"Some give more of themselves to the books than others, letting part of their life, loves, thoughts all become an inextricable part of what is now on my shelf"Olivia Lisle

I flip open the front cover of the book. It has just come in the mail and the pages are frayed. Glancing over the top right-hand corner as if it means nothing to me, not sure what I’m looking for, I see a scribble of a name that is not mine, on a page of a book that was someone else’s a few months ago. It now belongs, bookmarks, doodles and fading letters and all, to me.

Something catches me off-guard about this scribble, though. Under the unfamiliar name is a familiar word: Medwards. It takes me a moment to realise that this book belonged to someone who studied in another Cambridge college. Somehow, this random Penguin classic secondhand book that I bought for not much cheaper than the original, has circulated its way from Medwards, from the hands of a stressed-out English student, past book depots and warehouses, and back in the hands of an equally stressed-out English student at Emma. Did the previous owner read it efficiently or slog through it? Did she complain about it to her friends and shed a tear or two on those darkened page corners or did she hold it excitedly with one hand while gesticulating with the other, talking passionately about it? I don’t know, at least not yet.

“Slowly, I think, I can maybe get to really know something about the previous owners”

With books, as with clothes and other items, my ‘second-hand’ possessions fall into different categories. Belongings given to me by (read: taken from) my mum, I consider to be passed down; Depop forms a category of its own (I know the name and reviews of the previous owner but only superficially); the third category includes things I find in second-hand stores and on websites that sell second-hand books. These are my favourites. I know nothing about the owners, there could have been multiple of them, all equally unaware of their predecessor. Sometimes, I like to imagine that my second-hand last collection Zara dress from the thrift store opposite Emma has been passed down by generations of fashionable women, or that my faded, musty copy of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence has travelled from Istanbul through multiple, heartwarming exchanges. And then, stepping out of these clouds of improbability, I open the pages of my second-hand books to see tiny scribbles and compulsive underlinings, undone earmarks and encircled words. All I want to do is go over them, tracing lightly with the outer edge of my finger to feel the palimpsest of emotions that have floated over this one page. Slowly, I think, I can maybe get to really know something about the previous owners.

Some give more of themselves to the books than others, letting part of their life, loves, thoughts all become an inextricable part of what is now on my shelf. A collection of poems by Fernando Pessoa begins with a dedication put down in thoughtful blue ink. It says:

Cambridge 6/10/2011

For Colin,

My poetical friend


It is signed off in a scribble too careful for me to discern. In using a pen it seems, to me, that the friend is declaring their unashamed, permanent commitment and love for Colin. How did this end up in a second-hand pile? Did the scribble give too much, only to be discarded by the poetical friend or did the poetical friend appreciate the gesture so much that he passed it on once he was done reading Pessoa’s poems? Is there a sad or happy story to be heard before I dive into the book itself? My favourite excerpt from this book is from the poem ‘The Tobacco Shop’, where Pessoa writes: ‘And nothing. And will never be anything / I cannot want to be anything / But leaving that aside, I have in me / All of the dreams of the world’. It captures quite perfectly what a second-hand book is — it’s just a book in one sense, but, in another, it is a collection of dreams that now belong to whoever reads through them. Pessoa was famous for his use of different heteronyms, which is why I first got interested in his work; he writes under different names, making up intricate identities for each one. Pessoa would have enjoyed, I think, the idea that many different names have owned this book, dedicated to just one.

“Nothing we touch can truly remain free of markers of our brief interactions”

I love annotations, little thoughts that people had when they read the same words I’m reading, and they are always so different. Sometimes, there are long lines of analysis evoked by the text in front of them, and other times (no, this is totally not me) sleep-deprived comments in which a long paragraph describing different kinds of food is encircled and, insightfully, annotated with ‘the author talks about food’ — I feel quite bad sometimes for whoever pays for my second-hand books.

Library books are usually different, hand held and coffee stained, but free from annotations apart from the occasional line begun and ended halfway through (again, not me) on remembering the library books are borrowed, not owned. But, one past reader of a book I was pouring over at 11pm, deep in the middle of an essay crisis, had written notes on a piece of paper and forgotten the paper in the middle of the book. It probably served as a bookmark and as a way to take notes without writing on the book pages. For me, it was a piece of a reader left behind in a book that is meant to remain unmarked, a reminder that nothing we touch can truly remain free of markers of our brief interactions.

Not all selves left behind are this expressive but, somehow, they are all meaningful. A note left behind in my copy of Much Ado About Nothing has careful calculations on one side, started off in red ink and then overlined in black ink when the red ran out. It seems haunting that I can confidently say this, but it is one of the few things about the note I can discern. The handwriting is really close to my mother’s, reminding me of the post-it notes she leaves scattered across the house with important reminders left to the unlikely chance of us finding them. But, I know it's not her handwriting because the other side of the note has reminders, the first of which is ‘Emma’, the fifth ‘Lunch’ and the last, ‘Sleep’. I think how lucky Emma is, to be the first person who came to the writer’s mind, before food and sleep and all other necessary functions of life.


Mountain View

Reclaiming solitude

As I flip through my copy of Kundera, with a dedication that says ‘Dear sir, thank you for helping me grow up…’, I see another note fall out. It is from some friends, wishing me luck for uni, which I had used as a bookmark and then forgotten about. As the note fell out, all I wanted to do was preserve it within the frayed edges of the book and hope it never left it, even if the book left me. Sometimes, forgetting can be an act of love.

‘For my dear Johnny, on your birthday’ (24th August – I didn’t know anyone with that birthday until now) says the front page of my copy of Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. I think of how, with this one-line birthday wish, the book is dedicated to Johnny, as though Cohen writes for him. One of Cohen’s poems goes:

’The light came through the window

Straight from the sun above

And so inside my little room

There plunged the rays of love

In streams of light I clearly saw

The dust you seldom see

Out of which the nameless makes

A name for one like me’

And so, Johnny, Colin, Sir, Graham, Anna, E.L.H. and Alison, thank you for the little pieces of your love you have shared in these books. If I started buying second-hand books because they were far cheaper, I know I prefer them now because they tell me stories beyond the book I buy. They make me feel warm and loved even when everything in my coursework text feels alien to me. Someone has read this before me, someone has loved this before me. Whether or not they were meant to end up in the room of a messy girl who can keep only her bookshelf looking pretty, I don’t know. But I promise to love them, name them, coffee-stain them just a bit, and then pass the love along.