The Best Notes Atlas Obscura Readers Found in Used Books - Atlas Obscura
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The Best Notes Atlas Obscura Readers Found in Used Books

From painful spoilers to such trenchant criticism as “P.S. This book blows!”

"What did she ever do to you?" and other great margin notes.
“What did she ever do to you?” and other great margin notes. Annie Watts

One of the great truths in life is that used books are awesome. And one of the greatest things about used books are the weird, funny, sad, or just plain unforgettable notes you can often find left behind by previous readers.

We reached out to members of the Atlas Obscura community and asked them to tell us about the most remarkable examples of writing in the margins that they’d ever found. As ever, they didn’t disappoint. You sent us pictures of scathing hand-written criticism, a book that held a short record of family deaths, and a particularly creepy-looking example of a secret “government code.” Great stuff.

Check out some of our favorite responses below. Maybe they’ll inspire you to leave behind notes of your own for some future reader to discover. And if you’re one of those people who thinks writing in books is tantamount to graffiti, these probably won’t change your mind, but at least they might make you laugh.

Probability and Statistics for Engineers and Scientists by Ronald E. Walpole

About the Book

“While working at The Book Cellar in Louisville, Colorado, years ago I came across this statistics text book, dated 1973.”

Memorable Notes

“I kept the book solely for the previous owner’s comment on the dedication page, which reads, ‘What did she ever do to you?’”
— Annie Watts, Lafayette, Colorado

Hyacinth Tagupa

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

About the Book

“One of the reasons I haunt libraries and secondhand bookstores is finding scribbles from the books’ previous owners. I found this decades-old copy of Franny and Zooey in a university library. At the time, I had already read and owned a copy of the book, but this one was special because of all the little notes on the margins.”

Memorable Notes

“‘Franny - open in her responses to life.’ That resonated with me. I was 23, alone (but not lonely), spending an afternoon at the library, and refreshingly devoid of angst. It was one of those afternoons when everything was lucid and hopeful, and I wondered if the person who scribbled in the book felt that way, too.”
— Hyacinth Tagupa, Philippines

Marion Fearing

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

About the Book

“I was studying abroad my junior year of college at the University of Sussex, and I lived in that library. As an English major, I came across a few funny marginalia (of course) but my favorite was when I was writing a final paper on Shakespeare’s plays. I found this book (the picture doesn’t show the title) because one of the chapters broke down Measure for Measure (and this play was driving me absolutely crazy, I remember struggling to write this final paper) and the aggression and snark of the note just stuck with me. I can’t recall if I used any of the ideas from the text, but the book itself has been overshadowed by the frustrated English student who wrote in it.”

Memorable Notes

“No! It’s not as simple as this, pal!”
— Marion Fearing, Portland, Maine


Kristi Cameron

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Memorable Notes

“June ‘95, Nancy — Seems like there are a lot of books on writing, but the N.Y. Times singled this one out as being exceptionally good. I hope it can be helpful and reassuring when I can’t be. Happy anniversary. I love being married to a bona fide writer, published or otherwise. Hang in there. Love, :-)”
— Kristi Cameron, Atlanta, Georgia

Patterns of Culture (1934) by Ruth Benedict

About the Book

“My great aunt Emily read it when she was in college studying to become a teacher.”

Memorable Notes

“On the title page, Aunt Emily wrote (in blue-black fountain pen ink) ‘Now this is the real world.’”
— David Hall, Spokane, Washington


John Paul Iaconianni

Rope Burns by F.X. Toole

About the Book

“Short stories told around boxing.”

Memorable Notes

“On the front page, a dedication from father to a son, ‘Wesley, you’ll always be a champ to me; not because you win, but because you answer the bell. Love, Dad’”
— John Paul Iaconianni, Chicago, Illinois

Woods New Illustrated Natural History by John George Wood

Memorable Notes

“1883, tore by J Walter, 1-year old son of Olik and CA Bond, ‘Bless His Damn Little Innocent Fingers,’ Thor did the mischief. Father/86”
— Larry, Wisconsin


Cynthia Preston

History of American Literature

About the Book

“My Grandmother’s […] textbook from 1911.”

Memorable Notes

“‘Then you mean that as a slur?’ Then a reply, ‘NO’”
— Cynthia, Florida

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

About the Book

“A school copy.”

Memorable Notes

“Someone had underlined all the jokes and written ‘LOL’ in the margins.”
— Ian McDougall, Washington D.C.


Sara Tobin

The Stranger by Albert Camus

About the Book

“Purchased at the long-closed Kaboom Books in the French Quarter in August 2007, the first month of my freshman year at Tulane.”

Memorable Notes

“‘This book to be read in senior year or college for fullest benefit. Allen Klein 11/69.’ I had first read it as a senior in high school, and I have to agree.”
— Sara Tobin, New Orleans, Louisiana


Sara Holifield

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated by Alison Arngrim

About the Book

“I checked out my local library’s copy of the 2010 Little House on the Prairie tell-all.”

Memorable Notes

“There were no other notes in the book except for one that must have made a thrilling impression on the previous reader. At the end of a description of the effect Michael Landon’s physique had on the ladies, someone shakily underlined the word ‘pectorals’ with a highlighter.”
— Sara Holifield, Nashville, Tennessee

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Memorable Notes

“The note was on the contents page. Next to ‘The Greek Interpreter’ was written ‘difficult and boring.’ I think it was a school child’s.”
— Donatella, South Africa


Shannon Gately

Classics of the Silent Screen: A Pictorial Treasury by Joe Franklin

About the Book

“Bought it used, as a drawing reference at the Strand.”

Memorable Notes

“To Minette, just a bit of a reminder of our gay old movie making days. Viva La ‘Silent’ movies. —The Cat Woman.”
— Shannon Gately, New York City, New York

Montana Sky by Nora Roberts

About the Book

“I checked out Montana Sky by Nora Roberts from the library about 10 years ago”

Memorable Notes

“Someone had taken the time and energy to black out every single curse word in the book. The erotic passages for some reason were left alone, but the curse words were censored. I always thought it was ironic that someone had that passion about curse words not entering someone’s mind, but sex scenes were perfectly fine for everyone to read.”
— Stephanie Hebert, Missouri


Farlan Gray

The Big Fix by Roger Simon

About the Book

“Many years ago I bought a paperback at a second hand bookstore for 20 cents. In it there was a bunch of handwritten notes and an inscription in the back. In the front it said ‘Carl Boracks copy.’”

Memorable Notes

“The notes were all related to filming and the inscription mentions the movie but it hadn’t been made yet. I always wondered if this guy was the director or something but as I said this was a long time ago (pre-internet). I forgot all about this until I found the book recently and I looked up the movie and it turns out the this Carl Borack was the producer of the movie. ‘If The Big Fix becomes a movie, or should I say when The Big Fix becomes a movie, I want my Montreal contingent to know that the summer of ‘76 was one of the major reasons why I had the strength and perspective to aid in making a fantasy become a reality. Love, Carl.’”
— Farlan Gray, Montreal

A History of the United States (1824)

Memorable Notes

“‘Avaricious Hog’ as a margin note to the amount of money Great Britain was earning from trade. Many underlines and many other margin notes.”
— Bob Rugg, Canton, Georgia


Chris Gralapp

Flagellum Daemonum

About the Book

“My parents found it in a curio shop in the 1940s.”

Memorable Notes

“It’s a Latin treatise on how to exorcise demons, published in 1615. One of the recipes for expelling bad spirits was apparently sampled and slightly corrected in the margin by a practitioner!”
— Chris Gralapp, Northern California


Francine Gabreluk

Our Quest for Happiness, Book 4 by Clarence E. Elwell

About the Book

“A 1958 Catholic high school textbook.”

Memorable Notes

“‘Remember big businessmen are !!*!*#+,’ and ‘No! Store in middle of street.’”
— Francine Gabreluk, Long Island, New York

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

About the Book

“Used bookshop copy.”

Memorable Notes

“Why is he such a loser? I can relate tho.”
— Elisabeth, Tucson, Arizona


Paul Warshauer

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

About the Book

“I loaned it to the great grandson of famous American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. When it came back, it was filled with comments written in green ink that were very unflattering of another famous architect from Chicago, John Root. Over the years his family built up a LOT of animus against Root. I think it was professional jealousy but…”

Memorable Notes

“Root was a BS artist; He didn’t know squat.”
— Paul Warshauer, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota


Anne Naugler

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

About the Book

“Found at a used bookstore (I don’t remember which one as I regularly shop at several).”

Memorable Notes

“Arthur sleeps with Morgause.”
— Anne R Naugler, Hollis, New Hampshire


Doris Straus

The Mysteries of Art and Nature (1635) by John Bate

Memorable Notes

“Next to the author’s name is a very neat old hand, ‘A conceited fop and ye worlds laughingstock.’ There were more comments throughout the book but this always stayed with me.”
— Doris Straus, New York

American Heritage Dictionary

Memorable Notes

“Next to the entry for ‘chucklehead,’ was my sister’s name. We didn’t find it until several years after my brother wrote it.”
— Ingrid Stuart, Massachusetts


DB Wheeler

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

About the Book

“Came from my grandmother.”

Memorable Notes

“‘He sponged meals almost everyday at his parents home or at his friend Emerson.’ My grandma wrote this many years ago.”
— DB Wheeler, Ohio


Suzanne Colton

Medea by Euripides

About the Book

“I found it at the town landfill’s ‘Take It or Leave It’ collection shed.”

Memorable Notes

“Come eleven after seven baby needs a pair of pants!”
— Suzanne Colton, Windsor, Connecticut


Carrie Fisher-Pascual

The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (1909)

Memorable Notes

“Inside the front cover is a primitive genealogy detailing the birth and death dates of members of the Arzberger family dating back to 1856. My favorite part of the writing is that the death of Carl Arzberger is detailed on ‘Jan. 19, 1946, in my arms, 7:15pm, 95 years old 3 mos. + 19 days.’”
— Carrie Fisher-Pascual, Torrance, California

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

About the Book

“Found in a used bookstore in Toronto, some 35 years ago. I think that I paid about $4 for it.”

Memorable Notes

“A touching series of three inscriptions on the front free endpaper. The first, in a neat confident hand taking four lines across the top half of the page, reads, in pencil: ‘From Jack to Margaret, 1917.’ Then, near the bottom of the page, two lines, also in pencil: ‘Jack now in England. M. Sept. 1918.’ Finally, at the very bottom of the page, a terse addendum, obviously written much later, as it is in ballpoint ink: ‘Killed Oct 11/18, M.’ Note that the final date is exactly one month before the Armistice ending the First World War. Although details are scarce, it may be assumed that “Jack” went to Europe to fight in the conflict, and was killed in action. I’ve always thought that this brief exchange poignantly illustrates the deeply personal human cost of war.”
— Peter Hamiwka, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


P. Jo Anne Burgh

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot

Memorable Notes

“‘To Joanne, None of these cats seems to bear a resemblance to the Princess, but she’ll understand. Love, Charlotte.’ The reasons this is a weird note are: (a) I bought this book from betterworldbooks.com, and the notation was in it when it arrived; (b) my name is Jo Anne; (c) I had a cat whom I used to refer to as the Princess; (d) I don’t know anyone named Charlotte.”
— P. Jo Anne Burgh, Glastonbury, Connecticut


Courtney Feldman

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

About the Book

“It was ordered used from someone on Amazon.”

Memorable Notes

“On the title page it says, ‘Warning: Do not read!’ and then page 81 says, ‘P.S. This book blows!’ Up until that point it had been highlighted pretty regularly but the highlighting stopped a couple pages later. Cracked me right up.”
— Courtney Feldman, Alexandria, Virginia


Rebecca Potter

The Magician’s Own or the Whole Art of Conjuring by George Arnold

Memorable Notes

“U.S. government secret code.”
— Rebecca, Madison, Ohio

The Beatles Lyrics by Hunter Davies

About the Book

“On a bookshelf in our old house.”

Memorable Notes

“Handwritten scribbles of ‘King Lear’ were carefully written next to the lyrics of ‘I Am the Walrus’ where audio of the play is heard.”
— Frannie Cassano, Long Island, New York