stains, telephone numbers scribbled down in a rush on a torn page and then left behind ('I'm sure that I wrote it somewhere, I know . . . . "

    Warm regards from Boston

  8. I don't know if I've ever bought a second-hand book. Now I'm curious to see some of these notes for myself.

  9. You must read the Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. It centers on an antique cookbook collection that is all the more valuable due to the eccentric collector’s notations. I always write my margin notes in pencil so I can erase them if I sell the book. I like to make my own impressions and assume others do too, but this post makes me think again.

  10. i love old books for that. discoveries the mystery in another readers perspective...the best book club known to man...

  11. I don't think Kindle or any other reading device will be able to replicate the same experience I have when I read a second-hand book. I am now re-reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" which I bought brand new in a bookshop and I've been surprised by how many 'foootprints' I left behind the first time I read it.

    Many thanks for your comments. Much appreciated.

    Greetings from London.

  12. Very interesting observations. As a writer,I have always been particularly persnictedy about my books. I like to own them and don't like borrowing from the library. I have many used books but have always ignored the footprints of previous owners. Books are very personal and I always felt as if I was eaves-dropping on someone else's conversations whenever I tried to figure out notes.

  13. Thanks, FlyGirl, for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  14. Wonderful post, Cuban! I frequent the half-price book store, which has used books along with new ones, more often than a regular one to buy books. A few times I came across messages scrawled on the books which told me that they were gifts from dear ones. Yet, here they were, in my possession now. What made the previous owners part with them?

    Also, when I misplace things like one of a pair of socks or a pen or a receipt, I like to imagine them having an altogether different existence in a parallel universe. Hmm... signs that I need a life? :-)



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