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The Secret Life of Books

04/13/05 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) For commentator Caleb Daniloff, used books sometimes offer unexpected glimpses into the lives of his fellow readers.


(DANILOFF) On the way out of Hannaford's in Middlebury, there's a small table I always stop at. It's my favorite part of grocery shopping: the used books table. There are several hundred books scattered about - from Jackie Collins and Monica Lewinsky to Andre Dubus and Amy Hempl. Psychology, romance, pulp fiction, the classics - they're all lumped in together. A harmonious literary democracy, an unlikely utopia of the written word.

Not to mention the best bargain in town. Not long ago, I picked up Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, which details love, drugs and poverty in the South Bronx. It's a stunning piece of immersion journalism and cost me mere pocket change. The cover is curled back and the pages soft from turning.

The more I read of LeBlanc's mesmerizing narrative, the more I wondered why someone would have parted with it. Had it belonged to a couple who had broken up? Was it left on a plane? And why was my dog sniffing the cover so intently? I was reminded that when you buy a used book you're buying more than the author's tale. You're acquiring the story of the previous reader, real or imagined.

Recently, from the same table, I plunked down a dollar for The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks, his 1991 novel about a fatal school bus accident. As I flipped through the pages, a folded piece of paper fell to the floor. It was an internal newsletter for a local nursing agency. It detailed such items as staff departures, a change of last name and developments in the front office. Circled in pen were times for a CPR recertification course. At the bottom a bunch of doodles: a slice of pizza, a bagel with a bite taken, a flowing river. At first, I spent more time puzzling out a narrative about the reader than reading the book.

You won't find such signs of life on your iPods and Instant Messenger windows. Books lack the technology to keep out our flaws, quirks and minutiae. The pulpy pages capture our thoughts by way of underlines and margin notes. They preserve ice cream fingerprints and coffee cup rings. They serve as containers for photos and dried flowers. Like ghosts in an old hotel, used books take on personality. Tucked between their pages, I've come across birthday invitations, Christmas prayers, theater tickets, even a pretty good recipe for chicken plantain scrawled across a back page. There's an intimacy in reading something someone else has held close, brought to the beach or thrown at a lover.

Hannaford's officials say the used books table brings in around 1200 dollars a month, which it donates to charity. That means hundreds of area residents are interacting with the stories of hundreds of strangers. As we push our grocery carts up and down store aisles, the table is indeed an appropriate reminder that we do not live by meatballs and strudel alone.

So, last week, I decided to donate some books off my shelves. One contains a birthday inscription from an ex-girlfriend. Between the pages of others I slipped bits of personal ephemera. I scattered the books across the table like so many bottled messages bobbing up over the waves. I can't wait to see what floats back.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist.
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