Between the Lines

The best story in a book sometimes turns up in the inscription

| July/August 2001

My brother-in-law trolls used-book stores and library sales for first editions. I hunt for mysteries. Not the genre, but the clues that previous owners leave behind. These can be notes in the margins, scraps of paper used as bookmarks, or inscriptions.

I’m fascinated by these messages. Usually I’ll find myself turning back to the inscription while I’m reading the book and wondering about its writer. I have found treasures in used-book stores all over the country. Here are a few of my favorites:

• In a paperback edition of The Red and the Black by Stendhal: 'Kim, I loved this book and I hope you do. I’m watching you put on Chapstick now. Love, Bobb.'

• In The Pine Barrens by John McPhee: '10-31-85: From one Piney to another, never forget the Jersey Devil is real. Happy Halloween.'

• Scrawled on the inside cover of a tattered copy of Hidden San Francisco and Northern California by Ray Riegert: 'To Take: Bathing suit. One pair of shorts or two. Soap—three bars. Insect repellant. Resealable bag. Aspirin. Two small towels.'

• On the title page of a paperback copy of Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger: 'Dear Greg, I hate this so much. Nobody can be the same as you were. Sam is certainly a far cry from you. It’s so hard to hate him. And then I get into this thing with hating Charlie because I sure as Hell don’t want to marry anyone like Sam. I’d cry all the time if I did. You’re so good at reading everything in people. You’re so good. And you’re gone and I really can’t stand it. I did give it a try. I really did. But it’s not at all what it used to be and that hurts so much. It’s not worth it anymore. It’s so ruined and structured and controlled, it’s not there. Where’s a Mellow House and a Promised Land? SEE. DON’T YOU SEE?' The letter continues for another page and is signed: 'I love you, Katie. P.S. All goes for Becky, too.'