Santa Blogs XXIX | Newberry

Santa Blogs XXIX

Dear Santa Blogs:

I have been tempted, over the years, by your blogs explaining why used books are a perfectly respectable gift. And yet, I have never quite dared to try it. What do I do if I buy a used book and find out later, after it’s been unwrapped, that the original owner wrote more than just her name inside? How do I explain someone else’s underlining or notes or bookmarks that are receipts from a strip club? I don’t think my family would mind used books but what if they’re TOO used?

What I Might Purchase

Dear WIMP:

I don’t think that’s TOO serious a problem. If your family members are wise enough to accept a secondhand book, the little discoveries inside just ADD to the experience. Part of the fun of a secondhand book is seeing what was done to it firsthand.

There are limits, of course. A whole lot of highlighting simply makes a book not only unreadable, but ungiftable as well. (Unless the previous owner used red and green highlighters alternately. Then you can just open it and set it on the mantelpiece as a decoration.) The same applies if the original owner left it in a stack next to the bags of Kitty Litter, or left in in the canoe during a rainy summer vacation.

The Newberry has had several talks and an exhibition about the value of marginal notes. These can especially be useful in cookbooks (“Needs More Salt” or “Utter disaster” can save you from many mistakes.) Sometimes the notes can make a book into a genuine game, as with that copy of a Sigmund Freud classic which came in with a note on the first page “Pick out the least believable section.”

Sometimes, of course, what makes a book entertaining can also make it inappropriate for giftgiving. We had an estate come in recently where one of the original owner’s kids had decorated half the title pages with interpretive vandalism, rewriting any word on the page which, by the change or addition of a letter, could be turned into a word or words which can’t be quoted in this blog. (Books published in Boston, Mass. were a real gift to HIM.) We also had an interactive book where children were encouraged to fill in spaces in pictures and stories, exercising their imaginations. The previous owner of that book was exercising his imagination AND his vocabulary, and the book is not suitable for a spot under the tree. (I am saving it just in case he wins a Nobel Prize or an Oscar later on. The book will be a lovely gift for him–or the Internet–come the day.)

On the other hand, an inappropriate marginal note can MAKE a gift. I thought this American Girl book on how to throw a party would be entertaining on its own. It dates from 2003, so the suggested music for a slumber party has a certain antiquated charm. (I know about Britney Spears, but I missed the A-Teens, somehow.) What makes in unique, and uniquely enjoyable, is that the previous owner has jotted notes into the cookbook section, with its suggestions for food and beverage for a party. She has written in the instructions for mixing a Tequila Sunrise. “What do you suppose SHE grew up to be?” I asked an innocent bystander.

“Popular,” she said immediately, causing to wonder how innocent a bystander she was.

So be brave, WIMP. You never know what joys may be hidden in the middle of a used book. (And your Aunt Booney may LIKE getting the tip about the strip club.)

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