Thoughts in Used Books

Graphic by Laura Padilla-Castellanos

Some time last semester, I went to the Ministry House on Whitney Avenue to read The Journal of Hélène Berr, a French Jew who documented the Nazi occupation in France and died in Auschwitz, for my Representing the Holocaust seminar. Next to a certain passage where Berr speaks about the passivity of Catholics and their priests in response “to the most flagrant violations of Christ’s laws,” there was a note written in black pen. It said:

“If Christianity is so prominent, how did the Holocaust even happen? Because Christianity is BS.”

A question, then a sudden answer. How did this person reach this conclusion so quickly? What else could have prompted that thought? What’s their worldview? What’s their story?

When I come across these notes inside used books, I wonder about the note-taker. The printed content of library books, although relevant, doesn’t stand out as much as the notes. I wonder how the previous reader interacted with certain chapters, how they reacted to certain lines, why they decided to highlight a specific passage in yellow, blue, green, to annotate, to doodle, to ask a question, to state a thought, to provide a summary. They probably recognized something as cool, interesting, or significant enough to remember for a project, discussion, career, personal life. It may have been a fragment, sentence, or passage that normally would have been skimmed over or brought up in discussion only to be forgotten just as quickly. But it was deemed important in some way, so important that they felt the need to mark their own words next to typed, printed, revised words inside a book.

Words are mysterious without an author. Underneath online inspirational quotes or mantras, graffiti on a public bathroom wall, or scribbled reminders on a post-it tossed on the floor, I’m always looking for a signature, a tag, or a name. Anyone could claim something anonymous as their words, their art, and it may as well be theirs. If it’s handwritten, the only way to prove that it’s your words is to write something. If it’s typed—well, forget the handwriting analysis.

Finding these anonymous notes feels intimate. I used to buy new books when I read in middle school: I liked the scent of a “new book,” the feeling of the crisp pages, the idea that it was my book because I bought it with my money. I stopped reading in high school because I lost interest and track of time. I preferred to have real-life adventures with people inside than read about Odysseus. But nowadays there’s not many people to talk to without the presence of a barrier. It’s slightly awkward having a conversation with new friends and sharing deep thoughts with close friends over Zoom or FaceTime. The virtual barrier hinders natural conversation: there’s always a connectivity issue, a distraction, a “Sorry, can you say that again?” And there’s an obvious physical barrier talking with others face-to-face (it’s more like half-face-to-half-face). In the used book, the only barrier is that of anonymity. The previous reader’s words don’t have an author or author’s biography attached to them, but that doesn’t make the thoughts any less credible. It almost feels like the reader is reading alongside me, learning, spontaneously and critically thinking with me (with thoughts that are more relatable and direct than the ideas that some books cover). It feels like the college experience that I wanted to have, the one depicted in brochures inside the Undergraduate Admissions Office. The one where there is constant conversation about theories, ramblings, concepts that continues after stepping in and out of the classroom, in a line outside of Haven Hot Chicken, in a study room in the Bass Library, in a suite.

Thoughts are never concise, at least inside the mind. They require some articulating so that they make sense, they’re short-ish, and they sound interesting or important enough. This is what books do (and thank God, because I don’t think anyone could read a book that transcribed someone’s stream of consciousness). But I think that those spontaneous, brief thoughts that often pop into our minds are more relatable and say much more than what a book can address. A thought usually never finishes after the last page; it rolls on forever, forever on an odyssey.

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