Found Objects & Books

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It does not take a lot persuasion to make me buy a book. I love books and pile them all over my apartment like I’m preparing for an apocalypse in which printed matter will provide us with the only literal, rather than merely metaphoric, means of survival. However, there is one attribute of a book that categorically forces me to buy it. Very occasionally when browsing through the shelves of a bookstore, I will find that a volume contains an extra part that neither the author nor publisher put there. It could be a dedication or some thoughtful marginalia (notes clearly taken for a class do not count, according to the completely arbitrary rules in my head) or, as it was last night, a photograph.

I stopped by the Barnes & Noble on East 54th Street to look for Infinite Jest because I haven’t stopped thinking about David Foster Wallace since reading The Depressed Personwhich I take as a sign that it is time to read the big one. This particular Barnes & Noble didn’t have Infinite Jest (or a number of other books after which I’ve been lusting), so to console myself I started flipping through other DFW books, in the physically unlikely event that the 1104-page masterpiece might have been misplaced between the pages of another book. I didn’t find Infinite Jest, but nestled between pages 156 and 157 of Girl with Curious Hair I found a photograph in negative of a man in a hat with “UNIQUE PHOTOGRAPH FRED CRAY” printed on the back, along with the handwritten number 9160.

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I checked the other copy of Girl with Curious Hair to see if that one also contained a photograph (it did not), I googled “girl curious hair photograph” to see if anyone else on the internet had found a similar feature in their copy, and I scanned the surrounding pages to see if DFW had written anything like, “See photograph insert.” It seemed unlikely to me that this was intentional because surely all the bookish rogues out there would just go around stealing all the photographs out of DFW books, so I googled “Fred Cray” and sure enough, on his website:

“Since 2008 and with help over 4,300 unique photographs have been left or hidden in New York, the United States and different parts of the world including Europe, Asia, Australia and South Africa. The photographs are printed, stamped and numbered. The digital files are then either altered in some way or deleted making each photograph unique. Unique photographs are also used in installations and for educational purposes.”

Which is how Fred Cray, whom I have never met and with whom I have never corresponded, forced me to buy a book last night. Because of course, as soon as I found the photograph, the book was mine, never to be relinquished again. I’m just thankful that Mr. Cray left it in a collection of DFW stories and not in something mortifying like a Dan Brown novel or one of those 1001 Photos of Puppies books that lives perpetually in the bargain shelves, which would have resulted in a reluctant walk of shame to the cash register.

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This has happened to me two other times: at Strand Books when I found “The day we bought/read this was one of the best ever. Even though I had to beg for you to hop on. <3″ in Arthur Bradford’s Dogwalker, and at Unnameable Books when I found a note from a father to his daughter in Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I would not put it past a certain subsection of Strand’s clientele to have scribbled this note fictitiously into Dogwalker for any one of a large number of reasons*, but I still felt compelled to buy the book, despite never having heard of Arthur Bradford.

My copy of Special Topics has been living in North Carolina for a few years now, but the note went something like, “I thought you would like this book. The father and daughter in it remind me of us (without the crazy parts). Love, Dad.” Whatever the authenticity of these notes, both of them appealed too perfectly to my sentimentality and I had to take them home. Every time I see these books on my shelf, I wonder who wrote the notes, and what kind of person would give away a book that had been so carefully given. I realize that these chunks of paper, ink, and glue are not actually the dogs left behind after a divorce or breakup, but that is how I think of them. They were once loved and imbued with a second layer of meaning, beyond the words on the pages, and were then callously (or so I imagine) discarded and are sad and lonely and I have to rescue them.

Have you ever found anything in a book? Does it make you buy it?

*To list hipsterishly this practice as a hobby on okcupid.com; to impress someone with faux creativity/spontaneity on a first or second date; to feel in an earnest but misguided way that they have created a piece of “art” that will become for someone else (i.e. me) a “found object”; to rebel in the most innocent way imaginable; to combat boredom; to provide him- or her-self with a sense of closure because he or she would have liked to have written this message in this book for a particular person, but that moment passed, the relationship is over, and the person feels the need to leave a physical memento of the affair in the world as proof that it happened and was meaningful; etc.

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159 comments

  1. This is one of the most gratifying blog posts ever. Speaks to me truly, truly. I understand, I comply, I am inspired to share – hopefully with you – equitable hidden treasures…

    Stay tuned, and I will enjoy your posts to come.
    R

      1. Pleasure’s all mine. I have another blog under my main blog robinpostell, which is DEADMAN COMING…It’s my father’s work archive with lots of tidbits of his personal notes while covering stories during the 70s. When I get a chance I’ll add the other growin legend of his book DEAD MAN COMING because it is out of print, very rare, and sold online from $150-490 last check. The inscriptions in those few remaining copies are such a delight for me to discover.
        R

  2. My grandmother used to take me to the local library when I was a kid. They had a shed of used books and sold an entire brown paper bag of books for only $5. I always found notes and loose papers in these books. I, too, always wondered about the writers of these notes. I would make up stories about them. Thanks for bringing back a nice memory. You wrote a beautiful post, thanks for sharing!

    1. That is such a wonderful memory! Every year the downtown library in my home town had a book sale structured in a similar manner (you buy a bag and then fill it with whatever books). I love rummaging around book sales like that.

  3. I have bought used books with inscriptions and have books signed by the author, some that I know. I had a library copy of Good Harbor that I read at Good Harbor. I felt compelled to put sand in the gutter, which I did and later found someone had filled the gutter with sand, several pages on! There was also something on a page I tried to scratch off and realized it may have been mustard or ketchup or the two mixed together and possibly from the snack bar at Good Harbor, so stopped trying to scratch it off. I got some rain drops in the book also which mottled pages a bit. This is all kind of funny since I will not even highlight or underline a textbook. I bought a bible that is about 190 yr old and it has plants and fabric and announcements and religious info and pencil markings in the margins. Great! And another book with a plate indicating it belonged to a member of a prominent 19th 20th cent family.

  4. I once owned a used bookstore (a hand-to-mouth, challenging, and yes, fun, existence), and made many discoveries between pages, including various currencies (rubles, Hong Kong dollars, pesos, Italian lira, Japanese yen), notes, love letters, feathers, photos, shopping lists, grocery store receipts, condoms (still packaged), pressed flowers, pressed insects, newspaper and magazine clippings, and of course bookmarks!

  5. I found a photography book at a rummage sale that had a sheet of negatives, a contact sheet, a test sheet, and handwritten notes. Even though my shelves are overflowing and I’ve other books that cover the same information, I can’t bring myself to break up this “archive.”

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