Think Tank: Ephemera

A bookmark I found in a used book I bought -- I think a collection of Flannery O'Connor stories.
A bookmark I found in a used book I bought — I think a collection of Flannery O’Connor stories.

One of the reasons why I like to buy used books is that I can almost always count on it to come with some kind of ephemera. I find everything from receipts to indecipherable drawings to old boarding pass stubs tucked into the pages. I don’t mind at all– it’s a neat addition to an already great concept. I’m buying a used book from somewhere in the world, and it may come with a surprise. They’re obviously things someone inadvertently forgot to take out. The more I think about the ephemera I find, the more fascinating I find it.

Why was John Hoskins flying to Amsterdam? And how old is this stub? So. Many. Questions. 

In our everyday lives, we take these little bits of paper — receipts, scribbled notes to ourselves, handouts given to us on the street — for granted. That boarding pass I found in my new-to-me copy of Don DeLillo’s Underworld got someone from Los Angeles to Amsterdam. The drawing I found of what seems to be city streets in an Italo Calvino novel I bought to save money on class texts was maybe a set of directions, trying to help someone remember where something was. And in addition to these primary functions, this ephemera maybe had an additional one as a bookmark — a pause in reading. Or maybe the original owner of these books (or whoever had it before me) meant to save it and realized too late that it was gone, or maybe it was meant to be thrown away. I don’t know and will never be able to find out what these pieces of paper meant to the people who left them in the books, as the used book warehouses that sell them on the Amazon Marketplace or Thrift Books probably don’t know either.

Reader, why did you leave this receipt for a Calvino book in another Calvino book…?
…and what does this mean?

But in addition to what I found them in, these pieces of ephemera host a lot of unanswered questions. The boarding pass — Why did John Hoskins choose to read Underworld? Why was he going to Amsterdam, and why did he decide to get rid of the book? And the San Francisco Public Library receipt that has no name, with the words “Mullioned Mandrel” written on the back — why did you leave this receipt for Calvino’s Invisible Cities in another Calvino book? And why are you reading so much Calvino, and what is the significance of “Mullioned Mandrel”? Who were these people, and what did they think of the stories? Why did they decide to get rid of these books, and how many people’s hands did they pass through before they got to me?

I have tried so hard to figure out what these directions mean, but still have no idea.

I realize that I’m extrapolating much farther than I should on finding old pieces of paper in books I buy and asking way too many questions I can never have the answers to (#journalist), but then I wonder about me and what things I’ve left in books that are no longer mine. There may have been someone who wondered who Zoë Lance was, and why she wrote dumb notes in her books or left a receipt or bookmark inside the cover. And I have no idea how many people beyond me have had my old books in their possession, and what they thought of my coffee order or why I left this to-do list in a book I gave away. But I think that’s kind of magical. It reminds me that reading is a communal and networked effort, and that our life stories are told in many different mediums. The stuff left behind in the stories I’m reading further connect me to other people throughout the world. I think that’s important in a world that is becoming increasingly digital.

This is one of my favorite things I've found -- a card that fell out of a book I didn't end up buying at my club's used book sale, but couldn't resist keeping.
This is one of my favorite things I’ve found — a card that fell out of a book I didn’t end up buying at my club’s used book sale, but couldn’t resist keeping.

What I’m trying to say in a very roundabout sort of way is that we leave paper trails wherever we go that are part of bigger stories, and the ephemera we leave in books specifically ends up connecting readers to each other in a way that is both accidental and beautiful.  So remember that the next time you stick a Starbucks receipt or a note to yourself in a book to keep your spot. You may never know who may uncover it.

Have you ever found something interesting in a book you’ve bought? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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