Of course, some books are treasures in and of themselves. Rare first editions, illuminated 8th century manuscripts, limited edition collected works, and the like can fetch thousands, in some cases even millions of dollars at auctions and on the black market.
The stories inside them are also treasures, but neither of those are what I meant when I said books are treasure chests.
There’s an article I regularly used as a comprehension test while still teaching. It spoke about the treasures in old books, and specifically second-hand books. Books, it said, picked up their own stories over their lifetimes; stories over and above the ones printed in them.
Second-hand books carry with them the stories of all the people who had owned them over the years. There’s the coffee stain where someone once placed a careless cup; this one’s pages are wrinkled, looks like water damage; here’s someone who couldn’t afford bookmarks – every fifth page is dog-eared (barbarian!); and here’s a book that was owned by someone after my own heart: you can barely tell that it has ever been read.
(Whoever one day gets my books (the ones I bought new) will probably think I bought books to look at, not to read – I’ve actually had people refuse to borrow my books out of fear that they won’t be able to return them to me in as good a condition as I lent the books to them. I can read a nine-hundred page paperback without cracking the spine and hardcovers with dust jackets get covered in heavy duty plastic in such a way that it would make the most austere librarian beam with approval.)
Then there’s the dedications and messages, books from parents to children and from children to parents. Messages of love, of thanks, of good luck. I read them and wonder where those people are now, and how the book made it’s way onto the dusty shelves in a second-hand bookshop.
But there’s also the actual treasures you find in these books. A bookmark, a forgotten photo, a love letter, a pressed flower.
At the moment I’m reading To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (a treasure in own right). My copy was published in 1976 and I discovered it while taking a walk one morning last year. It has it’s own story.
It appears to have been someone’s high school text book. I also know it was the text book of someone taking English Second Language – it is underlined, with annotations in the margins and little headings above scenes, but the information highlighted includes mostly descriptions of people and places, not the type of thing you’re looking for if you’re going to do the type of in-depth analysis required at Home Language level. (I also found a list of hand-written words with Afrikaans translations on a loose page in the front of the book.)
Yesterday it revealed its real treasure, though, when I turned a page and this fell out:
Wilson’s is one of the biggest sweets manufacturers in South Africa and their two big specialities have always been toffees and boiled sweets like these. They still make these boiled sweets, though there have been some changes in the wrapper.
The one thing I noticed about this wrapper was that it’s old. For one, it does not indicate the ingredients used to make it. I can barely remember a time when everything you put into yourself was not accompanied by a booklet of everything that went into it. For another, it shows this roll of sweets had cost only eight cents. I can’t remember these sweets ever having cost eight cents. When I was very young they might have, but I can’t remember it. For this roll of sweets you’d today pay around five hundred cents (or five Rands).
Speaking of prices, the price tag on the title page shows the book had cost R1,70 new in 1978. Today I wouldn’t be able to buy a second-hand book for that amount. I can’t even buy a newspaper or a roll of toilet paper for that amount. Buying this novel new at a major chain bookstore, would cost me around R120 for the paperback. I would be a very happy camper if I could buy novels at 1978 prices (though my apartment’s floor would probably collapse under the weight of all the books…I’m kinda surprised it hasn’t already).
Some people also hide money in their books. Unfortunately I’ve never discovered cash inside a second-hand book. But I’ll settle for bookmarks, love letters, and candy wrappers from a previous era.