Marginalia, Bookmarks, Etc. Found in Books

swimming-lessonsIn two of the books I currently have on the go, items found in books are a key element. First there’s Swimming Lessons in Claire Fuller, in which one strand of the narrative is told via a series of letters Ingrid hid in various thematically relevant books from her husband’s overflowing collection before she disappeared 12 years ago.

I’ve also been skimming Reading Allowed, novelist Chris Paling’s book of mildly amusing anecdotes from his time working in a public library. As little interludes he records the items he’s found being used as bookmarks in library volumes: a postcard, a shopping list, a meal plan, a CV, and so on.

In my years working in bookshops and libraries I found lots of proper bookmarks left behind in books; this photo shows the ones I’ve kept (others I’ve given away, recycled or donated to the library basket).

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This doesn’t account for all the train tickets, receipts, newspaper clippings, etc. that were serving as makeshift bookmarks. The strangest thing I think I ever found in a book was an old-fashioned faux pearl-topped hatpin marking a place in a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s collected poems.

And then there are the written messages I’ve found in books: other people’s bookplates (I especially like the one that appears in the front of each volume of my 1919 Chapman & Hall set of the complete works of Dickens – such an enviable reward for good attendance!);

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a heartfelt message of friendship in the copy of May Sarton’s The Fur Person I got free from Book Thing of Baltimore;

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a young lady’s thoughts strewn across the selected poems of Ted Hughes;

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and a dead-simple recipe for a tropical fruit drink pencilled on the back cover of Patricia Volk’s memoir, Stuffed.

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For me, the random objects and messages you might find are all part of the fun of buying secondhand books.


What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found in a secondhand book?

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20 thoughts on “Marginalia, Bookmarks, Etc. Found in Books

    1. Ha ha! Yeah, I’ve found plenty of train tickets, but I just recycle them. Gil from Swimming Lessons insists on keeping everything he finds in books in place.

      I don’t find a lot of marginalia because I prefer not to read books people have written in (apart from a name inside the front cover, perhaps). If a secondhand book has a lot of pencil or — the horror! — pen and highlighter marks in it, I don’t buy it.

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      1. Would it be really terrible if I said that I still dog-ear my pages? It’s awful, I know! I just always lose my bookmarks and I’m really bad at breaking old habits. Please don’t hate me, haha!

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  1. Oh, Lord, the hatpin!

    I found an amazingly well-annotated copy of Tony Harrison’s poems in the JCR at university and took it away with me, only to realise a few days later that it was someone’s coursework. I wasn’t brave enough to confess – I just snuck back down and replaced it, and I think they must have found it again!

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  2. I work in a library so often find photos, shopping lists etc.
    Most exciting thing in a second hand book was a book by Laurie Lee with the great man’s signature inside. Didn’t know it was there when I bought it.

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  3. Wonderful finds, especially in The Fur Person and on The Thought Fox. (Could that be because they’re favourites of mine!) I have a post that will get written one day about a collection of Cornwall- related books I acquired last year. One includes a thank you note which accompanied the book and had been neatly pasted inside it. Although I didn’t get the book locally, it was sent originally to a large country house very close to us, still owned by the same family but sadly now converted into a luxury holiday home. A small part of me is tempted to offer the book to the family; it would blend in perfectly with the ambience of the house now. Perhaps when I’ve read it….

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    1. What a wonderful story! I’ll be interested to hear what becomes of the book.

      I do love the dedication letter written inside The Fur Person, especially how Carol writes her cursive “I”s.

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  4. What a lovely post! I recently found someone’s business card in the back of a book I was reading, but didn’t keep it. I love finding other people’s signatures and dedications in books I buy second-hand – I always add my name and the date and love adding to that list of owners.

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  5. What fun seeing all the things inside your books! It’s one of my favourite things about used books, too. It’s hard to completely hate Gil for this very reason!
    I don’t think I’ve found anything different or more unusual than what you’ve included in your post, but once I found someone’s math test in a library book, and wondered whether or not I should figure out a way to return it (it was fairly recent). I didn’t in the end – I hope she wasn’t desperately looking for it!

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