I don’t write in books I give as gifts anymore, unless they are books I wrote (in which case, I am totally cheaping out on your gift because I likely got the book for free). But that said, I used to love combing through the stacks at The Strand and daydreaming about who owned books before me. I also LOVE other people’s marginalia. Most of it is so dumb that it makes me feel better about my own prowess as a reader. And best of all is when you find something tucked into the cover a book, like a letter or show tickets or even an old bill. It’s got a strangely archeological feel about it. Like you’re a nerdy Indiana Jones.
Among bibliophiles, the debate can be polarising and nuanced. For example: is it ever acceptable to write in a book? If yes: in pencil, pen or – heaven forbid – highlighter? Are all books fair game, or just some? And once they are so “defaced” – can you ever then give them away?
For some secondhand buyers, motivated more by sentiment than money, the traces of past readers are part of the appeal of what Virginia Woolf termed “wild books”. In his pursuit of a complete set of Picadors, author Nicholas Royle has amassed a collection of paraphernalia tucked inside their pages: business cards, boarding passes, photographs, cheques, currency, love letters. “I call these things ‘inclusions’, like flies or bits of bark caught in amber – because they’ve stopped time, in a way.”