More than once in the past few years, I've been hired to make an inventory of a personal library with views to sell it. What I had to do was to write down the information of the book (title, author, and a note of its state), and then did some research in order to find out how much could be its asking price.
Going through those books (thousands, actually) gave me the eerie feeling of having a conversation with their original owners.
One of the libraries belonged to the late husband of a relative, a man who after so many years I've come to the conclusion he was just very shy, and though I had been close to those books all my life I had never, not once, perused their spine, let alone open them. My relative wanted to do some renovating in her house, and 20 years after the passing of her husband thought it was time to let them go. He was an historian of architecture and the books were, fittingly, on history of architecture.
What impressed me, aside the fabulous prices asked for the same volumes in specialized internet bookstores, was how well curated that collection was. There were four or five subjects, and only a few books strayed from them. Most of the books had been bound in similar style, with leather and hardcover, and gilded letters, sometimes with some ornamental little designs too. The man I knew couldn't have been the first owner of many of the books, because most of them had been published in the 19th century (he wasn't THAT old, you know?), but they were in prime condition - for books that age, anyways.
My relative's husband was a very quiet man, and consistent with his style the annotations on the pages were illegible. Almost imperceptible too, because they were made in pencil. That was an intimate muttering that, as when he was alive, wasn't for me to decipher. Marga couldn't read them either, but they brought memories of him she hadn't revisited in a long time, and that was when I heard how she had fallen in love and married her former teacher and then boss... a great story that must have earned the reprieve of more than one genteel, back in 1955.
I got that same feeling of a conversation with another library, that belonged to a lawyer who had passed away only a year before. The widow wanted to move and she didn't want to move that huge library with her (a wise decision if you ask me), so they hired me. There weren't any law books in this collection - those had already been removed, and I saw mostly literature, philosophy, history and political science books. Some of the books had been read and reread, but most had the musty smell of a dead book, unopened since the day it was first brought. I saw many bestsellers - the man wanted to read what was hot, and those had clear annotations in ink, which made me think that he liked to have his voice heard. There were a few gems in that library too, obviously he wasn't superficial and knew what he was buying, but that library wasn't made out of love, not completely at least. There were a few duplicates (a book shopaholic, maybe?), and during the wrapping up of my task I couldn't shake that feeling of showing off.
I really don't know how many of those books were finally sold, and how much money they got from them. What I do know is that they were a second burial and a second mourning for someone long gone. Pointlessly painful, I thought. So, if you find yourselves in that situation, act quickly.