In love with second hand books

A friend of mine recently sent me a Christmas present of a book by Vladamir Nabakov which I’m currently enjoying reading for the rich prose and the captivating story. But what I loved most about the book was that it was second hand, it’s pages mostly yellowed, the name of a previous owner scrawled in the top right hand corner of the inside cover. (Charming in old second hand books but frowned on in new!)

I read wonderful post recently about the a woman who is spending time documenting the smell of books . She quotes research that decided that books had a “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.”

And yes, when I lift up my book to smell it I can get the mustiness and the vanilla. But what got me so excited when I first opened the package and realised the book was second hand was all the resonances and memories that were released, the ultimate feeling of pleasure at being in a second hand book store.

I like many others remember the wonderful Winding Stair bookshop on Dublin’s quays which as it name suggests wound up and up many levels on some of which you could partake in refreshments such as soup and coffee. Or another shop no longer in existence not far from Trinity College that I perused over twenty years ago, looking for an extraordinary find in the dim and dusty shelves. Or in Bantry purchasing a first edition Steinbeck ‘The Wayward Bus’ from a marvellous store. Or in Califonia’s gorgeous Pacific Grove a book store with coffee and lovely things to eat.

But in these second hand stores it’s about the smell and feel of the books, the vanilla, the giving texture, about the publication history, the trail of ownership, rummaging through boxes or scanning dusty shelves, the thrill of uncovering a hard to find novel of one of your favourite authors, of rescuing something reaching the end of its print run and bringing it home.

Visiting a second hand bookstore or receiving a second hand book is a journey through time, love and memory, and really one of life’s genuine pleasures that I hope we can hold onto into the future.

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6 comments

  1. I agree there is something fantasic and alluring about second hand books. I recently found an Anne Rice novel about Jesus that I had not read, or for that matter, even known about for 25 cents.

  2. Oh I just love second hand book shops – and not the organised ones like what charity shops have become but the ones in odd places, with towers of books and cardboard boxes on the floor. Creased spines and browned page edges, beautifully out of date artwork and yes that smell – the smell of mystery and adventure and love and fragments of other people’s lives imprinted onto the pages like faded sepia.

    My favourite find in one of these treasure troves was a narrow spined collection of short stories by Robert Louis Stephenson featuring The Murder Club which I hadn’t even heard of. What made it really special though was that the stories had been refactored to be set in modern day America – or 70s America as that was when the book was from.

  3. I agree Alison. I love second hand books. Especially poignant are ones with inscriptions of love…makes me wonder how they ended up been given away? And the covers of old penguin editions are so wonderful. It adds to the feeling of entering a whole new world when the book has a history too. Hope you have a good christmas and that 2011 brings you all you wish for!

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