Friday, 26 March 2010

Every Book

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Items found and placed in a second-hand copy of 'Walking On Glass' by Iain Banks

Every book naturally tells a story; second-hand books often have the capacity to tell a totally different story to the one contained in the printed pages, but it is a story without narrative, with only the reader's imagination itself to determine the characters, plots and events in the story.

I bought two second-hand books from a café at a farm in Bedfordshire; the nominal amount of money they cost was donated to the Haiti earthquake appeal. The books were Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote and Walking On Glass by Iain Banks.

Inside Walking On Glass, at a seemingly random interval in the book was a white envelope, slit open crudely along the short edge; on the front, in pencil, the words 'WED 10.00'; on the reverse, in Biro, a few small doodles, a stylised star and the name 'Christina'. There was also a credit-sized cardboard advert for the Cineworld complex in Stevenage.

In the inside front cover, a red ink stamp proclaimed the book to have been withdrawn from the stock of South Tyneside library and sold for 20p.

On page 59, a reader had circled the page number with a blue Biro. The page, part of a sequence where one of the three main characters (Graham) falls deeper in love with Sara ffitch, is mildly moving, but nothing fundamental to the story compared to any other page in the book.

The objects, scribbles and circlings prompt questions: why did the book get sold? How did it find its way to Bedfordshire? What was so significant about page 59? Who is or was Christina? What happened at 10.00 on that Wednesday? Was it a date between the book's owner and the mysterious Christina? Did the date go well? Did they marry, move in together and decide, during a disposal of their combined individual possessions, to rid themselves of this book? You quickly move from seeing the clues as not independent items but part of a broader narrative that runs in parallel to the mystifying, curiously unreal and detached theme of the book itself. Just like the three apparently separate strands that run throughout the book, they coalesce into a semblance of a unified story.

My own additions to the book's story I am more sure of: I used the cover of a torn box of matches from Brasserie Lipp in Geneva as my bookmark, for no other reason than it was lying on the desk in my hotel when I was reading the book. In the back I put a torn corner of a page of an MC Escher desk calendar bearing the word 'Tokyo' and a folded yellow Post-It bearing a mobile number for someone I called weeks ago; both were lying on my desk at work and got swept into the cover of the book when I left the office for the day.

I'm tempted to keep them all in there, hand it into a charity shop, let the next owner find them and construct their own story about the book itself and its previous owners, a story that moves from South Tyneside to Stevenage to Geneva to Tokyo. It might mean nothing or it might nurture one of the finest pieces of modern literature; the point is we'll never know.

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