To augment my collection of vintage cookery books, I am now the contented owner of The Apartment Vegetarian Cookbook (1978) by Lindsay Miller (Peace Press). Taking a coffee break, I sat to glance through it and out fell several fragments of paper. They were recipes, cut from a cardboard food packet and torn from tin cans, for soy loaf, lentil patties, and the like. Several are courtesy of Australian company Sanatarium Health Foods, so probably this book, written and published in the US, at some point made a long journey from America to the southern Pacific Ocean, to here in the UK.
I am mildly addicted to second-hand books. And it’s a small thrill, finding things inside, tiny clues and insights to other peoples’ lives, the letters, notes, recipes, photographs, postcards, receipts, and tickets, often used as improvised bookmarks. In an article on website Atlas Obscura last year, examples of such finds were collected and documented, including less pleasant items of bubblegum, boogers (snot), dead head lice, and, more commonly than one might imagine, desiccated strips of fried bacon. Yuck – the worst thing I have found between the pages has been apple pips, presumably spat out by the book’s previous owner as they blithely leafed through it. The nicest thing was probably some pressed flowers. And more happily, the above-mentioned article does list findings of historical newspaper cuttings, love letters, photos, and even a ineptly hidden sheet of LSD. Take a look here, there are some great examples, from the grisly (a dead pet goldfish) to the sweet (a four-leafed clover).
You wonder about the lives behind these finds, the conscientious health nut, the starry-eyed lover, the proud grandparent, and even the poor infested head scratcher (or, more likely, despairing mum, yet again combing a louse from the head of her school-aged child – been there!). And you are bonded, these people and you, in the same choice you made, of reading matter or of factual book to consult. Not to mention the wonder of the journey the book owner, or at least the book, has been on, to travel from Australia or the US, Patagonia, Japan or Tristan da Cunha to here – wherever you are in the world.
Or these found artefacts may be those of your own family, or even belong to you personally, forgotten or half-remembered until rediscovery, affording you a rear window into your heritage or back onto your own past self. Will it make you sentimental, the photo of your grandparents in their younger day, or cringe in horror, that yellowing photo of you with the ill-advised shaggy perm?
There’s that momentary curiosity, too, afforded by second-hand books that have inscriptions on the flyleaf, from the simple (Happy Birthday Mum!) to the more intriguing. ‘May this book accompany you on your journey, and may we meet again – if not in this life, then in the next’ is the inscription on a copy of Seamus Heaney’s poetry that I bought second hand (less glamorously, the volume is not very old!) Who wrote that? A lover in final farewell to their departing beloved, or a decidedly pretentious teen-ager? Some tomes feature a bookplate glued in at the front, a school prize, perhaps, or cataloguing a personal library.
I have several books from a largely forgotten —and not particularly nice—former boyfriend that I do not want to give away (the books, not the boyfriend) largely because they contain written dedications, and owning such fragments of even my own history feels a little bit splendid.
Other times a page is stamped, marking the book as ex-library stock or imprinted with the name of a school – there’s one here on the shelf, a history text called The Medieval Scene by R.J. Unstead, 1962, A&C Black Limited, stamped ‘Hartington School’, wherever that is. And you know, then, the book has been through many hands, some fascinated, some bored.
So what’s the best or worst thing you’ve ever found tucked into an old book, or the most intriguing inscription you have read in one?
Sarah Laskow, ‘The Best Things Found Between the Pages of Old Books’ in Atlas Obscura, February 218, retrieved 11 October 2019.
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