Shall I compare thee…In Praise of Ex-library books

Shall I compare thee…In Praise of Ex-library books

They are the ugly stepchildren of the used book business, at best forgotten, but more frequently maligned, cursed, and banned. They are ex-library books and I love them. Let’s face it, anyone can love a crisp, unblemished, jacketed copy of The Sound and the Fury or a lovely Through the Looking Glass in a Riviere binding. There’s no effort there – to truly love a book, you have to see past its faults, and if there’s one thing that ex-library books have, it’s faults: Spine labels, glued on jackets, endpapers excised by a librarian’s ragged letter opener, glue marks, doodles in felt tip marker throughout chapter 3, masking tape repairs to hinges; if you can imagine a problem, I’ve seen a library book with it – and some others.

So what’s to love? For one, the price. Will all those haters out there, nothing is less dear than an ex-library book. There’s also comparatively little competition, and the knowledge that your capacity to love the unlovable makes you a better person. Don’t forget those horrible library bindings – everyone just passes over those, and you might find a nice 1807 First American edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson inside:


So, to express my great affection for these lost and picked over detritus of the used book world, I’ve written a sonnet in their honor. You might notice that in lieu of some iambs (short long) there is the occasional trochee (long short) and maybe even a dactyl or an anapest here or there (which might account for the 11 syllable line). I would like to state, for the record, that these are all intentional and I used them to mirror the imperfections of my subject in the imperfect meter of my verse. Really.

Shall I compare thee to an unread text?
Thou art less lovely but more affordable
Rough hands withdraw them not nor their pages vex
Jackets pristine, their flaws ignorable
An unread book is like a door unope’d
No trips of fancy in its pages had
And worse yet if its pages be uncoup’d
It might as be a rock, a hole, a shad
But thy glittering jacket will not fade
Nor will you be remaindered, forgotten
But taken home by me, my dollar paid
Not treasured or packed with care in cotton
But unlocked and freed from chains academe
Unlocked again a book, a hope, a meme.

Here’s an ex-library Radices Sanscritae for the road, 1827, Berlin.


Post by: Tom Nealon

Pazzo Books
4268 Washington St.
Roslindale, MA 02131

9 thoughts on “Shall I compare thee…In Praise of Ex-library books”

  1. A couple of comments just came in via email:

    Dear Tom, I have never responded to a blog before, but your post about ex libris books spoke to me. I sell very nice books on the net Gardening, Cookbooks,Interiors,etc. In addition ,I like to have wonderful cheap books for my local less affluent customers to love.(Being a retired teacher influences this)I LOVE EX LIBRIS BOOKS TO FILL THIS NICHE. I have local college students and young mothers needing children’s books and ex libris are affordable and they are GREEN. I really believe in a downward spiraling economy this is a good tack.

    Kay Graham


    Ah, thanks Tom. I thought I was all alone in my
    love for ex-library books. Well bound, well
    loved, and broken in (or not). I’ve often found
    books I’ve searched for that were former library
    books and are nearly pristine. I guess it really
    is all in the eye of the beholder.

    Jessica L. Lloyd-Rogers

  2. Hey Tom Thanks for posting this. – Your line,

    “And worse yet if its pages be uncoup’d
    It might as be a rock, a hole, a shad”,

    made me realize that I didn’t know the actual term for those pages where the signature is folded over, untrimmed and you have to peek between the top or bottom edges to read it or get out a letter opener to separate them. Inspired me to do a bit of a search and found one piece by J.A. Judson that calls them simply “Uncut Leaves” – Much easier that the unwieldy lines I’ve used in listings.

    The address below (PDF) is from 1905 – “Deckel Edges and Uncut Leaves”.
    I find a book like that and I know that it has never been read. Do authors turn over in their graves when the edges are finally cut? I hardly think so…

  3. There’s a funny story about Coleridge and Wordsworth at Dove’s Cottage examining an uncut volume. Coleridge wanted to get a proper implement for opening the pages, but Wordsworth, wielding a butter knife fresh from buttering his bread, opened the book with that, butter and all.

    I’m more or less in the Wordsworth camp on this one – better to cut the pages with a buttery knife than to leave them uncut – it’s just too depressing to see a 200 year old book that has never even been perused.

    I would amend though – try to at least find a butter knife NOT covered in butter first.

  4. Would have loved to see Coleridge’s face at that point in time. They didn’t have point and click cameras back then did they. Too bad. – A video of it would have been great. –

  5. I remember writing a dissertation on Coleridge’s kublai khan back in ENC1101… I hated it then but have since gone back and re-read it. Definitely more enjoyable the older/ more cultured you become.

  6. Our family loves ex-library books! Twice a year the library has a used book sale and we fill up bags and struggle to carry them to the car. We are homeschoolers, so I dare say we have more books in our house than most families. I recently bought Carolyn Hayward’s “B if For Betsy,” and am reading it aloud to my children. It is fun reliving my childhood with my children, through the sharing of my favorite books from childhood. We own a complete set of the Borrowers series and are now collecting The Chronicles of Narnia.

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