To Gayle, wherever you are -

Why do people hate used books so much?

I've asked myself this question a lot over the past few years, and the only answer I've come up with is that some people feel strange buying a book that's already been read by someone else. Is there such a thing as literary virginity? Most people seem to think so.Think about it:

"I don't want to read it because someone's already read it."
"I don't want to sleep with him/her because someone already has."

The first one is a commonly-held opinion; the second is considered more than a little outdated and is probably going to reduce your chances of marriage in this mortal life.

My first encounter with a used book (mmm, might as well continue the R-rated implications!) came as a high-schooler when I went with a family friend to a flea market. I found many things I'd never take home with me, but then I found the people who were selling books. Racks and shelves and boxes and bags of books—cheap. Some were terrible. Some I'd desperately wanted to read. None cost more than fifty cents.

I went home with a sackful.

When I got them home, I turned the books over and over, looking inside covers and on flyleaves. The evidence of wear and use fascinated me: notes on flyleaves, cracked spines, dog-eared pages, underlined passages. The experience of reading, for me so transitory and quick, was indelible on these books.

Especially the literature. I loved paging through the books to see what previous owners had underlined. What had they made notes on? What did they find interesting or enlightening? Sometimes my own perceptions were sharpened as a result.

(A notable exception: the dolt who was the first owner of my copy of Women In Love. While I'm not thoroughly in love with the book, the sheer idiocy of his comments tell me that he read the entire book without thinking once.)

I got reminded of this last year when I bought a copy of Foucault's Pendulum. Judging from the handwriting, the previous owner was female, probably under 35; the handwriting was looped, swirled, but not childishly so. She was probably artistic—at least to some extent—but this much is clear from her inscription: she didn't get the book.

Scribbled on the inside front cover:

"What do you get when you cross a Mafia don with Umberto Eco?"
"An offer you can't understand."

She signed her name (Gayle) on the front flyleaf—literary graffiti, I suppose. I couldn't resist. At the store, there were several copies of this book, but this was the only one I wanted to buy.

It is not just frugality; this, I swear to you. Frugality undoubtedly had something to do with it in the beginning, and continues to be related today, but there is something pleasurable about purchasing a book that someone has already read. It is not unakin to quietly sharing a secret or a joke.

Mind you, there's a difference between books that have been gently read and books that have been destroyed. I freely admit that I have done both; some of my collegiate texts are in execrable condition—smeared with ink and half-sensical notes in my legendarily-odd handwriting. I wouldn't sell those books, because most everyone would agree that my notes detract from the original text, not enhance it.

But a little wear, a little love, a few careless tosses around in the car or bookshelf (or, dare I say, a twelve- or fourteen-pound cat using it as a naptime foot prop) detracts not a bit. Not to mention that at prices ranging between 50 cents and $3 per book, it finances my enormous reading habit.

If only my cinema habit were so cheap.

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