The Secret Lives of Books

I love used books.  Bonus points if they have writing in them or other markings.  I bought a used copy of Good Morning: 365 Positive Ways to Start Your Day by Brook Noel, and inside the book is a handwritten note to Laurie, wishing her a happy birthday, and a good day everyday.


The note made me a little sad.  I wonder who Laurie is, and why she gave up the book.  I imagine she was a teenager, and that she didn’t want a book in the first place.  Or maybe a girlfriend gave Laurie the book, and when they broke up, she disposed of anything that reminded her of that relationship.  Perhaps the book just got mixed in with a stack of things headed for Goodwill, and even now, Laurie wonders what happened to it.

I’ll probably never know.

A friend recently recommended People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks.  I didn’t know what to expect when I read the back cover, and I didn’t expect to like it much.  I read it anyway, since I know that it’s happened to me (more than once) that a book I didn’t expect to like ended up on my list of favorites.


This book was fantastic.

It’s about a Haggadah, which is a Jewish book telling how to perform Passover Sedar.  This particular book is about the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a real book and one of the earliest Jewish books to be illustrated.  This story mixes fact with fiction.

In this story, Hanna is a conservationist who is commissioned to stabilize and preserve this ancient book.  In it, she finds a butterfly’s wing, a hair, a wine stain, and salt.  As she tries to piece together the book’s history from these items, the author takes us back to each even in the book’s existence, telling us what may have happened in its history.

I hate history.  Hate it.  In school, any time I had to read my history textbook, I would literally fall asleep.  To me, it’s all a bunch of dry facts that don’t matter.

The history in this book, however, is alive with humanity.  The peoples’ stories didn’t happen, but they could have.

I love the idea that this book bears silent witness to history.  That’s the reason I love used books and antiques.  Though they can’t tell me their stories, those stories are etched in their energies somehow.  And I’m connected to those stories.  I don’t have to know and understand to feel that connection.

“Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials.  It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.”

-Geraldine Brooks, from People of the Book

5 comments on “The Secret Lives of Books

  1. Lea says:

    I’m so happy you loved this. Books are living breathing history in and of themselves. Which, I think is why some books are harder than others to get through when going through life struggles. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I am not into reading book reviews. I came because this is more than a review. Just as all history is really alive with humanity! Unfortunately, due to lack of space and time, it gets condensed down to bare, dry facts in school history books and turns many a soul off.

    Barbara, blogging at Life & Faith in Caneyhead

  3. Janet Miles says:

    I get an email from Brook Noel every morning and have seen her book at Barnes and Noble but have not gotten it yet. Interesting thought about the previous owner. You never know!

  4. It is interesting to think about how a used book made its way to you, isn’t it?

  5. […] People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks– (Another Lea recommendation!) I wrote an entire blog post on how much I loved this book, so I won’t belabor it too much. Hanna is a conservationist who’s tasked with […]

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