Secondhand Stories

A used book, a stamp, and the stories they tell.

Honey-coloured sunlight pours warm across my shoulders, across the flyleaf of the little book in my hands, where a name is neatly inscribed. The name on the opening page is not my own—no, this little book was purchased used, from a cottage crammed rafters to floorboards with many of the book’s kindreds. In such cases, I often wonder what would happen if the owner ever sold out of a stack—or even a single tome in the stack—in a crucial placement. Would the roof cave in, leaving a hole of sky-light rushing through?

Ah, but it was the name on the page that captured my attention, not said book’s fascinating location when I came across it. The name was common enough, written in neat penmanship in the right-hand corner: Hunter Swanson. He must have been anxious to prove ownership or have his book returned to him, because he had also crimped the page with a ‘From the library of Hunter Swanson’ stamp.

Why, then, is his book amongst my collection? By reason that I had inquired after that particular title in the curious, brimming bookshop. From those copious stacks, the proprietor went straight to a single column, fished out the book from sheer memory, and placed it in my hands. I was so impressed with his knowledge of the book towers that I bought the book on the spot. Granted, as I had entered the shop partly in search of that particular title, it was nearly inevitable that I would purchase it if found.

Yet again I have strayed from Hunter Swanson and his book lying upon my glass-top table. Who would get rid of a book in which they had both stamped and inked their name? Or perhaps I should ask why? Why would a person give or sell their book to a fellow whose shop is held up by mounds of tomes? Did they despise the writing-style of the memoir? Was the book given to them by a Love no longer part of their life? Maybe those names we see printed on cover pages have been printed in newspaper ink followed by date of birth and date of death. I do not envy the souls who have to sort, share, and sell a beloved’s books upon their death. Or perhaps one has a small cabin which cannot store all of their books, so they give away the ones they have never read or do not plan to read.

There are simply handfuls of reasons why one might give away or sell their library. Still, it seems to me that if you wrote and stamped your name inside the cover of a volume, it must be one you like or would like to have returned to you. Perhaps Hunter Swanson will read this and ask for his book back, which would be a bit sad, because I would like to finish it. But I almost wish Mr Swanson would read this and request his book, because then I could ask him if it really was important and what he liked about it. I could know why this slim book ended up in the tottering piles in the first place.

Sometimes people are like books in a secondhand store—you wonder how they arrived in their current state. Is their worn appearance from having loved and lost? What has shaped the story of the person walking by in the airport, on the street, at your church? Where are they going? How will our stories overlap? If Jesus has written His love into our stories, does that love spill into the lives of those we meet? If Jesus has written His name across the cover page of our lives, that means He has claimed us, that He wants us back if ever we are lost. He sees something inside of us that makes us precious to Him—He sees His own signature written on the very first page. We are His, and that makes us valuable.

All these ideas germinated from a name scrawled in a small paperback edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. For now, the book lives in a good home, producing much thought—and I have only read the flyleaf.

Jody Byrkett

Jody Byrkett is the editor of the Pray channel. She lives in picturesque Colorado where she enjoys hiking by sunshine or by starlight, foggy mornings and steaming mugs of tea, reading classic literature and theological essays, studying words and their origins, and practising the art of hospitality. (She also has a habit of spelling things ‘Britishly’.)

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