Pre-owned, pre-loved

Display in The Rye Bookshop, East Sussex

Inverted Commas 4: Used Books

I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?

Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.

The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.

For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.

The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.

I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.

I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.

Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”

Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?

Another book display, The Rye Bookshop

49 thoughts on “Pre-owned, pre-loved

    1. My inclination too, Mallika. That said, I was attracted to a couple of Mary Renault paperbacks recently, but they were ancient, with brittle discoloured paper and spines with glue that looked ready to give up the ghost. I decided to wait…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I buy both secondhand and new books. My main criterion is really an educated guess about how often I will reread the book. If I think I will reread it more than a couple of times I try to buy it new or in really good condition. If I am not sure I will finish it I’ll buy it in any condition. Mostly I enjoy books best when I have already read them. With new stories I sometimes like to read a plot summary first so I know the basic structure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mostly I follow your approach, Jo, though I’m less concerned about plot summaries, happy to go on cover blurbs or recommendations by readers I trust.

      Like you I buy both new and old, but I really can’t bear grubby books or ones that are falling apart. I read a paperback which seemed in reasonable condition but it was only when I’d nearly finished it that I realised that a whole chapter and a half was missing, the pages fallen out at some stage in the past, though it wasn’t obvious at the very start. Most frustrating.


  2. I buy new books only when I’m totally sure I love the book in question. Which usually means I need to read it beforehand… ๐Ÿ˜‰ But I do like a clean, used copy – provided it was not annotated. Notes of any kind in the text or on margins put me in a really rare mood… ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My feelings exactly, Ola, annotations (especially in indelible ink) are the pits!

      I really don’t mind too much about taking a chance with new fiction paperbacks, in the UK they’re still — for the moment — relatively good value at around ยฃ7.99 (often ยฃ1.00 cheaper for YA and children’s books). But occasionally I pick up a real stinker of a novel which I almost can’t bear to pass on to another unsuspecting reader. At least I can work off my frustration with a devastating review!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. grabaspine

    We love the idea of “pre-loved”. Library, second hand, goodwill, borrowed and preowned… matters little to us. The problem is that there are just too many to bring home. Like to doggie in the pound, they all just look at you with sad eyes wanting to come back with you. “Yes” is our usual answer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m very picky about quality of second-hand books. Multiple spine creases are an absolute no-no, as is general grubbiness. I have big problems buying second hand books on Amazon, as most that are described as VG, for which the criteria includes no spine creases, inevitably turn up in barely G condition often very creased/tatty/leaning etc. At least in charity shops, you see what you’re getting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, Annabel, spine creases lead to loose pages which lead to lost pages and lead to frustration; meanwhile grubby books don’t get second looks.

      I don’t get a lot of books from Amazon but — apart from books that never arrive — I’ve been lucky that the used ones have been as described. Still, I too prefer to see exactly what it is I’m getting.


  5. I have no problem with buying second hand and am not too worried about the condition either – as long as it’s not falling apart. One thing though that I hate to come across is food stains on a page…..ugh!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Food stains are unforgiveable, but I won’t describe the objects I saw that used to be used as bookmarks in books returned to our library (though nothing as bad as the possibly apocryphal bacon rasher I heard about).


  6. I love vintage books, had a set for my birthday, of course about churches, signed by the authors, with wonderful notes inside the cover of each book from them. I will use them, but just like to sit and hold them. I have some first editions, again about churches, again I just like having them ๐Ÿ™‚ I did read three books on holiday, first time in years ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like secondhand hardback editions if possible, and especially if they’re non-fiction and if they’re printed on decent paper, not like the cheap paperbacks that flooded the market in the sixties and seventies which fell apart as soon as you looked at them.

      First editions are fine, but I prefer later editions if typos and factual errors have been corrected and newer information included to keep pace with new research and developments. Signed editions are nice but I’m not particularly fussed unless there’s a personal message to me from the author.

      Three books on holiday, Lynn, way to go! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have pretty low standards, having worked in libraries and with used books for a long time. I do like a book to be fairly easy to read–if the pages are all stiff and too yellowed, I’ll look for something easier to deal with. I don’t like really grubby books, and since I sort donated books every week, I can afford to be a bit picky with the stuff that’s easier to come by. (There are a zillion copies of Eat, Pray, Love out there — don’t bother with a grubby one!).

    A few months ago I happened upon a copy of a book of essays that isn’t easy to come by, and it was in OK shape except for a brownish smear across the top of the cover. I took it home, thinking I just wouldn’t handle that part of the book, but instead my imagination got steadily more awful. Was it blood? (Almost certainly not.) I wound up recycling the book and getting a different copy on ILL. Then it wasn’t very interesting anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thing we’re all agreed grubby books are a massive no-no, Jean, I can’t imagine anybody happy to put up with those! Those donated copies of once popular publications — the Dan Brown farragos, Kate Mosse historical romances and Lynn Truss grammar rants — are present on every charity bookshop shelves here in the UK, but I can’t imagine there are any takers nowadays!

      What was that book of essays, by the way, so I can avoid it? ๐Ÿ˜


      1. It was Wendy Kaminer, who I really like, but the essays dated from the 90s or earlier and I tell you what, a giant pile of 20-year-old essays on feminism and related topics winds up reading alternately boring and strange. I remember the 90s well, and it’s one of my favorite decades seeing as how it was my college and early-married years, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend that long reading about it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, some periods are still very close to us and barely count as history, as that famous opening sentence: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”


  8. I think I remember a librarian blog listing odd things found in returned books, one of which was a slice of bacon! An absent-minded reader?

    I don’t mind used books at all, as long as both covers are intact. NYC’s Strand Bookstore advertises several miles worth of bookshelves, all filled with used books. Not a place to go for a quick browse. I trust the Strand to make sure no pages are missing from anything they stock — and that they’ve removed all loose food items.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that slice of bacon story I mentioned in my reply to Cathy746 above, I do hope it was true! Also the one about a fried egg (though I find that unlikely). Bus tickets, shopping lists, speeding fines and newspaper clippings seem to be common.

      The Strand Bookstore: one hopes they take credit cards and provide trolleys to carry away one’s booty. It’s bad enough visiting Hay-on-Wye with its multiplicity of bookshops…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’ve seen the bacon picture, though I can’t remember where. Years ago, I saw a display at the Berkeley Public Library of weird bookmarks and the effects on the books. They had actually found a banana peel used as a bookmark, and the book with banana-shaped mildew spots all over it was sitting there all sad and ruined.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. piotrek

    It depends… I really like pre-owned and visibly loved paperbacks, but for books that are important – it’s either a barely used hardcover or a brand new one ๐Ÿ™‚

    I have a few books I ordered online that were not as pretty as promised… it’s annoying, but usually I read them anyway. Once I received a stinking book, and that was too much, even for me…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Visibly loved” is an excellent description, Piotrek, the state that I in turn hope to pass books on.

      One letdown for me with some otherwise decent secondhand books is when they are so obviously ex-library books (whether legitimately so or, worse, stolen) because the title page with publishing details on the verso side has been cut away—I hate that, it’s like a lost certificate or passport, or those dreams where you realise you’re out in public without clothes on… ๐Ÿ˜

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I do like second-hand books, though at some point a secondhand book or library book brought in an infestation of book lice, which I didn’t enjoy (being phobic about insects in general). Generally it can be a really good source of books and I certainly never hesitated before, but that was a bit of a turnoff…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not surprised they were a turn-off, Nikki, it’s horrible to (as it were) invite a book into your home only to find it’s a Trojan horse—it must have made you think twice, or at least examine each book very carefully.


  11. I LOOOOVE used books. There’s a terrific chain in the States called Half Price Books, where one can buy and sell their media. I’ve no problem with a book being a bit beat-up, nor do my kids (who beat up the books plenty in their fights over them). I’ve even gotten a few signed copies this way, like Colin Dexter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One thing about used books is that it’s helping save the planet! Yes, it doesn’t pay the author I know, but if the book is good and the reader enjoyed it they’d be more inclined to buy the next novel new, I believe. That’s what works for me, anyway!

      Colin Dexter, eh? I enjoyed the Morse tv series years ago but never got round to reading the books. Do you know he always appeared in Morse episodes as a walk-on walk-off extra? ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I saw a couple of the Lewis episodes, enjoyable I agree, but the atmosphere had dissipated. However, we’ve got into Grantchester, a period drama series set near Cambridge which has a similar town-and-gown feel to the Morse series, also based on a series of detective novels, in which the main protagonist is actually a troubled Anglican priest. Father Brown he is not, though.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post … I regret that I missed it earlier this year!

    Thanks to marrying/living with a librarian/archivist, I’ve become MUCH more knowledgeable about the books I buy. I now am better able to understand how easily some paperbacks’ pages crumble (and which ones are more apt to) and how to see quality craftsmanship in a book itself, with regard to its binding, covers, endpapers, etc. I no longer dog-ear books’ pages, I do take better care of those in my possession, and I stop myself from correcting errors in pen in the books I read (yes, I’m a lifelong copyeditor, by profession and inclination!). Nonetheless, the thrill of getting a ‘new’ (to me) book is still there, whether it’s a paperback or hardback. I love thrift shop (and occasionally yard sale) purchases, as well as the little, independent bookstores. Oh, and I know how important hardbacks (with their dustjackets intact) are now; honestly, I used to think they were a heavy nuisance and didn’t want to pay the higher price.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love to get hardbacks of titles I definitely want to keep and, as you say, they’re best with their dust jackets on; secondhand copies in good condition are also fine. Defaced books however I find distressing, and if I can get an unmarked replacement then I’ll go for it.

      I approve your desisting and ceasing from dogearing books—I’ve long kept a supply of old postcards and bookshop bookmarks always to hand for just this reason. You’ve done well then with your choice of partner! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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