Between the lines

To add to the list of odd items found in books, as chronicled so far by Alex Ross and Our Girl in Chicago, my best find was at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. In the pages of a 19th-century belletrist, I found a bookmark dating from World War II with detailed instructions on how to save lard. Once you had a nice potfull, you were supposed to turn it in at a local collection center. (Obedient dupe of the system that I am, I returned it with the book to the shelves, an act of improvident good-citizenship I regretted almost immediately. I’ve requested the title again several times since, but the library has so many copies that they’ve never sent back the same one.)

My next best find was at an estate sale held in a Catholic church in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s. Somewhat incongruously, the deceased had been a collector of early 20th-century books on sexuality. I skipped the ones in German, which was most of them, but I snatched up the 1922 edition of Huysmans’s Against the Grain. On the inside front cover, the owner had written, very neatly, “First edition in English. Translation completed.” He had pasted in his own translations, typed onto onionskin paper, of passages that the American publisher had found too naughty to include.

One thought on “Between the lines”

  1. Around 25 years ago I checked "The Origins of Literature," by H. Munro Chadwick and Nora K. Chadwick, out of the San Francisco Public Library. At the end of a chapter discussing the way oral traditions make room for new and memorable events, an earlier reader had written a long paragraph describing his experience as a newspaperman covering an Appalachian mine disaster in the early 1920's, before radio reached that region. He recounted being present as the people in the area, drawing on a repertoire of conventional tunes and tropes, created a narrative song about this latest event, which spread throughout the area.

    Another SFPL title contained the handwritten message: "Skinny, geeky-looking red-headed boys are more fun in bed than anybody." I was sufficiently impressed by this claim to consider testing it *in vivo* until I realized it had probably been written by a skinny, geeky-looking red-headed boy…

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