Mark Twain, Literary Viper

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.



  1. Great find, Pete, and awesome post. I’m always tickled when I buy a used book and there’s something among the pages. I’ve found several business cards (no one famous yet), photographs (which I save in a box thinking I’ll do something literary with them one day) and once I found part of a program for a 1953 production of “Porgy and Bess” from the Ziegfield Theater in New York. I think I’m going to go see if I can find a copy of “Tramping With Tramps” by Josiah Flynt Willard listed among the books Twain donated — now that looks like fun!

    1. I like your idea about saving and compiling the pictures you find in old, used books. That could make a very interesting coffee table book.

      I agree about “Tramping With Tramps” – although, it might end up being more fun just leaving the content of that one to your imagination!

  2. Hey Pete, I wandered in here from Goodreads/Constant Reader and enjoyed your post!

    I look forward to reading more of your blog.
    Take care..

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