Last year Chas Newkey-Burden wrote an amusing article in the Guardian called 'Why I hate second-hand books':
For me, as a literary experience, they are akin to sloppy seconds, a salad bar in a staff canteen at the end of a hot weekday, or a recently-vacated cubicle in a public toilet. Let's be clear: I don't merely have a mild preference for buying brand-new. No, I'm digestively squeamish about used books. It's all those stains, thumbprints and creases that get me so queasy. I'm far from a gentle reader and by the time I've taken in the first few chapters of any brand-new tome, it will often be creased and coffee-stained beyond recognition. But they will be my creases and my stains, and that's what matters.
I've lost count of the amount of times that I've been confronted by the dried-up bogey of the previous owner, smeared across one of the pages. Nice. Most of these mucus moments occurred while I was reading books I'd borrowed from the library.
I completely agree about the library books. I also used to wonder why so many books contained dried snot, but I was surprised that Chas Newkey-Burden didn't mention the other curse of library books: pubic hairs. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of pubic hairs to appear in the most improbable places and in the case of library books, I wonder if there are lots of naked readers.
I suppose they could be the beard hairs of sage bibliophiles, but I know a pube when I see one.
However, I think there is a big difference between library books and second-hand ones. Library books have been pawed by a variety of people. Second-hand books have usually had one careful owner. I have never discovered any unsavoury bodily products in a second-hand book, but I have been pleasantly surprised in other ways.
Yesterday I went to Tunbridge Wells and discovered the wonderful Hall's Second-hand Bookshop where I bought this book:
Later, flicking through the pages, I discovered an unusual bookmark: a 1940s London Underground ticket:
I immediately felt connected to the original reader, for whom this was contemporary fiction. The ticket was an added bonus, as was this bookmark, which I posted in the summer:
A Google search on Gay Foam yields very different results these days.
But it's not just unexpected bookmarks that make second-hand books such a joy. During the last month I have bought several books that turned out to be signed copies, including this paperback:
When I paid two quid for this at a charity shop, I had no idea that I was getting a signed copy. Thank you, Cancer Research.
Yesterday's trip to Tunbridge Wells also yielded the following results:
Ever heard of this author? I hadn't, but when I read a recommendation that compared this trilogy to Patricia Highsmith, I had to buy it.
I hadn't heard of this novel either:
I'd heard of the poem Babi Yar by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, because it was the inspiration for Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, but this was new to me. Apparently it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
I can understand Chas Newkey-Burden's objections to the used book. I used to be the Howard Hughes of books and would often reject brand new books if they weren't absolutely perfect. But the message is more important than the medium. I stopped being precious about my books when I had children and life became too chaotic to be anal about the condition of my possessions.
These days I'm not that bothered if a book looks as if it's been around the block a few times. What matters is the text (although I still draw the line at public hair and snot).
Ms Baroque has quite rightly taken me to task on the issue of royalties and that is something that needs to be addressed, but after enduring two years of Waterstone's bland 3 for 2 promotions, the random selection offered by second-hand and charity shops is a liberation.