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Forgotten Notes: Inscriptions Found in Used Books

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Zoe Dickinson

Staff Writer

Zoe Dickinson is a poet and lover of language, as well as a newly minted librarian with her MLIS from Dalhousie University. She now lives in Victoria, B.C., where she works at Canada's largest used bookstore, and gradually adds to her vast cardigan collection. Zoe is a literary omnivore, devouring everything from ancient poetry to contemporary romance to science fiction. The only genre she doesn't read is horror, because she is kind of a wimp. If Zoe had a superpower, it would be the ability to walk and read without bumping into anything. Her two favourite places are the beach and the library. Twitter: @zoeidadickinson

As a bookseller who deals primarily with used books, I see a broad slice of humanity: both in the customers I serve, and the books I sell. One of my favorite things about used books are the traces left by previous owners. Old bookmarks, notes in the margins, and most of all, inscriptions. I’ve seen my share over the years. I wish I had recorded more of these little snippets of personality! There simply isn’t time in the daily bustle of work, and I seldom remember to come back outside of work hours and snap a picture. I have managed to photograph a few of my favorites, though.

Like this person’s extremely enthusiastic notes on a copy of The Secret Path by Dr. Paul Brunton:

If I someday write a passage that even one reader somewhere thinks is important enough for underlining, shiny star stickers, AND a sparkly dolphin sticker, I can die happy. Life goals!

Or this inscription in a copy of Darkness Visible by a long-suffering book-lender:

Inscription that reads: “Bianca – ’95. Please return this book – it’s the 3rd one I’ve bought.”

Bianca – ’95. Please return this book – it’s the 3rd one I’ve bought.

Sorry, Bianca. Since the book ended up in my hands, I’m guessing the third copy was not the charm.

My all-time favorite, at least of the ones I’ve documented, is this one:

A map with a hand drawn sea monster


How adorable is that? And at the same time, a little bloodthirsty. The innocent sailors go about their business, singing the traditional sailing song (Oh, sailing, sailing!), but all the while a sea monster is sneaking up behind them, ready to gobble them up (Yum yum!).

As a bookseller, I know that previous owners’ inscriptions generally reduce the value of a book. But I love when I can pass on not only a good book, but a connection to a previous reader. I like the way we each contribute, a little bit, to that particular book’s life cycle as it travels from reader to reader, in and out of purses, on and off shelves, into boxes, lent and borrowed, returned or not returned. Each reader changes that physical copy of the book slightly, and the book changes them. For me, that’s what it’s all about.