An ode to used books.




I have always loved reading, but fell hard for books when I was eight. We were living in an amateur’s converted barn with questionable heat and electricity, and no TV. A friend of my mother’s gave me a dusty cardboard box full of golden-spined classics. It was a bonanza, an embarrassment of riches.

Crammed into the box, amid cobwebs that were definitely older than I was, I found well loved copies of Gone With The Wind, Black Beauty, and all the books in the Anne of Green Gables series. Over the course of that blustery winter I read and re-read those books. Scarlett O’Hara and Anne Shirley became as familiar to me as sisters, and the books that contained them were my most loved possessions.

There is beauty and utility in a used book. They are functional– the preciousness has been worn out of them. The spines have been cracked, the work of breaking them in has already been done. They might not look as good, but the story or information is the same. A book can be read and passed on, and continue to be loved and be useful. We have become so attached to newness as a value, always looking for something that no one else has touched, whatever is most cutting edge. I like to think of the life cycle of a book, shelves it has lived on, hands that have held it. Books gain richness over time, and the more we share them the richer they become.

In my early twenties I spent a winter living in London, England, bartending at night and serving in a café during daylight hours. I made very little money, but every Sunday afternoon a man would set up a blanket on the street across from the café to sell books and I would allow myself that little indulgence–a book a week, to be savoured and dog-eared until the next week’s “Lit Church” came around.

Used books are often like little gifts from the universe, picked up at garage sales and in thrift stores, little treasures in amongst discarded knick-knacks and old hockey gear. Some are discovered in moments of desperation. I know a woman who often drives to the free corner library in Cumberland in the middle of the night in her pyjamas when she runs out of books. While travelling I read every battered book Maeve Binchy has ever written, in a sort of desperate frenzy, because they were the only books in English on the hostel shelves. In Sayulita, I nearly cried when I found a Michael Ondaatje book in the musty stacks of oft-found Clive Cussler and John Grisham novels, available in pre-loved abundance for the millions who enjoy them.

Good books transcend the mania of trend: they can be read in any decade and a good story will still be a good story; good information will still be good information. Through books old and new we are offered a portal into other times, places, and ways of being.