Things We Leave Behind

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

I spend a great deal of money purchasing new books, as I know you probably do too. I love bookstores and I’m so grateful for the ones that are still around. I also love to hang out at libraries and used bookstores. It’s better on the budget, no doubt about it, but it’s more than that.

There’s just something cool about holding a book in my hand and reading the words, knowing that someone else held that very same book. Someone else read those very same words. As I’m reading I wonder, who were those other people? What did they think of it? Did they respond the same way I am… or quite differently?

I love this “permanent” aspect of paper-and-ink books. They can almost become like living entities, as they get passed around from hand to hand.

Readers leave bits of themselves behind in books, too, giving tantalizing clues about who they are. There’s the typical coffee stain, and sometimes marks of different colors that beg the question: What were they eating while they read this? A ham sandwich? Strawberry ice cream?

Then there’s the underlining, highlighting and dog-eared pages. I love to ponder the lines and paragraphs others have thought important enough to mark (especially in library books — that takes a lot of nerve!) Sometimes I agree with the significance of the passage. Sometimes I puzzle over it, not quite getting what was so great about it.

I have to say, though, that the coolest thing about used books is the treasures I often find inside. Not the words, but bookmarks, business cards, greeting cards, and mysterious notes left inside by previous readers. It’s amazing to me how often I find these things, and I save every one of them. They’re a tangible clue to that unknown person who read this book before me, and they conjure up pictures in my mind, piquing my curiosity.

One time I found a folded napkin from Frontier Airlines in a book. There was nothing written on it (although that would have been great) but there was a pink heart sticker on it. Hmmm. A child maybe? But it wasn’t a child’s book.

I found a business card for a private investigator (how exciting!) with scribbles on the back, including several websites, one of them being the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado and a notation, “first Weds of every month.” I sat for awhile thinking about how neat it might be to be a private investigator, but couldn’t quite imagine Kinsey Milhone or Stephanie Plum going to a monthly meeting with fellow detectives.

The most precious thing I’ve found in a book was a beautiful flowery notecard with a handwritten note. It was addressed “Dearest Margaret” and signed “Love, Nancy” and contained a lovely quote on mothering among other things. When reading something like this, I can’t help feeling voyeuristic and kind of like I’m intruding on someone’s privacy. But then I realize, it’s not my fault I opened this book and found this notecard here. And maybe this note was, in some cosmic fashion, meant to come into my hands. Maybe Nancy’s lovely note to Margaret has something in it for me. Maybe it came to me because I save and treasure these things, and therefore the note has even more meaning than it originally did.

It doesn’t matter; I keep the little clues others leave behind, to remind me of the real people out there who read our books.

I do sometimes wonder if these people are missing their little items… probably not an airline napkin, but it’s possible the detective is looking for that business card, and Margaret might be wondering where she put that sweet note from Nancy. I always have a moment of wanting to be a detective myself and track those people down and return their items. But I usually don’t follow up.

What I do know is this: There’s an amazing, fun feeling of discovery every time I open a book, and these little treasures left behind only add to the thrill. Books take me to unexpected places, give me a glimpse into other people’s lives… and the things other readers leave behind, well, they make the experience that much richer.


Photo by Adriana Velásquez on Unsplash

19 Responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. The gentle way in which the golden threads of our lives touch others in the woof and warp of God’s glorious tapestry has, I think, a meaning far greater than proximity and far more dear than coincidence, and will be vouchsafed to us by the Almighty when we stand in His Presence.
    * And He will ask us, softly, about the prayers we offered for those we never met.

  2. Hannah Currie says:

    What a beautiful thought! I love second hand books too for much the same reasons, although I’ve never found anything more than names (which totally make me want to know who that person is!) and the occasional underlining. Now I want to go out and hunt for some with treasures inside! 🙂

  3. I think I left my grocery list in a library book. Did the next reader think we eat an odd assortment? Or simply assume that I am doubly forgetful? How charming it would be if the stranger with similar taste in books shopped and dropped my groceries on my front stoop.
    * Thank you, Rachelle, for this elegant essay on those who have read before.

  4. Once, I left a trillium bloom in a book as a bookmark. To realize how reckless and rebellious this was, you have to know that trilliums are a lovely mountain wildflower that will not come back and bloom again for seven years if you pluck a blossom. My grandmother was forever telling us never to pick a trillium and I obeyed for most of my childhood. But then, when I graduated from high school, I wanted to mark the occasion with some bold action. I thought about a tattoo, but couldn’t come up with something significant enough to have upon my person forever. Someone had given me the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” and so I went out into the June forest, picked one of the precious trilliums in wild rebellion, and pressed it between the pages. Years later, I opened the book to find that perfectly preserved blossom. I wonder, if my sons will realize its significance when they uncover it someday. I’m sure they will. I’m forever telling them “Don’t pick the trilliums!”

  5. Your words are so soft and sentimental, Rachelle … thanks for sweetening my day.

  6. Beautiful post, Rachelle. So sweet. I needed that today. 🙂

  7. You’ve found some great things left behind in your books, Rachelle! I’ve never been that lucky. But as I read your post, a story idea started percolating. 🙂 I love reading the notes others have left in books. They are insightful and revealing sometimes.

  8. Katie Powner says:

    Many times I’ve bought books at garage sales or Thrift stores with interesting inscriptions. A book of poems said: “To Bonnie, my Mt. Everest friend, whose spirit sings the music for which these lyrics search. Love always, Kathryn.” Another book had a little boy’s school picture inside. I love finding these things!

  9. Sarah Sundin says:

    Best “left-behind-in-a-book” story…my mother worked at a Friends of the Library used bookstore for many years. One day she was shelving new donations and realized the “book” was one of those safes that’s disguised as a book! Inside she found some very nice, probably heirloom, jewelry. Of course she wanted to find the owner, but how? One of the pieces was a pin from a golf tournament at a local country club inscribed with “second place” (or whatever place it was) and the year. My mom called the country club, and they went through their tournament records, found the winner, and gave my mom her telephone number. The owner was thrilled to receive her precious jewelry back…and my mom got written up in the local paper!

  10. Jackie Layton says:

    What a sweet post. I also enjoy browsing books at estate sales. I feel like I know the owner better by the books they selected. Inscriptions are also interesting.

  11. As a library director, we find special gifts in books daily. The most interesting thing we discovered was a dried squirrel’s tail someone used for a bookmark. We discarded the book. I’m amazed at how many people leave behind old photos. I used to have a patron who marked out all the swear words. I had to threaten to take away her borrowing privileges. You never know what you might find in a library book.

  12. Confession: when I see typos in library books I correct them.

  13. Mary Kay Moody says:

    So enjoyed reading about this bit of book-love, Rachelle. I like seeing the underlinings or margin notes. The most powerful remnant I discovered in a library book was cat dander ~ I’m dangerously allergic. So now I don’t read many used books. I’m missing out on that chain.

  14. Angie Arndt says:

    I love hearing about things found in books. There’s a string on this topic on LibraryThing, too ( One person said the oddest thing they’d heard of was a piece of unfried bacon.

    When library books used cards, I enjoyed looking at who had checked out what and how long they’d kept them out. It gave me a sense of community (before Facebook), knowing there were others who loved reading the same books I enjoyed.

    Great topic, Rachelle!

  15. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    Rachelle, what lovely tribute to books.
    I have a large collection as well, going back to first editions. In fact, I’ve recently weaned myself off my computer and t.v. at night and returned to reading a chapter before turning in. Much healthier.
    The slower pace offers me a chance to think as I read rather than watching images fly by on the screen. Different parts of the brain come into play…and ‘play’ it does! 🙂 Feels like I go deeper into the story when I read.
    A recent (pleasant) problem: made a renewed connection with my great-grandparents by reading a few books about their gilded age era–with non-fiction and mysteries–and I’m hooked! So, now I’m writing a G.A. story, and it actually seems to go faster and easier. At first I was torn between two loves–gilded age & early American– and didn’t know which direction to go. I prayed about it, though, and the Lord led when I made that connection with my g-grandparents through those old books, notes & photos.
    We’ve always known reading helps develop the brain, and now it seems even more important since they’re saying that young, developing minds can get hooked to technology….
    Thanks again for these thoughts on books and the many connections we make through them.

  16. Peggy Booher says:

    I’m coming very late to this conversation, I know, but wanted to add this to it: I was in the local library today, and went to the book-sale room. I bought a book, Garden of Faith, with an inscription by the author, Lynne Hinton!