On the things we leave in books

The odd looking illustration for this article is an index card I found in one of my book purchases. Some frugal bookseller made the front and back of a single index card do for four books, with an equally efficient swirl crossing out each used up entry as the book sold. I discovered that my book was listed on Amazon and was slated to be listed on eBay, which is where I bought it. The seller had a note to add a photo to Amazon. The original seller paid $2.00 for it. I paid…more. The forgotten piece of ephemera offered me an interesting insight into the methods and practices of another bookseller.

The very handy Mirriam-Webster on-line dictionary provides several definitions of ephemera, pointing out that it is generally used in the plural. That’s good to know, because the singular and plural forms are identical.

  • Definition 1:  something of no lasting significance —usually used in plural
  • Definition 2: (plural): paper items (as posters, broadsides, and tickets) that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectible.
  • Bonus definition for English as a Second Language students: things that are important or useful for only a short time : items that were not meant to have lasting value 

Setting aside the second definition altogether because it confines itself to collectibles and I am interested in the broader usage, I like the third definition best. Comparing it to the first, it seems to me that there is a world of difference between something of no lasting significance and something not meant to have lasting value. One is a description of the item itself and the other describes the intent of its creator.

That’s the stuff! Things that no one expected to last, and yet here they are. And sellers of used books find scads of it in their inventories.

I always like finding the things that previous owners have tucked into books. Most often they are bookmarks of some sort, ranging from things intended for that function to whatever happened to be close to hand: bus passes, grocery lists, business cards.

And then there are the momentos. These are often more problematic. The purple pansy plucked so blithly on a summer’s day or the four-leaf clover that unluckily met its fate when some sharp-eyed stroller harvested it leave their stains on the page. Newspaper articles, carefully clipped from the local, hardly acid-free or archival quality newspapers, leave tan marks wherever they rest for long periods.

Even so, I think I would rather find these things than not. They form a connection, often over decades or even a century or more, with those who owned and used the books before.

I find that big, thick books are most often the repository for the memento items. Bibles, dictionaries, substantial local histories. I like to imagine that those were the treasured books in the household and were seen as fitting repositories for whatever memories the ephemeral items held.

And I myself am not immune from the desire to keep things in books. Eleven years ago to the day, at my mother’s funeral, each of her eight children was given a rose at the gravesite. Mine still resides in the largest, heaviest book I own. The leaves and petals are brittle now, but still hold some color and grace.

Perhaps, some day, a bookseller who is not me will find it and wonder what it means. What it meant. The unknown bookseller will wonder, but I will know. Books are the repositories of our lives. They hold their author’s memories, but also our own. They are where we tuck scraps that are immediate and quickly forgotten and also where we place what is fragile but important. Like the memories I have of my mom.

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