By: Rebecca Guzman  | 

Arts & Culture: The Secret Lives of Books

When I was in high school, I cleverly devised a way to maximize the amount of books I could blow my allowance on. I figured that if I bought used books, most of which sold for less than six dollars, I would be getting more for less. I thought I was a genius, even though I was just typing “used bookstore near me” into Google. I wasn’t doing anything revolutionary — but the books were. Soon, my shelves were filled with volumes that had lived whole lives before I chanced upon them on Mercer Street or These books had been read, loved and shared, and I was their final destination. It was a humbling thing to discover, that I played a tiny, almost insignificant role in the life of a book that could mean so much to me. 

The notes, I think, are the best part. I’ve found lots of surprising “gifts” in used books — bookmarks, smiley faces next to funny or meaningful lines, even a polaroid of the rapper Kid Cudi — but the inscriptions that the giver leaves for the receiver are my favorite. In an anthology of selected poems by Yevtushenko, a Soviet-Russian poet that my father recommended I read, there was a sweet note on the front page. “Jean,” it said, “You will probably dig this man the way I do. His phrases are so simple, yet so startlingly vivid, you can almost reach out and touch them. Happy birthday. Bill.” It was like a poem within a poem, a brother or a friend or a lover reaching out to his sister or friend or lover and gifting her with something that had mattered to him. Every time I pick up the slim volume I wonder about Jean and Bill. What did they mean to each other? When did they live, and were they still alive? They did not know me, but in this small way, I knew them. 

On the title page of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Johannes wrote to Maria: “Thought this is a good book for you…Thanks for spending an absolutely lovely time with us — yet again. Warm Regards.” Johannes had written those words in Dublin on July 2, 2011 — three days before my seventh birthday. More than a decade later, I found the book at The Strand in New York City, thousands of miles away from the island where the novel was first written by Joyce and later inscribed by Johannes. Again, I wondered about two strangers and the connection between them. 

Another thing about used books that you won’t get from a pristine Barnes and Noble copy is communion. Ashlyn Nelson and I read “The Pastures of Heaven” together, though we’ve never met, and her little comments about John Steinbeck’s use of irony made me laugh. Rav Soloveichik’s “Halakhic Man,” which I purchased in a used bookstore across the street from my seminary, is filled with the blocky handwriting of the disgruntled intellectual who owned it before me. I wrote answers to the questions he left in the margins, forced to read beyond the limits of my own understanding because this book did not belong to only me. Months or years ago, someone else had pored over the very same page I was on now, and their thoughts acted as a foundation for my own. 

As I combed through my collection for this article, I realized that this is the very nature of books and stories: they are meant to be shared. If not the physical volumes themselves, then the content, the ideas and the messages were supposed to be passed from parent to child, teacher to student, friend to friend. This is a belief that we, as Jews, are all too familiar with. The story of our freedom is one that must be communicated verbally, and soon we will unite with our loved ones to tell this ancient tale. The very laws that define the minutiae of our lives are sourced from Torah Shebaal Peh, the Oral Torah. As my friend pointed out to me, biblical exegesis is a sophisticated tradition of scholars — the meforshim — leaving notes in the margins of holy texts. Judaism rejects static stories and asks us — obligates us — to make them dynamic. It is only through communing with each other that we can do so. 

Hidden amid the stories we consume are the stories we create. We may all be specks, miniscule dots on a massive globe, but the words we leave behind will outlast us. Jean and Bill may be long dead, but they live in my mind when I read a book that once passed between their hands. Maybe this is the true beauty of used books and storytelling as a whole — it’s a glimmer of immortality, the incorporeal kind, the only kind we humans can ever achieve.


Photo Caption: It was like a poem within a poem, a brother or a friend or a lover reaching out to his sister or friend or lover and gifting her with something that had mattered to him.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Guzman