The Secret Life of a Book

I was looking through the clearance shelves at Half Price Books and came across a worn, old book, which I bought for two dollars.  It was small and had a damaged spine.   The cover read, “The New Hudson Shakespeare” with the initials, “W.S.” embossed on the cover.


Carefully opening it, I flipped a few pages and saw this was The Tragedy of Hamlet.


The book was clearly old, and the copyright was 1909 by Ginn and Company, an imprint of The Athenaeum Press in Boston U.S.A. 

3-copyright date

Some more queries in Bing and I learned Ginn and Company was a major textbook publishing house of the day.  They later became part of the Penguin Group.

The building they occupied in Cambridge, MA was huge – 380,000 square feet, and very ornate, topped by a statue of Athena.  The building still stands today and has multiple tenants, including the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and the Cambridge Athletic Club.


I did more research and found a number of old books by Ginn and Company for sale on and other sites.  I found an old wooden sign for sale on, possibly from the side of a book crate. (update: the sign apparently sold, as I can’t find it on any longer.)

Ginn and Co sign

There is a silent movie from 1925 on that shows, “book manufacturing at a major textbook publishing house, Ginn and Company. The film shows large-scale letterpress printing and bookbinding from their Athenaeum Press. Found in the Moviecraft archive.”

If you watch it, I recommend jumping to 9:12 minutes in, where it actually shows the workings inside of Athenaeum Press.  As stated before, this is a SILENT movie: 

Ginn and Company (Athenaeum Press), 1925 on

The inside, front cover of the book is filled with handwritten notes and scribbling, not the least of which was (presumably) two of the book’s previous owners: Thelma C_ and Nancy E_.  One included a street address in Roanoke, VA. 

written twice is, “Roll call – 111B.”

Then there are notes in pencil, very faint on the yellowed pages, but I am able to make out enough that these are study notes.

One states, “Point out actual place where you think Hamlet is on the verge of insanity.”

4-Inside Cover

I thought this stamp was cool.  Note the names, “Fred” and, “Thelma” over each bird, and then, the book passed to Nance E_ at some point, who (presumably) added the last names to each in pencil: Eshole and Titbiter.

5-Inside Cover-stamp

The notes continued on the next page after the cover.  “La mare au Diable” is written on one page, which is a French book by George Sand, the title translated as, “The Devil’s Pool.”   I had never heard of it before, but it does have some acclaim in literary circles.   Then, there is the large, “74.”  Maybe she was in the graduating class of 1974? 

Based on all these notes, I’d say Nance E_ needed a proper notebook.

6.Inside cover-2

The pencil notes continue on the inside of the back cover as well.  “Roll Call 111B” repeats here.


Along with some doodling – Mr. Roundhead, here.  I’m guessing that Nancy E_ was not an art student.


Like Nancy E_, I read Hamlet in school and have no desire to read it again.  Still, looking through the notes and history of the book itself, I have been told an interesting (to me, anyway) – if incomplete – story. 

This is the secret life a book leads.  Over a hundred years in circulation, it is still being enjoyed and now tells a completely unique story; a story singular to this one book – of the hands it passed through and marks they left behind – along with the one originally printed on its pages. 

I hope Nancy E_ did well in her studies.  I hope she managed her roll call, as it seemed to worry her enough to write it three times in the book.  I hope she’s lived a happy life, and I wonder if she is still alive, today.  It would be creepy for me to look her up on the Internet, so I’m letting my research stop here, but I really do hope she had\has a good life.


4 thoughts on “The Secret Life of a Book

  1. I love old books… the stories they tell, besides the one intended. I often wonder who had the book before me, did it inspire something in them? There is an added magic of used books that people often overlook, for once they gave their gift to another, and I like to think about that and how it maybe gave them the same thoughts and ideas as myself.

    • whiteRavenSoars – What a great name! I have an American Indian character in “Undertaking Hartford” named DogGettingGun – I like WhiteRavenSoars so much more.
      Anyway, I completely agree with you about the ‘added magic’ of used books, as you say.


  2. Pingback: My book has lived. | Books on the Tube

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