Posted by: ktzefr | September 10, 2014

Five Treasures: secrets found in old books

I was browsing in the children’s section at the library the other day and saw this inscription in a book:


Fourteen years ago someone gave this book to her granddaughter.  Is the grandma still alive?  Was Katherine’s mom cleaning out closets after her daughter went away to college and tossed this tome in the giveaway bag?  Did Katherine even read the book?  Sad.

I buy old books.  I like the scent of bookstores that sell used books.  I peer through the glass cases at the “rare” and first editions, but I don’t buy those.  My loot includes mostly cheap copies of classics, short-story anthologies, memoirs and personal essays.   When a book has an inscription or dogears or notes in the margins it’s considered a treasure.

Some of my treasures:


1) “To my sweetheart, with love.” Signed —  Bill, May 26, 1942.  In Clifton Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked.  Did Bill and his sweetheart stay together?  Maybe years later her husband discovered the book, read the inscription, and donated it to some worthy charity.  Or perhaps it was found at an estate sale after Bill and his sweetheart/wife had died.

2) “Happy anniversary, and many more together.” Signed — Anna.  This is written on a business card, embossed with “Gus Blass Co.”  Gus Blass, I learned, was a department store founded in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1871.  The book — The Gathering Storm, by Winston Churchill.  A yellowed, glossy brochure inside with pictures of the “actors in this world drama,” referencing the 2nd World War with this quote: “How the English-speaking peoples of the world, through their unwisdom, carelessness and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm.”  Does history not continue to repeat itself?

3) A blue sticker inside the front cover says “This Book Belongs To Sidney Adams” with Sidney’s named typed.  I’ll bet he owned a lot of books and had someone type his name on a bunch of stickers.  It’s Erskine Caldwell’s Trouble in July.  Dogeared — “Katy Barlow, flushed and breathless, was so mad she could spit.  Tossing her hair out of her eyes…she drew her lips tightly against her teeth.  She wished she could turn into a man so she could do it all the better.  She thought of all the different ways she could spit if she were a man.”  Imagine that! 

4) This dogeared page got me to thinking about stuff.  Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living.  “I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness…”  Okay.  And a quote from another chapter, underlined in red, from Laotse, “Blessed are the idiots, for they are the happiest people on earth.”  Well, then…

5) I got a peek at my younger self in this one.  The book is The Hills Beyond by Thomas Wolfe.  It belonged to my in-laws.  There are no inscriptions or dogears or underlines.  I don’t know if anyone ever read it.  One chapter caught my attention — “The Battle of Hogwart Heights”  — Hogwarts?  I thought JK Rowling made up the name.  Anyway, my discovery was stuck in this book — a couple of letters.  One from me, one from my husband, written the same week, stuffed into the same envelope, four decades ago.  

We had just moved into an old house in Kentucky that had been divided into two apartments.  My letter: the house is very roomy, the furniture antique, and there’s a small yard for Quincy (the dog).  My husband’s letter: the temps dropped, pilots haven’t been lit, and we are cold; the enrollment at the college is down; he lost the beaters to our hand mixer and a second mixer (wedding gift) burned out the first time we used it.  The warranty has expired.

I’m still the optimist; he’s still the pessimist.  Some things don’t change. 




  1. “Old Books Smell Of: A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying muskiness.”
    ― Chemists of the University College London

    • OK 🙂

  2. I, too, love to look for inscriptions in old books. I would never toss a book that had a personal inscription, nor give away any one of my kids’ books who had something personal written in it.

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