Mysteries in Used Books

        A.S. Byatt's Possession tells a story whose plot initially is motivated when a graduate student, looking at a book once owned by a famous Victorian author, sees that it contains several sheets of manuscript folded within its pages.  Because of the physical condition of the foxing (brown oxidation) on the exposed portions of the paper and the dust on the pages' upper edges, he can tell the manuscripts have not been opened or read since their author, the eminent Victorian, put them there over a hundred years before.  Alas, he steals the manuscripts to further his career, and thereby sets back the trust-building between librarians and scholars for another decade.

        I have found unusual things in books, including an inscription which I believe identifies Goucher's 1598 edition of Chaucer's works as one owned by a famous Victorian engraver who had a quarrel with William Blake over an illustration of the Canterbury Pilgrims that resulted in Blake's retirement from public life.  I also have Irving Ribner's hand annotated copy of Klaeber's third edition of Beowulf (1941) with Ribner's penciled notes and two tipped-in typescript pages translating the poem's opening lines, from which he learned the poem while a student at UNC (dated 1/5/48, over a year before I was born), before he taught drama at Tulane from the 1950s when I was a boy, until he left  in 1967's general exodus from the department.  He apparently wound up in Boston, where I purchased the book used for $5.00.  (See Ribner in the Library's online catalog--he was mainly a Shakespearian, but you teach a little of everything when you do early literature.) 

        However, the most interesting physical objects I have so far found were sent to me by Baltimore's Kelmscott Bookshop in a used copy of Albert Pauphillet's La Queste del Saint Graal (the Holy Grail story in Old French, Paris: Champion, 1967).  Most of the pages were uncut, the initial owner having read only twenty pages into the romance.  Where s/he stopped, four cancelled postage stamps were left between the pages, all with beautiful tropical fish illustrations: a 3 Rial State of Oman with an orange "Sparaillon," a 60 Dihram from Dubai with Stripped Butterfly Fish, a 10 Bogash from the Muslim Caliphate Kingdom of Yemen with a Violet Ruled Berycid," and a one Franc from Republique du Congo with a Chauliobus Sloanei.  Do you know anything about these stamps?  Tell me and I'll tell you about the Grail.