This essay was originally written specifically for a small magazine for book collectors, but I never quite got it just the way I wanted for the publication in question. Still, I think it's a pretty good essay, even if it doesn't have a home. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Whether one buys older books for their monetary value or for the sheer visceral pleasure of smelling the dust of ages past, an added joy can be found in the artifacts left behind between their covers. The impromptu bookmarks and scrolled inscriptions of the past, even if they lend nothing to the financial worth, can give books a simple and meaningful significance.
Throughout my college years, I uncovered many great treasures from that bargain bin—an undated Dickens, a forgotten Dumas, an ancient Defoe—but none was so precious to me as a copy of The Fountainhead found unwanted and overlooked at the bottom of a pile. Although it was not in the best shape—its cover stained, its title rubbed from the spine, signs of mildew creeping through it like some kind of cruel leprosy—I knew the book was something special. Without hesitation, I slapped down the three and a half dollars to make it mine.
Research told me that I had found a rare Bobbs-Merrill edition, but to my dismay, I also found that a single page had been cut from the middle of the book—the remnants barely apparent along the binding. Monetarily the book was valueless, but in my heart it was still the crown jewel of my collection.
Many years and many books later, it remained on the most honored of my shelves—nestled between a leather-bound volume of Shakespeare and a boxed edition of Cervantes—barely read yet still loved. From time to time I would take it down and simply caress the cover or flip idly through the pages, reveling in the smell of that far-away store. It was during one of these hedonistic pettings that I finally noticed its inscription; although how I missed it during all of those years still escapes me. The words scratched in faded green ink only told of a former owner, a man who had loved this book enough to ensure it would come home if ever lost.
My book, the writing told, had once been owned by a serviceman in the military. His name, rank, serial number and unit carefully written in precise handwriting: Sergeant George H. Normandin of the 351st Bomber Group. Curious, I took the information for my new compatriot, George, and quickly tried to hunt down information on the man and his platoon. I never found George, but from the bits I was able to piece together he and his men flew the South Pacific during World War II. The Fountainhead was first published during the war, and though I have no way to prove it, I can imagine George carrying the novel with him as he went to fight for his values.
To me the book’s stains and scars are now easily explained; its rubbed edges and its crumpled boards standing as a testament to spending life on a carrier while its owner was away on a plane. The missing page, which had been so carefully cut from the book, was accounted for as well. That page was taken from Roark’s famous courtroom speech; a speech which speaks of fighting for your values, of standing up for your freedom, of holding your own good as a paramount virtue. I don’t blame George for keeping that page. Of all the things to carry into battle, the weapon he chose would have served him well.
Collecting books for many years now, I have found many artifacts of the previous owners—news clippings and grocery lists left to mark pages where the reader paused, flowers and leaves pressed flat to preserve a memory, notes scribbled to mark important passages. Each piece of ephemera I find adds a definite personal value to a potential monetary one. Still, I doubt that I will ever find another piece for my collection so precious as the one left by George.