The Presence of Other Readers

In my last post, I wrote of a book in which the names of fourteen previous owners were carefully inscribed, allowing the imagination of the present reader (i.e. yours truly) to engage in charming speculations as to their personality and experience. Since then, I have been thinking about other ways in which the previous owners and readers of second-hand books reveal their presence.

For a start, there is conscious marginalia. Some readers treat margins like dogs treat lamp posts. They see this blank space on both sides of the page and think ‘Aha: this is my space! This is where I come in!’ And so they scribble all sorts of things: comments on the text, improvements on the text, drawings illustrating the text and, most frequently, thoughts that have very little to do with the text, and plenty to do with the addled mind of its reader. This is not to knock marginalia: it is a time-worn tradition, and mustn’t be frowned upon. On the other hand, a cluttered margin can be distracting. One likes to feel the presence of other readers, but one doesn’t necessarily need to know every last thing about them.

Personally I prefer unconscious marginalia: marks that were put there by other readers by mistake. I refer here to the countless smudges, stains and smells that readers tend to leave on books. These range from the common (wine, coffee, blood and semen) to the relatively rare (most of which are difficult to trace to one particular source). I have, other the years, collected several of the latter, peculiarly damaged books. One was, I can only presume, owned by a painter, for it is covered in multi-coloured stains. The other contains a series of dull smudges, which nonetheless let off the most charming smells; a different one for each page. Page thirty-four, for example, smells of lavender. Page two-hundred-and-fifteen, on the other hand, smells like smoked cheese. A book owned by a chef, perhaps?

Finally, let us speak of creases; of pages folded back, ripped, scratched, crumpled and then smoothed. An unread book is as inviting as a well-made bed. What, then, can we say of those people who favour second-hand books? That they like to crawl into other people’s unmade beds? If it is so, so it is. Reading is an intimate business at the best of times; a relationship between author and reader. Reading second or twenty-second-hand books, however, takes you one step further. It is relationship between author and multiple readers. It is an intimate, mysterious orgy.



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