Traveling home to visit family over the holidays this year, two different people commented on the book I carried with me, Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene. Both mentioned that the title “was an older one,” a fact I hadn’t given any thought when I chose it, having simply gotten my hands on a copy after a friend’s recommendation. Looking at it now, I notice the book is a first edition (though not a monetarily valuable one), printed in 1969 and, according to a bookplate in the front cover, presented as a gift to a student of one of Wellington’s local Girls’ schools in 1971. Because the copy isn’t in terribly good condition, I haven’t been shy of adding more dog-ears to the pages, or of underlining passages that resonate. The book has that wonderful worn hardcover quality of almost always staying open to the page you’ve turned to, even when left unattended.
In the holiday season, there’s something particularly appealing about reading a book whose physical copy has some history to it. For our family, the holidays are very much about established traditions: putting up the usual decorations, eating a special meal, listening to the same Christmas album (John Denver and the Muppets, what else?), exchanging gifts and staying up until the hour when hooves can very nearly be heard on the rooftop. Even though I’ll never know who owned this book before it came into my hands, I like the feeling of continuity their existence gives me. I like the way it reminds me that the new books I gave and received as gifts this year may go on to be read by far removed others some day, after chance, change or time have taken them off our own shelves.
I don’t like to leave much of a mark on brand new books as I read them (pencil is an exception). I don’t bend the spine and I try to keep the cover flat. But, I like the idea of someone else experiencing the marks I have left. Will they like the same passages I have? Will they laugh at the same moments? Will they also read it on a plane journeying homeward, returning to the house they grew up in, to the comfortable room where they read their first words while bright winter sunlight filtered in through the frost on the window glass?