It can be a small world, this niche buying of used scholarly books on Amazon. It can also be a sobering one.

I am on the lookout for both rare books in my field and copies of my own publications that are being sold way below list price. The former helps me remain current in my specialty; the latter allows me to rescue cheap castoffs, amass a gift pile of author’s copies, and give my publisher a fighting chance to sell our product. But I didn’t expect that I would find my own signature on the title page of one such castoff, with an inscription to “Kent—Happy Trails!”

The book that I signed for Kent—whoever he is—was a quasi-anthropological memoir of village life in an obscure West African nation. Nearly a quarter of a century before, I had learned the language of that village, thanks to a two-year stint with the Peace Corps. I fell in love with the local culture. When I returned to Niger four years later, in 1983, to undertake Fulbright research, I immersed myself even further in the language and culture of the region.