A question for all you book-gobblers, particularly those who favour second or twenty-second-hand books: Is it pleasing to know the names of all previous owners, or would you rather that the book’s past life were couched in mystery?
I once bought a book that had listed, inside the front cover, fourteen names. The first owner of the book had clearly taken it upon herself to start a tradition, writing neatly at the top of page ‘I, Cressida Taylor, owned this book between April 1981 and December 1983. I read it three times’. The second reader shortly followed suit: ‘I, Nicholas Lord, owned this book between December 1983 and February 1984. I read it once’.
From then on, every one of thirteen subsequent readers left a similar note, including this starkly honest offering: ‘I, Jemina Ray, owned this book between December 1987 and July 1996. I never read past the first chapter. Sorry’. For whom was this apology intended? Future readers, or the book itself? The admission was, nevertheless, intriguing. Jemina clearly owned the book longer than all previous owners, but gave it the least concentration. Which is not to say that the book wasn’t part of her life – it sat patiently on her shelf for almost a decade, watching her grow – though its duties, of course, remained light. It was never called upon to shed all of its words upon her soul.
Jemina’s story tickles me as a reader. I’ve made it up, admittedly: I know nothing, in reality, about her life, save the fact that she once owned this book and, if we can trust her word, read only a single chapter. But the name is something: a gorgeous glimpse into one of the book’s many past lives.
This book is, however, a rarity. I doubt that many of the other books I own have had as many as fourteen previous owners, though I suspect that one or two may have had as many as twenty. Do I regret not knowing the names of these people? Our imaginations often need a spark to catch fire, and a list of names can certainly provide this. On the other hand, a list of names is just that. It tells us very little about the adventures the book has been through: the good days, the bad days, and the merely indifferent. All those hours sitting on the bedside table, wondering whether they would ever be picked up again. The moments of ecstatic pleasure when they were, at last, taken into a reader’s hands. And the tragedy of being tossed onto the floor in frustration.
It’s a tough life, being a book.