I liked Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation tremendously and was delighted to chance upon another book by her at a used bookstore in Bangalore some years ago. Finding a used copy of Exit into History, Hoffman’s memoir of travel through “the new Eastern Europe,” struck me as an unlikely coincidence — Jewish American autobiography is not something you expect to find other people reading over on this side of the world, but perhaps it had been left behind by a foreign sojourner in India’s IT capital. The copy I picked up had some intrusive underlining and marginal commentary, but the most interesting comment was the one I found around the following passage in the book’s section on Czechoslovakia:
“In one of the most famous essays of his dissident days, Havel asked his countrymen to live “as if” they were free — that is, to act in the spirit of internal freedom, despite their external constraints. But the regime practiced a grotesque inversion of this injunction: the citizens of Czechoslovakia were required to believe and pretend they were free, when they were effectively enslaved; that is, they were supposed to live a lie — and an imperative to live a lie sucks sense out of all activity.”
The previous owner of the book had marked a vertical line against this passage in the margin and had scrawled “my marriage.”
This gave me pause. I found myself trying to imagine who this person was, whether a man or a woman, what had prompted him or her to made this connection between the citizens of a post-Communist regime and his or her marriage (a fascinating connection, I thought); I wondered whether this person was divorced or still in an oppressive marriage and “living a lie.” It was an intense moment, this unexpected revelation from an earlier reader of the very book I was holding in my hands. Used books draw me for that very reason: through them, you are in conversation not only with the book and its author, but also with the book’s earlier reader(s).