I relish the weight of a book, the texture of its paper, the memories of passages associated with a particular place upon a physical page. These elements are, of course, adventitious to the text, though they may be welcome and even harmonious. Annotations by previous readers I find more often annoying than enlightening (though I once enjoyed perusing Northrup Frye’s copy of the Dionysiaca). Even my own notes, when made with an eye to classroom teaching rather than my own study, can get on my nerves. A great-grandfather of mine kept a diary in the margins of a Bible. This may sound like a vivid window to the nineteenth century, but most of the entries simply described the weather. Now and then a particularly memorable dinner – a pot roast, for example – is mentioned. Often the new reader can make little of the heart-felt inscriptions from generations before or the sales receipts used as bookmarks.
Yet other notes and inserted material can be a serendipitous pleasure even for the one who put them there. The crabbed and detailed notes with which I filled my copy of Dylan Thomas my first year at college retains nostalgic if not informative value. My undergraduate Greek textbook records the moment when a fellow scholar was called upon to construe a line and could manage only to stammer, “Man, there’s a whole lotta forms here.” In In the flyleaf of a French Rimbaud are scribbled Metro directions and addresses to destinations that no longer mean anything to me. In my Donald Keene anthology of Japanese literature is a New York Times article about Yukio Mishima’s death, not precisely appropriate, but provocative still and now hallowed and yellowed by age. In my Doubleday Anchor Sappho with the Greek originals and Willis Barnstone translations is a photo of a street sign in Oregon saying “Entering Sappho” and another of the Sappho café in the town of that name. More relevant is a broadsheet of a poem folded into a Ferlinghetti book.
For the purchaser of used books the challenge and reward of reading annotations and inserts are both heightened. On the endpapers and fly leaves of my copy of the Wilhelm I Ching, purchased in late sixties San Francisco, are numerous hexagrams and a few telephone numbers, but also two lists. One is concrete items, perhaps a shopping list: art supplies, truck, boots, sleeping bag. The other is more conceptual: yoga, hypnosis, Rubaiyat, Tarot pack, Brotherhood of Light. A more precise and succinct summary of the book’s context at the time could hardly be composed.
The most complete time capsule I have ever discovered, as edifying as most museum exhibits, lay inside the pages of a copy of the History of the American Working Class by Anthony Bimba. The biography of the author alone provides a significant narrative of American history. An immigrant worker from Lithuania, Bimba was a revolutionary activist in the Socialist Party’s Lithuanian Federation, getting arrested in 1918. He favored the Communist Party from its formation, though he was at times associated with alternative tendencies within the Party. In 1926 he was arrested in Massachusetts not only for sedition, but also for blasphemy, under a law dating from early Puritan days. He never lost his rebel spirit and proved uncooperative before the House Un-American Activities Committee only to find himself facing deportation in the early sixties, but the case was ultimately dropped.
Bimba’s book was published in 1927; my copy is a third printing dated 1934. Who might have bought the book in mid-Depression? The Comintern’s Third Period analysis led to Communist condemnation of all reformers, from liberals to Trotskyites, as “social fascists,” prior to Dimitrov’s declaration of the Popular Front in 1935, and Bimba accordingly fiercely rejects the New Deal as a whole and attacks other left groups such as the Socialist Party. The book closes with warnings of war due to the Nazis and the Japanese militarists.
As it happens the purchaser left the book full of papers and documents that detail his own identity and add detailed historical data to the text of the book itself. There is, for instance, a receipt for tuition at NYU bearing the payer’s name David Kaplan  and noting the payment of $47 in “fees” and $7 for athletics. Several inserted pages are covered with very small handwriting in pencil, what are surely class notes. It looks as though Mr. Kaplan was taking education courses and perhaps psychology as well.
A leaflet for a May Day rally in New York’s Union Square calls for “Young Workers and Students” “Negro and White” to “join the great parade.” Another, very likely from the same May Day invites people to evening “Communist celebrations” on Brooklyn and the Bronx. In answer to the question “why do we march” the leaflet mentions labor conditions and the threat of war, condemning Roosevelt right along with Father Coughlin and “the fascist labor-hater Hearst.”
Hearst is in fact the focus of a flyer for an “Anti-Hearst Meeting” sponsored by the NYU Anti-War Committee in February of 1935 featuring five professors as well as speakers from the Daily Worker and the Socialist Party. On the back in faint marks is discernable the legend “TipToe thru the Tulips with Me,” a song that had been popular since topping the chart for months in 1929. Another copy of the anti-Hearst announcement bears what looks like a list of pop songs: “When I’m in Your Arms,” “Never Was a Better Night for Making Love,” and “Nothing LIves Longer than Love,” concluding with “Old Man Rhythm,” from a 1935 movie of the same name with Betty Grable.
Another sheet has a detailed outline for an essay on mining engineering, doubtless work toward a research paper assignment in a composition class. Notes on education cover the back of a torn sheet bearing advertisements for four Brooklyn businesses suggesting the radical young student lived in Brooklyn.
A red leaflet from the NYU chapter of the National Student League bears a call for an anti-war strike on April 12. This document notes rather confusingly that “we believe that any faculty member who has been outstanding in the fight for student rights should be allowed to speak” and yet “in the interests of the unity [sic], we whole-heartedly subscribe to the decision of the Anti-War Committee that there be no faculty speakers. On the verso of this sheet is the s through w section of a list of vocabulary words and their phonetic spellings, including some slightly out-of-the-way terms such as “truculent” and “virago” but also such simple words as “vineyard” and “wreath.”
An unlined page records Kaplan’s notes on what sounds like the elementary level of political lectures: “C. P. is exp. of class struggle.” Exponent? Experienced? What does the “of” suggest? Other notes are clearer, though equally terse: “a party of action,” “mass strikes,” “against militarism and imperialism.” On the other side of the same sheet are notes on left groups in America since “the war.”
On the edge of this May Day flyer is written, “Geoffrey Chaucer of Eng. John L. Lowes,” surely a reference to John Livingston Lowes’ book simply titled Chaucer which had come out in 1934.  It is a pleasure to reflect that the liberal education of the day included a close look at Middle English, perhaps a closer look than even English majors manage these days.
Near this academic memo are two more obscure notes. I believe their charm is best preserved without my communicating the speculations I cannot wholly suppress. One coyly asks (without a question mark), “Would you like to dip it in.” And a short distance away the student reminded himself (with the use if four sets of ditto marks), “never to dream, never to remember, never to forget.”
I enjoyed the alternations between university study and Marxist sympathies on the one hand and popular culture and romance on the other. One could only wonder what became of this bright young man, engaged in learning and social justice, very likely the child of immigrants, after he completed his studies at NYU.
Unlikely though the search seemed, I found an obituary for Mr. Kaplan. This was only possible because he had written his name including a middle initial “B.” on the top of his copy of The History of May Day, a 1932 pamphlet by Alexander Trachtenberg, the founder of International Publishers. He had completed college and left the city, though he didn’t stray far. He taught high school social studies for decades. Though I found no trace of later radicalism, as a teacher he was always active in his union and professional organizations often assuming positions of responsibility and leadership.
In the years since I bought this book, I have not read it. Perhaps I never will. Yet it could be that the notes and inserts sketch out an even more detailed portrait of the mid-1930s in America than Mr. Bimba provides in its text.
1. This is a pseudonym. The actual name was, like Kaplan, one common among European Jews.
2. Marchette Chute’s popular biography Geoffrey Chaucer of England did not come out until 1946. Lowes is best known for his exemplary source research in The Road to Xanadu.