The Pleasures of the Used Text: Revealing Traces of Consumption

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder
usedtxt1.jpgSmall, inexpensive, and well-designed, Peter Pauper Press books fit fetchingly into a suitcoat pocket or evening bag. With dependably colorful, decorative dust jackets and entertaining, easily digestible content, few books could be as cheering to give and receive. Perhaps this is why so many found their way into US upper-middle class (and striving) den bookshelves and kitchen cupboards in the 1950s and 1960s. Peter Pauper’s attractively printed cookbooks, poetry volumes and lifestyle hints now recirculate through libraries, discerning used bookstores and as collectibles on eBay. Tantalizing traces of consumption linger in these used books – some apparently stored, tight and unopened, in a bedside table, forlornly filed away in an attic trunk, or boxed and forgotten in a basement bin, while others indicate heavy use, as cherished recipe book, favorite collection of poems, or crucial guide to concocting cocktails. Via an examination of collective collecting memory, this chapter explores the aesthetic dimensions of books – given, received, coveted, and inscribed, then rediscovered and displayed as cultural icons or nostalgic treasures.
ut2.jpgIn this project, we argue that the popular value of used goods – including books – contradicts the notion that ‘clean’ and ‘new’ determine the borders of consumer desire. We analyze examples from a proliferating personal library in some detail, describing and examining the material pleasures of these used texts, including ‘inscriptions’ such as previous owner’s marginalia – written annotations, highlights and notes left in the pages. Opening these thin volumes for the reader illuminates the ways in which used objects can evoke, and give material form to, the abstract ideas of history and heritage but also, on a more intimate level, prompt nostalgic wonderings around their biographies and past uses. We argue that such wonderings play a central part in the creation of an object’s value, one not embraced in more traditional framings of consumption stemming from a consideration of new goods.

ut3.jpg What many consumers value, the efficient market often eliminates. We point out a paradox of online booksellers’ focus on ‘clean’ or ‘tight’ books, free from inscriptions and marks. Economist and philosopher Georges Bataille might recognize marginalia and inscriptions as excess value, excluded by the unreflective operations of the mainstream market, yet contributing to an overall productive environment in a mode that is wasted. Collectors often treasure marked up pages; researchers find these shadowy scribblings provide unobtrusive data about past owners and previous eras. Such qualities provide retro revelations, valued, often, in the wasteland beyond clear financial gains.
The Peter Pauper Press: A Case Study of Collectibility
ut4.jpgPeter Pauper Press helped popularize the gift book market by marketing petite, relatively inexpensive and innocuous volumes – perfect solutions for anniversaries, birthdays, or house warming parties. Their 4 1/2 x 7 inch books, with stylized collage, woodcut graphics and craftily coordinated colors emerged in early form from the Beilenson family’s press in 1948. Running the gamut from lauded literature to lascivious limericks, the Mount Vernon publisher produced condensed editions of John Donne, Francis Bacon and Omar Khayyam; volumes of Japanese Haiku, Chinese love lyrics, and Portuguese sonnets; as well as little puzzle books and quippy quotes about love and women. Their ‘Simple’ series – such as Simple Italian Cookery and Simple Spanish Cookery – predated today’s ‘for Dummies’ and ‘for Beginners’ guides by decades. An ‘ethnic’ cookbook series introduced uncertain chefs to intriguing ingredients and dishes of Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Hawaiian and colonial American gastronomy.
Our favorite examples are from the delightful ‘ABC’ series, which includes drink and dining recipes for all occasions. These colorful cookbooks, each in the same tidy size, and featuring similar, pleasing designs, focus on specialized culinary themes, for example, ‘chafing dish cookery’, ‘herb and spice cookery’, ‘ wine cookery’, ‘and ‘microwave cookery’. We are not alone in valuing these minor manuscripts: several recent exhibitions reveal the growing estimation and cultural cachet of Peter Pauper Press -– demonstrating how marginal publications often transform into culturally notable artifacts, due to their provenance, their publication history, or their popularity. We invite the reader to join us as we dust off an expanding archive of little literature, a unique retro window into an aesthetic economy of books.
About Book Collecting
ut5.jpgWhat makes books worth collecting? A hypertext of interests influences acquiring, buying or collecting used books. For example, our hankering for Hawaiiana, as a general genre, prompted our purchase of Peter Pauper Press Simple Hawaiian Cookery. Our fondness for a specific eras’ designs and colors – such as the fashion for combining salmon pink, turquoise blue, and black – provoked us to pick up Festive Salads and Molds. The collecting craze commenced. We began scouring used bookstores coast to coast – from Titcomb’s in Cape Cod to Moe’s in Berkeley by way of John King’s in Detroit. Sometimes, we found a separate Peter Pauper section, but the biggest rush came from spotting a copy amongst aging cookbooks and poetry, flashing like gold flecks in our prospector’s pan. Fortuitously, we found a few among our parents’ books, another in a grandmother’s cabin, and, as we regaled our friends with tales of the hunt, they humored us with used gifts of Peter Pauper Press to complement our enlarging collection. In over ten years collecting Peter Pauper Press, we find that searching for elusive examples, ruminating over what’s worth collecting, bargaining over prices, and displaying precious purchases increase the pleasures of the used text. We love finding a obscure volume at the back of a dimly lighted used bookstore, and continue to compete between ourselves to discover the most desirable example, plucked from the shadows of neglect, filling a previously unrevealed hole in our oeuvre.
Valuing Inscriptions and Marginalia
ut6.jpgUnintimidating and intimate in scale, Peter Pauper Press volumes perhaps invited small authorial interventions. Gift books, moreover, often call for personal inscriptions to the recipient. This excess text often adds value to the collected book. Yet a World Wide Web search suggests that ‘clean’ and ‘tight’ copies – with no marks and uncreased or unbroken bindings – bring in bids on eBay and other online selling sites. Vendors appear to believe that a book must be as close to untouched as possible, that any distinguishing feature, whether sudden reader revelations or judgments noted in margins, are unwelcome and devaluing.
However, some book collectors (like us) value ephemeral notations – often anonymous – made in distant places and times, rediscovered and puzzled over years later. Margin marks personalize books, reminding the reader which recipe went well or jogging the memory about what joke worked when. Gift inscriptions mark meaningful moments and relationships. These marginalia help transform the profane object into a sacred keepsake. Of course, an author’s signature enhances a book’s collectibility. Furthermore, when someone famous graces a book with notes, then every detail and comment may be of interest, and if a well known artist marks a text, then every sketch and scribble becomes significant.
Tracing Consumption: Recirculating the Gift
Traces of consumption reveal humanity behind our objects of desire. An unexpected aspect of our research shed light into the intimate nature of buying and selling. Collecting books and used book buying may be influenced by profit making hopes, but here we have turned to the pleasures of the used text, the ephemeral and eclectic, a respect, attachment, and connection to small practices, marginalia, gifts, intimate life experiences, and personalities from the past, drawing unexpected insights from looking at little literature and paying attention to the lessons beyond the text.
ut7.jpgThe pleasures of used texts invoke cultural norms and class-related social practices – style, taste, and etiquette – packaged and presented to an upwardly mobile market. Peter Pauper Press served as an accessible introduction to a wider world, creating cosmopolitan consumers quoting African proverbs, Blake’s poetry and Chinese love lyrics over chafing dish delights. The Peter Pauper Press output might be termed the ABC of cosmopolitanism – guidebooks to a mobile, articulate, cultured life. These little books made belle-lettres authors, exotic ingredients, and foreign figures available to mainstream US consumers, much as hi-fi record albums brought faraway sounds onto 1950s patios. Thus, Peter Pauper Press’s attractive books contributed small signals of success in the quest for adventurous dining, broader horizons and cultural capital.
Used goods tell consumption stories and consumption stories sell used goods. We have shown how material practices, such as collecting, gift giving, and inscribing, create meaning. Consumption traces alter the text, marking books with sacred, and, sometimes, economic value – as witnessed by the attention that famous figures’ marginalia attracts. Marginalia – banished by booksellers, expunged from electronic databases, and erased by efficient indexing – animates consumption objects, offering nostalgic narratives of everyday lives. This excess – gingerbread recipe notes preserved in The Melting Pot Cookbook, a scholar’s scribbled comments on an influential tome, ancestral names written in the family Bible – defies the assumption that ‘clean’ and ‘new’ determine the borders of consumer desire. These traces of consumption – largely absent from the References emerging electronic marketplace – offer unobtrusive insights into the pleasures of the used text, demonstrating how consumers, collectors and curators imbue books with meaning, how books become part of everyday life, and why they carry so much potential value for families, friends, and fanatical collectors within an aesthetic economy of books.
Images used with permission of Managing Editor Nick Beilenson at Peter Pauper Press. All examples from author’s collection.
Janet Borgerson is Reader in Philosophy and Management and Jonathan Schroeder is Professor of Marketing at the University of Exeter. They are founding members of the Information Society Network.
Further reading:

  • Borgerson, Janet L. and Jonathan E. Schroeder (2006) “The Pleasures of the Used Text: Revealing Traces of Consumption,” in Consuming Books: The Marketing and Consumption of Literature, S. Brown, (ed), London: Routledge, 46-59.