One of the things I like best about buying used books is that, sometimes, the previous owner has been kind enough to leave his or her scrawlings in the margins. They can be insightful or downright idiotic, but always fun to read. More importantly, they provide a sort of cryptic window into the psyche of the previous reader. Imagine what fun it would be if that previous reader happened to be a world-famous author and literary icon.
In today’s New York Times, you can read all about Mark Twain’s incisive (often vicious) notes that he left in the margins of his personal books. My favorite: “The Droolings of an Idiot” written on the inside cover of a Melville Landon book. I don’t even know who Melville Landon is, but a comment like that makes me want to find out. The interactive section contains scans of Twain’s comments on dozens of books.
While Twain’s sharp tongue is the feature of the article, there’s also a good story hidden deeper in the article about the library that contains all of these books. Twain donated 400-500 books to a small library in Redding, CT and these books were allowed to circulate for years. When the library got a bit crowded in the 1950’s, a librarian unwittingly sold off a truck load of old books for $20, many of which were Twain’s old copies. Eventually, someone caught on that these books might have some value. Twain copies are still showing up in the stacks today.
It’s been ages since I’ve read any Mark Twain, but I may pull out my old copy of Following the Equator and reread a few passages.