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Our Reading Lives

How To Find Weirdly Specific Books Online

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Alex Luppens-Dale

Contributor

Alex Luppens-Dale won the “Enthusiastic Reader Award” all four years of high school. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her favorite genres are memoir, witches, and anything with cults. She lives in New Jersey. You can keep up with Alex's latest work at her website.

I am very good at finding things on the internet. I am not at a professional level, I’m not a detective or a librarian — I am merely a gifted amateur who sometimes gets bored at night and likes to issue herself challenges. I have found the current employer of someone I attended school with when I was six. I have found the side hustles of people I’ve worked with through the years. I would never actually do anything with this information. I just like to know things. 

Like many people, it seems like I read a lot more when I was younger. I had what I now think of as a kind of magical relationship with my middle school’s library and what felt like infinite time to find weird books there. The collection was eclectic and I went through a stage in which I would purposely pick out the longest books I could find so that I always had something to read. I have written previously about finding Flowers in the Attic in that library, but I also fell in love with more age-appropriate (if decidedly vintage) books like Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell is Cast and The Court of the Stone Children (both of which I’ve hunted down copies as an adult), The Scarlet Pimpernel, and, most pertinently to this article, an abridged edition of Les Misérables. I was in middle school in the early 2000s. It was peak wizard time, and I was extremely into that too, but these books circulated so seldom that it felt like they belonged just to me. A lot of my identity as a reader was built in that space.

One of the ways I return to that feeling is with some of the books I discovered at that time. But it’s not always enough to get the book I need. I need the book, as close to the version I remember reading as possible, whether that’s an out-of-print cover variation or a version that was specifically made for libraries. The tangible objects, even if they’re not exactly the same ones, connect me to my former self — the kid who pulled an old book with a French title off of a library shelf and decided to bring it home. 

If you’re looking to reconnect with a book from your past, here are some suggestions as to how to make that happen.

The Book Finding Game

For me, it starts with a challenge. “Can I find that weird abridged edition of Les Misérables with the ‘real people pictures?’” Of course I can. If I can’t find it, how can I be a person who can find anything on the internet? It’s now a matter of honor. 

First, you must know what you’re looking for. If you’re missing vital information about your desired book (perhaps the full title) there are communities on Reddit where people with absolutely amazing recall can help you.

Once you’re sure what you are looking for,  an ISBN is your best friend if you are lucky enough to have it. ISBNs became standard in the late 1960s and every edition of a book has its own ISBN, including all versions of hardcovers and paperbacks, which is very helpful when you’re seeking out a particular cover to complete your collection to avoid the dreaded un-matched series on your shelf. However, in the case of my Les Misérables, which (I would later find out) was published a couple of decades before the ISBN became standard, I had to get creative. This wasn’t a rare and valuable book to anyone but me, so it was going to be a true challenge.

I remembered that it was a purple hardcover (it was not) and that it had an illustration of Jean Valjean with silver candlesticks on the front cover. I also remembered the “real people pictures,” which it took me far too long to realize had to be stills from a black and white movie. The movie, I thought, could be a key to figuring out when the book was published, which would help me to narrow down the edition.

Do you know how many movie adaptations of Les Misérables there have been? This was not as helpful as I thought it was going to be.

As I began my search, I filtered Les Misérables a dozen ways on AbeBooks but the likely candidates had no pictures. I like AbeBooks because it seems to have more filtering options than other sites I’ve tried and a lot more of the listings on the site have pictures. I am often able to break my search down to only a page or two of results rather than the dozens that will come up elsewhere. I will usually filter by binding type (hardcover vs. paperback) and then sort by price to try to keep things reasonable. With a common title with many versions this is less helpful than usual.

Having struck out slightly here, I then searched Google for “les miserables for children” and “les miserables film illustrations abridged.” Surprisingly, the latter led me to a listing on eBay where I found the name of the people who had adapted the book, which opened up a whole world of possibilities. Never underestimate just happening upon just the right search term on Google. Sometimes you get lucky.

Image of the author of this post's copy of Les Miserables.

Once I’ve found the book, the game changes to finding the best possible edition at a reasonable-for-me price point. This sometimes leads to questions like would I prefer a small rip in the dust jacket or what might be a spot of mold? (I will take the rip every time). It’s all part of the game. In this case, there were three copies available and one was basically new (keep in mind that this book was published in 1947 and was available for the extremely reasonable price of $20). I’ll usually see if I can find the book on eBay, AbeBooks, and even sometimes Amazon (but, again, the lack of pictures of the specific item on Amazon usually does not work for me).

My system is chaotic at best but I always get my man book. I am the Inspector Javert of the book-finding game and every book is my Jean Valjean. This version of Les Misérables, while abridged, wasn’t necessarily written for middle schoolers. I can’t say how much I truly would have understood if I hadn’t already been familiar with the musical, but it opened a door — I would eventually write my undergraduate thesis largely about the ideas of revolution in that book and in other 19th century French novels. I never really expected to see it again and I smile every time I look at it. It was well worth the $20.

Hunting for books in this way is not even something I do all the time, but, every so often, the thought will come, “I wonder if I could get…” and I’m off on the hunt.