Another thing about secondhand books is you sometimes discover interesting personal inscriptions inside them, like this one: “My darling Laura Jo,” begins the dedication inside Christopher de Vinck’s essay collection Songs of Innocence and Experience. “I will begin praying that the Holy Spirit kick my backside if necessary to remind me that all else fades to the comfort, the love, the sharing, the closeness to God that I feel when you are in my arms….” I’ll stop there. The rest of it is just too personal to recount.
But aside from inscriptions such as this simply serving to pique my interest, I’m always troubled to discover them. And I’ll tell you why.
On one hand, thrift stores remind me of the interconnectedness of humanity. It’s as though past owners – their very lives breathed into the things they’ve discarded – live on as the items are passed from one person to another. On the other hand, these secondhand shops remind me of the “throwaway culture” of which Pope Francis often speaks. They also remind me of how easily heartfelt gifts are abandoned. And therein lies the rub.
Granted, not all gifts are gifts in the fullest sense of the word. There are many things we give others halfheartedly, and there are many things given to us in the same way. But discarding a book containing a personal inscription dedicated to the one giving it away troubles me. It’s different than giving up, say, just any piece of furniture someone bought for us at a big-box store that has no meaning attached to it.
Take the following example, found in Scenic Wonders of America, which I purchased for $0.50: “Merry Christmas Daddy, Love You Always, Les & Gloria.” And this one, in The Perfect Storm, which I also bought for $0.50: “X-mas 2011. Dear Ryan – To our “family Fisherman” – Enjoy! Love, Uncle Paul, Aunt Heather & Aryana.”
I don’t know about you, but I’d be hard-pressed to give up a book my family dedicated to me. Did the men to whom the books are addressed die and that’s how the books ended up at the thrift shop? Did the men get rid of the books after they finished reading them? Did they even get past the first chapter?
Take another inscription, found in Robert Bly’s Morning Poems: “19 April, 1997. To Sue, On the occasion of your graduation. With Love, Terry.” Now, I realize Bly’s poetry is usually incomprehensible, but still – it was a thoughtful gift. I doubt it was given to a person who didn’t like poetry. Nobody gifts a poetry book to someone who doesn’t like poetry.
Gifts as communion
Recently, I helped my dad clear out my grandfather’s house. He died last year after a battle with Alzheimer’s. Before selling most household goods in an estate sale, we set aside various items of sentimental value for ourselves and posterity. In sifting through the many items in the house, one thing stood out to me: my grandparents kept the many personal gifts they received from family and friends over the years, including a cross I gifted them nearly twenty years ago, as well as a personally inscribed cutting board my dad gave his mother on Mother’s Day when he was a child. Call it sentimental, but I believe holding on to such gifts reflects a basic human decency.
What’s more, heartfelt gifts are an extension of family and friends, and we in a sense enter into communion with the givers of these gifts by holding on to them. In discarding books that friends and loved ones were once thoughtful enough to dedicate to us, we essentially give away something of that communion. And that’s what troubles me.
Of course, I realize there are times when a love interest writes in a book a personal inscription to someone and the relationship ends, resulting in the book being discarded at some point. But as a general rule, books containing heartfelt personal inscriptions addressed to us should not be hauled to the thrift store.
Years from now, after my wife and I are gone, I hope our son will pull Snug House, Bug House! off his bookshelf, open it and read the inscription once addressed to him by a friend of his grandmother. When he does, he’ll know the book was not meant for a stranger, but “For Charlie, Because snuggles are wonderful.”