I was leafing through a used book to sell in my online bookstore. It had a lot of underlining and notes in the margin. Hmmm…that meant I would have to describe this otherwise beautiful book only as “good”, rather than “very good”.
Sometimes messy writing and underlining completely destroys a good book. But sometimes intelligent, thought-provoking notes can make a good book even better.
I almost always make notes in my own books, but I hardly ever get rid of a book I have enjoyed enough to write in.
This train of thought took me to one of my favourite stories about writing in a book. I heard it years ago and I don’t know if it’s a true story. But I love it. I hope you will too.
It was sometime during the days of the Second World War and Lieutenant John Jeffries was going to be shipped overseas for a long tour of duty. A few days before his departure he went to a used book store to pick up a few books to take with him. As he browsed the shelves, his choices were random and eclectic.
Several months later, thousands of miles from home and feeling very forlorn, John opened one of the books. It immediately captured his attention. But what captured his attention even more, were the notes and underlines in the book. It seemed that the previous owner had been fascinated and interested in all the same parts as John himself. It was uncanny! Reading on, John kept wishing he could have a conversation with the person who had marked in the book.
He flipped to the front of the book, and looked at the name and address carefully penned on a bookplate: Catherine Abernathy, of such and such a street in Raleigh, New Jersey.
After some consideration, and feeling kind of silly and awkward, John wrote a letter to Catherine Abernathy in New Jersey. He explained that he had purchased the used book, and asked if she had written all the notes and underlined the passages in this book which bore her nameplate.
(Nothing ventured, nothing gained.)
Catherine wrote back in the affirmative. And so began a wonderful pen pal friendship.
For John, the dark days of the war were lightened with every letter from Catherine. They talked deeply and thoroughly about every subject. They agreed about most things, and had interesting, stimulating discussions about the things they did not.
John could hardly wait for his leave when hopefully he would have an opportunity to meet this amazing woman in person.
So far Catherine had refused to send him a photograph, saying she didn’t want looks to interfere with what seemed to be a very real and honest friendship.
Sometimes John considered Catherine’s point with instinctive nervousness. But he always pushed his discomfort aside, reminding himself that there are more important things than looks. Didn’t their letters prove how compatible they were in all the ways that really count? Did it really matter what Catherine looked like?
Finally, in May of 1945 John would be coming home! He and Catherine made arrangements to meet in Times Square. On such and such a day, she told him, she would be at the corner of Broadway and 7th Avenue. She would be there at noon, and he would know her because she would be carrying a book.
Lieutenant John Jeffries was only one of many handsome young servicemen basking in the glow of victory and bright sunshine that Sunday afternoon in late May. And wherever he looked, there were lots of pretty girls, ready to flirt with their heroes!
John was a little bewildered as he looked around, trying to catch sight of a girl or woman with a book. (He didn’t even know how old Catherine was!)
No books in sight – but plenty of smiles.
One of the cutest girls John had ever seen brushed up close to him and gave him a wink, and a smile. “Hey soldier, goin’ my way?”
“Sorry,” John managed, “I’m meeting a friend.” With some regret he watched the pretty blond flounce away with a swish of her sea green sundress, and a tap of dainty white sandals.
A few moments later he noticed a rather plain looking, middle aged woman sitting on a bench holding a book. She had a nice face, but she was…well, rather squarish, and wearing what they call “sensible shoes”.
Reminding himself that looks are only skin deep, and reinforcing in his mind all the wonderful conversations they had shared in letters, John approached her. “Hello. Are you Catherine Abernathy?” He held out his hand.
Squinting in the sunlight, the woman looked up at John through her wire-rimmed glasses. “I don’t exactly know what this is all about,” she giggled, holding the book out toward John, “but that blond woman in the green dress asked me to hold onto this book. She said if you come over and talk to me I should give you the book and ask you to meet her at that coffee shop there across the street.”