Reading between the lines

“I love old books. They tell you stories about their use. You can see where the fingerprints touched the pages as they held the book open. You can see how long they lingered on each page by the finger stains.”

–Jack Bowman

It was only a cheap, dogeared paperback on the clearance rack of a used book store in upstate New York, a mystery novel I had never heard of by a writer I didn’t know.

So, how could I resist?

For me, hours “squandered” in musty, old bookstores amid often unorganized stacks and shelves full of unimagined treasures and inexplicable junk alike are always hours well-spent. Not only have I discovered in that way any number of wonderful books that otherwise never would have landed in my hands (or my consciousness), but I’ve picked up more of what one friend used to call “literary junk food” than I probably should admit.

Especially the mysteries, my escapist books of choice.

And, sometimes, the mystery only deepens. That was the case with one book I picked up somewhere along the line, only to find several family photos tucked in the pages, hinting at untold stories.

And that was the case with that cheap, dogeared paperback I mentioned above. Besides the intended story, it turned out, some reader before me had scribbled some margin notes that raised questions of their own.

I don’t have a solution for that mystery, of course. But it did prompt me to write this poem:

Marginal Lives

 For all we know, or can suspect,

these love lines aren’t worth the paper

they were printed on a dozen years ago—

when “Robert” underlined certain scenes

for “the sexiest trooper in New York”

and underscored their anticipated significance

in neatly inked notes drawn in the now-musty

margins of this paperback detective novel

we come across on the bargain rack

at the secondhand bookstore on Hamilton Street.

“All books this shelf twenty-five cents,”

the sign advises, neglecting to say

there are mysteries between these covers

that the author never contemplated

and we will never solve.

“Marginal Lives” appeared in Memoir (and) Vol. 3, No. 1, 2010

Copyright 2010, 2013 by Kenneth Salzmann

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