Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book:
- Possession by A.S. Byatt—Oh, those lost letters of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamonte! Swoon!
- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton—If you didn’t cry when Pony Boy finds that letter from Johnny in his copy of Gone with the Wind, you have no soul.
- Arcadia by Tom Stoppard—It’s a brilliant play about love and quantum mechanics, all sparked by two notes found in an old book.
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince—If you don’t know why I picked this one, ask the nearest 12-year-old.