Barry Newman writes a delightful article for the WSJ on the jetsam and flotsam of other people’s lives that wash up in used books. Subscription is required, so youâ€™ll find a chunk excerpted after the jump.
Excerpt from Barry Newmanâ€™s â€œAt Used-Book Stores, Unintended Mysteries Are Often the Best Sellersâ€:
At the Strand — New York’s oldest and biggest independent used-book seller — the most gripping
finds produce new enigmas. Adam Davis, a 25-year-old from Oregon, took a job as a Strand clerk when he came to New York three years ago to write fiction. One day, he opened a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, “A Distant Mirror,” and discovered a birth certificate. The baby’s father was listed as “not known.” An attached rider, dated years later, named the father.
Wrapped inside the certificate was a snapshot of a woman posing nude in a motel room, and one, in black-and-white, of what appeared to be the same woman as a child. There were some traveler’s-check receipts, and the stub of a train ticket, issued shortly after the date on the rider, for a trip to the town where the birth certificate was issued.
“It’s as if the book picked up a new story,” says Mr. Davis. “I’m not sure I want to know the whole truth. The suppositions are so interesting.” The fiction he has been writing since coming to work at the Strand, he says, has been about “the previous owners of books, based on the traces they left in them.”
Novelist A.S. Byatt did the same in “Possession,” which begins with a letter left in an old tome. Novelist David Bowman extended the theme: He deliberately filled a first edition of his novel “Let the Dog Drive” with letters from publishers rejecting it, and then sold it to the Strand. “They gave me a good price,” Mr. Bowman says.
I also recommend checking out OGICâ€™s post on this story. In it she uses her pseudonymous cover to relate some of her own Found experiences:
I live in a university neighborhood where everyone is constantly publishing books and giving them to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. You might think that if you lived in such a place you would have the tact to sell your books out of state, or at least in a different part of town. But it’s relatively common to turn up a volume at Powell’s by a local author that has been warmly inscribed to someone residing in the same eight-by-eight-block area who apparently thanked the giver, turned around, walked up the street, and converted the book into cold, hard cashâ€”or even (shudder) credit towards other books.
(Thanks to Beat Royalty for the article.)