Monday, November 30, 2009

The things we find (literally) inside books

One of my favorite places in the entire world is the clearance section at Half Price Books (any Half Price Books, really, but the clearance section inside the Westport location is the best around). I love used books and used bookstores. Not only can you find amazing deals (no book over $3 in the clearance section!), but it's fascinating to flip through books that have been owned and read by somebody else. I'm sure somebody could write a whole book on the inscriptions found inside the front covers at a used bookstore (hey, that's not a bad idea).

Oftentimes I'll find things inside the books. Little scraps of paper. Matchbook covers stripped of the matches. Receipts. Postcards. They help to date and place the book and assign it in my mind to a specific reader.

Just now I'm cleaning up the wreckage in my study from one of my cats jumping on the top shelf of a bookcase and knocking the contents on the floor (that's for another post). One of the books that fell off was Mark Harris' "Diamond," which includes selected baseball writings by the author of the Henry Wiggen series. It even contains the complete screenplay to the movie version of "Bang the Drum Slowly." I bought it several months ago and stuck it up on the shelf.

As I prepared to slide the book back in its place, a long, narrow piece of paper fell out.

Across the top are the words "WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES." It's a customs declaration form from the Department of the Treasury, U.S. Customs Service.

The form was printed in 1995, but that doesn't really help to "date" the reader. The Customs Service might still be using this form. But it helps paint a picture of the reader. He or she is obviously an international traveler. The form is blank, so who knows if he declared anything at customs or if he just picked up the form to use as a bookmark. The book itself, which I purchased for $2, is in pristine condition, so the traveler either took good care of his books or he didn't read this one very much.

So I'll tuck the customs form back in the book, where it belongs. To me, the customs form is part of the book now. Maybe when I get around to reading it, I'll use the form as a bookmark.

To me, that customs form makes the book infinitely more valuable. And it makes me eager to go back to the clearance section and find what else is tucked between the pages.

--Matt Kelsey

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