Found in Used Books

When I was a student, I used to spend a good amount of time in used bookstores. The attraction was partially the low prices, but it was also the randomness of what I would find. The books were often shelved or boxed alphabetically, by subject, or just in no order at all. One store that I frequented in my Rutgers College town of New Brunswick just had one side for fiction and another for non-fiction. Sometimes browsers did some sorting, making a shelf of textbooks, or putting poetry books off in one corner, for example.

Sometimes, I would pick up a book that had something left in it by the last reader. I found it intriguing in some cases to imagine who was that person and why they had left that item in there. A folded paper as a bookmarker is nothing special, but what about a love note, or a photograph of someone? I have saved several of my finds in the books where I found them.

All this came to mind when I heard a very brief NPR story about the things one library has found in returned books.

I looked into that Oakland Public Library collection that is online where they have classified things (remember, these are librarians) and posted, without comment, a lot of things.

Several of the ones I have found and saved are related to travel, such as airline ticket stubs. In both fiction and non-fiction, I have found 3X5 note cards that suggest someone who was writing a paper for school.

I don’t keep all my found-in-books objects in any formal collection. I went through my bookshelves this weekend and did find a few again that I had recalled. In a paperback of Ellison’s Invisible Man (not the sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells), I found a postcard photo of an embracing couple in the back of a car. On the text side of the card someone wrote “thinking of you.”

The photo is by Bruce Davidson in 1965. It is hard to tell the genders of the couple. Is it two men, women, a man, and a woman? They look both male to me. I don’t recall that Ellison was gay and I don’t recall much of the novel (read 45 years ago). But should the found card and the book that held it be connected?

I found in a used copy of John Updike’s short story collection Pigeon Feathers a payroll check stub and a receipt for the book from a Boston airport bookstore. I met Updike at a reading he gave at Seton Hall University and asked him to sign the book. I showed him the two found items and said “I always thought there must be a story and connection with the three found things.” He signed, smiled, and said “Why don’t you write it?”

I found a crumbled and partial Amtrak rail ticket from someone traveling near Washington, DC. It is dated “27APR17.” I found it bookmarking a copy of Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus which is his first book – a novella and five stories. It is an old book to be reading in 2017. Was someone starting out with Roth and working their way front to back or back to front with his books? Maybe they saw the movie version and so bought the book.

I found an entire packet of photos tucked into a copy of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest. Several of the photos show the same woman. There is a portion of her in the photo shown here. I had to think that this was an intentional insertion, thought the photos were in bad shape. They look like they had been left outside and were water-damaged and wet. Some of the photos have notes scribbled on the back that are difficult to read. Some day I will work my way through them and try to piece together some story. Is it connected to the book which is about Cheryl Strayed’s solo and cleansing thousand-mile+ hike on the trail from the Mojave Desert through California to Washington state?

My final examples for today are the six playing cards I found interspersed in a used copy of Doctor Strange Epic Collection, which collects the first comic book stories about one of the few Marvel characters that I actually have read and watched. This surgeon-turned-mystic superhero is different in these 1951-1968 stories from the Benedict Cumberbatch movie versions. I like both.

The playing cards are strange too. I haven’t been able to identify the game. They all have an island on the back and the fronts have a boulder, a sheep, some wheat, logs and bricks. They seem strange enough to be in a Dr. Strange book and the story in my mind has the cards being tucked in at some comic book store by a kid playing the game. Why did he give up the cards? Why were the cards placed between those twelve pages? I looked for clues. No answers.

Must there be connections between the books and the found objects? No, but I feel like there should be. Maybe the person who put the photos in Wild wasn’t the person who took those photos. Maybe they found the photos and put them in the book and then left both in the Little Library box in a park in Washington, D.C. where I found it. Then again, that too is a connection and story unwritten.

There is a magazine and website for found things in general. I picked up a copy of it when I was in Washington, DC. that was devoted to parking notes. Those are the notes left on a car windshield by someone probably complaining. “Please don’t park here unless you live here…”

I guess I am just one of many who have some fascination with things that have been found. Some were once lost. Some things seem to have been left intentionally. I suspect sometimes the book and objects have been deliberately put together to create a small mystery for someone like me.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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