The Many Lives of Used Books

In my parent’s room, underneath my mother’s dresser is a makeshift bookshelf. In it sit three worn-out books, away from the rest of their paper-backed brethren in the study, quiet and unassuming in their senile state. I call these three the crown jewels of my mother’s collection, for all three of these senior citizens  –  a Milton, a Shakespeare, and a Chamber’s dictionary – are over a hundred years old.

My parents were neither collectors of vintage books nor antique enthusiasts. Growing up, for them, buying used books had a purely utilitarian appeal – that is to say, they were way cheaper than new books. Being hungry readers, the two, over the many years since the days of their adolescence, have ended up amassing quite the collection.

These browning pages, with their scents (you know the one), were my introduction to the world of reading, and perhaps that is why my love for books is entwined with my love for second-hand books.

But it’s more than just the vintage aesthetics, and the smell that draw me to them. It’s the enigma, the little pieces of strangers’ lives that they carry.

Used books hold multiple stories between their pages – the story they tell, and the ones they don’t. It’s the finding of little scribbles and underlined sentences. It’s the signatures – people proudly claiming it with their names, and dates, and addresses, only to give them away at some point. It’s the new names written over crossed off old ones.

It’s the shared experience, like receiving postcards from strangers across the world – except it’s across time as well.

Also read: A Brief History of Reading: The Innate Joy of Second-Hand Books

For instance, in my mother’s 109-year-old copy of Paradise Lost is a little dialogue; messages written by two people who owned the book at different times.

Used books give you little pieces of a puzzle that, for all you know, doesn’t exist anymore, dropping into your palms tiny slivers of the lives they once knew.

I sometimes wonder about the girl who cut out the picture of Sunil Gavaskar from a newspaper, and carefully tucked it between the pages of her Mills and Boons  –  that now has my mum’s name on it  –  with a note at the back, feeling the need to specify that when the picture was taken, he was ‘not captain’.

Or of the person who, on the third page of my copy of Love Story, warns me that the Erich Segal book is ‘garbage’.

Also, there are the very useful notes by the person who dissected parts of Merchant of Venice in the margins of my mother’s 126-year-old Complete Works of Shakespeare. Helped me with a book review back in school, that one.

Like looking at the back of an old library book and finding issue-dates from the 50s and 40s, it’s the thrill of holding something that has lived so many lives, been seen so many times, known better days and worse, sat on nightstands and bookshelves, in cartons and trunks, traveled across stores, cities, continents.

Maybe it’s the fact that these are novelties for me, rather than a constraint, that lets me see the whimsical romanticism in them. For my parents, they were just books they needed, books they could afford, paperbacks they liked that were available at throwaway rates of Rs 3 and Rs 5. To me, they’re akin to little message-in-a-bottles, that I could spin endless stories around.

The pandemic induced lockdown, on top of the boom of e-readers in the last decade, has left the print and publishing industry in a crisis. With hardcopy prints itself becoming an endangered breed, second-hand books and bookstores are fast vanishing.

Although they may be on life support, they’re still breathing.

A little exploration around your city could lead you to treasure troves of used book stores tucked away in street corners. Not only do these quaint little stores give you the perfect setting to while away Sunday afternoons, depending on their selection, they could also take you on countless adventures (at dirt cheap prices).

So if you’re tired of screens, or are looking to replenish your bookshelves, consider going second hand. Not only will you be doing the planet a favour, but you might also end up finding stories other than the ones promised by the blurb.

Anoushka Rajesh is a student of history who writes instead of studying, because it gives her the illusion of productivity while procrastinating actual work.

All images used have been provided by the author.