‘Marginal Memories’
Discovering past lives through secondhand books

“To Patrick, hope you have a lovely Christmas and wishing you success in 1987. Love from Mum xxxx”

I found this inscription in a used copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Earth whilst browsing at my local second-hand bookshop. I paused for a long while before deciding to buy the book. Firstly, it was £5. In second-hand book terms, that isn’t exactly dirt cheap. Secondly, I had never read any Asimov nor did I plan on it. Regardless, I was struck by the message I had found on its title page and it felt almost perverse to put the book back on the shelf having seen it.

Who was Patrick?

Why was this message signed from his mum only?

What happened in 1987?

All questions that I knew I would never find answers to, and that was okay. There’s a wonderful telepathy that happens when we buy secondhand books, when we take ownership of words and memories that someone else’s imagination has already experienced. A coffee ring on a torn dust jacket; a circled word or underlined sentence; even a dog-eared page. All of these unsavoury details tell of some past life, someone else on the other end of the timeline who held that book much like you are holding it, loved it as you love it. Used books are about as much proof of time travel as we’re ever likely to get.

After finding the above message through a chance encounter, I began hunting in earnest. Soon, I had a collection of inscriptions as varied as the books they’d been penned in. Children warning potential voyeurs to keep out of their Roald Dahl paperbacks; warnings from one generation to another about the state of the planet; even a message from a soldier in 1939 to his wife back home – “Just off to the wars.” From the simplest inscriptions, simply a name and date, to entire pages of heartfelt dedications, it became clear to me that any kind of marginalia was worth celebrating. It takes a certain deliberate nature and a reader of a particular disposition to write in their books, even more so to let these books fall out of their possession and into the ranks of their dusty brethren, on every shelf in every used bookshop the world over.

“These messages deserve remembering, even if their original authors or recipients have forgotten them.”

These messages deserve remembering, even if their original authors or recipients have forgotten them. I set up the Instagram page @Marginal_Memories shortly after buying the Asimov book to do just this and began uploading my own finds as well as submissions from others. It was, and remains so, my ambition to have in one place as many of these curious pieces of history as possible. Found individually, these messages provoke melancholic wondering, moments of quiet reflection where we wonder how that book found its way into our hands. Together, though, they illustrate the intricately connected world of readers and the shared temporality we each engage with whenever we open a book someone else has opened. Reading feels a private and deeply personal act, but looking through these inscriptions and dedications it becomes clear that we never read in isolation. The ghosts of owners past haunt every secondhand book we’ve ever owned, and a part of them lingers between the pages.

As of the time of writing this article, 43 individual inscriptions and messages have been recorded on the Instagram page. Some of them contain addresses, but who is to say if the person that recorded such an intimate detail of their life still resides there? Some of them contain quotations from canonical poets, evidence of a curious intertextual dialogue between people and artist. Some of them simply bear a name, initialised, with no date, address, or any other kind of qualification. Just a mark of ownership that, at least at the time of its writing, made that book a private artefact.

Finding such books in secondhand shops, one can’t help wonder how it fell out of favour with its previous owner, if that previous owner is even around anymore to mourn its loss. If I were to map the addresses I’ve found in secondhand books, a curious map that defies time, space, perhaps even geography, would take shape that details journeys made not with the feet but the mind. Such a map may not be possible, but @Marginal_Memories works to piece together these fragments of past lives so that we might glimpse into other lives, other times, from the comfort of an armchair.

It’s testament to human nature to find personal writing in a book. As a species, we cannot help but fall in love unconditionally with our possessions and, as any discerning collector will tell you, books seem to dominate our affection more than most. To give a book to someone, complete with a personal inscription, is an act of compassion like no other. So it is then that the messages recorded on @Marginal_Memories are less like pictures as they are windows, windows through which we see our own unique capacity to share what we love with those closest to us.

See Marginal Memories on Instagram

Words by William Carroll

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