Not everyone likes used books. The smears, smudges, underlinings, and ossified toast scintillae left by their previous owners may strike daintier readers as a little icky, like secondhand underwear. When I was young I liked my books young as well. Virginal paperbacks, their margins a tabula rasa for narcissistic scribbles, were cheap enough to inspire minimal guilt when I wrote in them and bland enough to accept my defacements without complaint. In those days, just as I believed that age would buffet other people’s bodies but not my own, so I believed my paperbacks would last forever. I was wrong on both counts. My college Penguins now explode in clouds of acidic dust when they are prized from their shelves. ‘Penny Wise and Book Foolish’, on the other hand, remains ravishing at the age of sixty-eight, its binding still firm and its bottle-green cover only slightly faded.

Anne Fadiman, Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998).


Called on Miss Lamb. I looked over Lamb’s library in part. He has the finest collection of shabby books I ever saw. Such a number of first-rate works of genius, but filthy copies, which a delicate man would really hesitate touching, is, I think, nowhere to be found.

Henry Crabb Robinson, diary entry for 10 January 1834.


I don’t mind used books, as long as they are in a condition that is acceptable to me. They can look creased and yellow, but they must not feel sticky nor filthy to the touch. And having stains of any kind (other than inky ones) are a big no-no for me. I have to, at least, be comfortable enough holding the book to read, and not be trying my best to keep it at a safe distance with minimal body contact the whole time.

One of the things I like about used books though, is how soft and pliable the book is, and how easily the pages are turned, having its spine already broken (gently, hopefully!). Much as I love the feeling of holding a new book in hand, I do find myself being more relaxed around a pre-loved book, since I do not have to worry about breaking the spine, creasing the pages, scratching the cover, etc… etc… :p

Mr. Lamb must be one who shares the same attitude towards books as Lord Chesterfield did.

Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside, is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.

Lord Chesterfield, letter to his son, 10 January 1749.

How about the rest of you?
Do you share the same sentiment as that of Lamb and Chesterfield, or are you perhaps like me, who find the words of John Updike striking a closer chord to the heart.

….. whatever else it may be, a book is a manufactured item, which should be amusing to look at and pleasant to hold.

John Updike, ‘A bookish boy’.



3 thoughts on “Friday Feature : On Used Books

  1. I have been very lucky with used books. Some only have a little remainder mark, and the book is new. Others I consider in very good condition.Stung once and was given credit.


  2. I like used books if they aren’t in too dilapidated a condition. And smelling of cigarette smoke is a dealbreaker. I buy used to save money, too–when it comes to books, more is better!


  3. I love the feel and look of second-hand books, but agree with you about stickiness – it always makes me shudder if I pick up a volume and the cover feels sticky or greasy. Speaking as someone who volunteers in an Oxfam book shop (we wipe the outside of our books) I find that cobwebs and spiders are a turn-off as well…


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