The Curious Journeys of Library Books

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My reading year has begun in earnest, which is the best start to any year if you ask me. Things didn’t kick off so well at the start of 2015, when I didn’t get through a single volume of anything throughout January, and ended up reading a string of disappointing YA books in February, which descended me into a slump until July. This year we’re a week in and I’m already a ways into my third book. I’m pleased.

I picked up the second book from the library. As usual I went in to drop a few rentals off without much intention of taking anything else out, but caught sight of what appeared to be a fun little book (and was) hanging out in the non-fiction section. I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick, and even though I have plenty at home, I couldn’t pass it up. So, I swiped my card, took my ticket and set off home.

The book itself had an intriguing tag-line, which is why I was compelled to lift it from the shelving.

How a Small Piece of Stationery Turned into a Great Big Adventure’ 

I like these quirky adventure books, much akin to the Dave Gorman comedy books, in which ordinary people take on unique  self-designated adventures. It’s amazing how such simple ideas translate into fascinating stories which connect people.

And that got me thinking about books as adventure tools. I don’t mean in the you-can-go-anywhere-in-your-imagination way, which is true but not an unexplored concept. My thoughts took me somewhere a little more literal.

Last September I took a rather unexpected trip to Dubai. I ordered a travel book from the library, and though I read it, I decided it was a safe idea to take the tome with me for future reference. So, I renewed it a few days before travel and packed it with luggage. It landed with me at DXB, along with one copy of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier , also taken from the library, and the third volume of a fantasy trilogy which I owned. Three books had taken a 3396.08 mile trip with me to this new exotic land, one of which was actually a guide about that exotic land.

While abroad I actually contemplated this; I wondered if this was the first time the book had made this journey from London to Dubai, or whether perhaps someone else had used it as a personal tour guide the way I intended. Of course, lacking the ability to gain that information, speculate was all I could really do. Though, it was fascinating to think about. For the benefit of anyone else in the same position, I actually wrote an attachment on the date sticker in the front alerting future borrowers to the epic transcontinental flight this particular copy had taken.

Then I kind of forgot. After the holiday, I unpacked the book, returned it to the library and went about returning to normal life. I borrowed books and returned them, but mostly I left the travel section alone, Dubai became a fond memory as did the tomes I had taken with me.

Until this month when I saw that tag-line, and I started thinking about how small items in our possession can become significant parts of our stories. I tend to take a book wherever I go, and I have a great memory for keeping track of what I was reading where and when, particularly at interesting and significant moments of my life.

For instance, the day I met my current partner, I was reading a The Shock of the Fall, and I remember because I actually thought how much of a contrast it was to be reading about the challenges of mental health problems when I met what turned out to be the love of my life. In the Summer of 2013 when a break-up left me a little off kilter, I recall wanting to read dark things. I was visiting my sister, who offered me Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror upon my departure, and I read it all on the train journey back home.

Some people see book shelves as a display case, mine is a treasure trove of life events, and wonderful little memories, as I’m sure it is for most bibliophiles. My books have become an irreplaceable part of my story as much as their content have become part of my mind. However, the majority of my books were bought new, and their journey began with me; library books hold a completely different history. They shuffle in and out of my life with the whims of my reading habits, and, depending on their popularity, the lives of many other readers as well.

The book I took out last week, for example, had six previous date stamps ranging between 2007-2009. I suppose it’s possible more people have taken it out since then, but given the now exclusive electronic lending system, simply haven’t stamped the date. Without access to the library database I can only know when someone borrowed the book, not who, and without meeting the borrower in question I can’t know why. But wouldn’t that be awesome? Wouldn’t that be such a fantastic way of connecting with people? Did they read the book, or did it sit on the coffee table for three weeks? Did they like it? Did they go to the library for the express reason of taking that book out, or was it an unexpected find?

I have had clues as to previous borrowers before, through items left between the pages. Everything from forgotten bookmarks to postcards, obviously used as a substitute. I’ve kept many of these items, in the same way Ariel collected human objects in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Without conclusive context I can’t really know why people wrote these cards and their relationships to the recipients. I can only guess based on what is written and how. I can’t know if the letters were forgotten by mistake, or through neglect and lack of care. Sometimes, I wish books could actually talk, because I have a feeling they would have a more rounded knowledge base for such matters.

I remember reading The Passage back when I was entertaining the notion of reviewing books. In my review for that book I talked about the reader being like an item shifting through the character’s pockets, a really gripping idea which held the story together through several sub-plots and time zones. Library books do much the same thing. They pass between many world’s and many timelines, being a fly on the wall to snippets of many varied lives.

Is it possible to be reincarnated as a library book? Because I could see that being a perfectly fascinating way of experiencing existence for a while.

When I returned from Dubai, in the midst of contemplating the idea that it had actually traveled to its namesake country, I wrote a note in the book explaining so. Just right of my written return date, I wrote ‘This book actually traveled to Dubai’ and then the relevant dates of travel.

I did this under the impression that I couldn’t be the only person to have wondered about these things. So, at least someone taking the book to Dubai would know it had been before, and they would ponder under what circumstances it was taken and by who. It’s not much, but it’s something to perk an interest.

I wanted someone to know it had been a part of my life for an exciting snippet, and it would be so for them now as well.

Oh how a small item of interest can be part of your great adventure.

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3 thoughts on “The Curious Journeys of Library Books

    AJournalForDamnedLovers said:
    January 10, 2016 at 13:47

    I’d completely forgotten about the beauty of looking at the stamp dates in library books until I read this. I too would often try to guess who those people were, and what kind of journeys they took their books on. My favorite was picking one up only to find the last time it had been borrowed was several years previous. Who was that mystery borrower? And had the book really just been sat there on a shelf for several years? I really enjoyed this piece, thank you 🙂

      aliceradwell responded:
      January 10, 2016 at 13:55

      Yes, it’s such an interesting concept isn’t it? Books moving through time with us, their movements revealed and memorialized with a simple line of return dates. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

        AJournalForDamnedLovers said:
        January 10, 2016 at 14:18

        I also enjoy second-hand books for the same reason. Those dusty, stained pages telling not one but two stories at the same time. Thank you for inspiring me today.

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