How to treat a book

The New York Times Book Review yesterday had an essay by Ben Schott on how he treats books, called “Confessions of a Book Abuser,” where he argues that it really doesn’t matter a whole lot if you treat your books a little roughly. Barring certain kinds of books like rare ones or books of historical interest or books that belong to libraries or to other people, he’s okay with folding corners and writing in the margins and keeping a book he’s reading open face down on a table.

It was mostly a silly, light essay, but I did agree with his conclusions: when thousands of copies of books are made quite easily and quickly, does it matter if we don’t keep them in pristine shape? And isn’t treating books roughly a sign of taking them seriously and engaging with them?

I liked this paragraph in particular:

Indeed, the ability of books to survive abuse is one of the reasons they are such remarkable objects, elevated far beyond, say, Web sites. One cannot borrow a Web site from a friend and not return it for years. One cannot, yet, fold a Web site into one’s back pocket, nor drop a Web site into the bath. One cannot write comments, corrections or shopping lists on Web sites only to rediscover them (indecipherable) years later. One cannot besmear a Web site with suntan-lotioned fingers, nor lodge sand between its pages. One cannot secure a wobbly table with a slim Web site, nor use one to crush an unsuspecting mosquito. And, one cannot hurl a Web site against a wall in outrage, horror or ennui. Many chefs I know could relive their culinary triumphs by licking the food-splattered pages of their favorite cookbooks. Try doing that with a flat-screen monitor.

This is a great argument for why books are wonderful — the fact that they are objects matters, that they become parts of our lives and can absorb and carry a bit of our past. I kind of like having worn and abused books around (although, don’t get me wrong, I like new ones too). I like having books with a history, mine or somebody else’s. While I try not to buy used books that other people have underlined or written in, if I accidently come across somebody’s comments, I’m curious. If I read a friend’s copy of a book he or she has underlined or written comments in, I try to figure out what was going on in that person’s mind.

I like to think about when I first bought a book and when I first read it, and I like the way the presence of underlining is a sign that I read something, even though I might have forgotten it since. I can recall entire college courses by looking the notes and underlining in some of my books. I like the way some older paperbacks with cracked spines will lie flat, so I can read them at the dinnertable without propping them up. I like seeing a book on the shelf with a bunch of post-it notes sticking up out of the top. I like seeing my Penguin edition of Clarissa on the shelf next to me and noticing the multiple cracks of the spine, the incredibly thick spine, that show I read that book from cover to cover.

Here’s the way the article ends:

To destroy a book because of its content or the identity of its author is a despicable strangulation of thought. But such acts are utterly distinct from the personal abuse of a book — and there is no “slippery slope” between the two. The businessman who tears off and discards the chunk of John Grisham he has already read before boarding a plane may lack finesse, but he is not a Nazi. Indeed, the publishing industry thinks nothing of pulping millions of unsold (or libelous) books each year. And there was no outcry in 2003 when 2.5 million romance novels from the publisher Mills & Boon were buried to form the noise-reducing foundation of a motorway extension in Manchester, England.

It is notable that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best. And surely the dystopia of “Fahrenheit 451” is more likely avoided through the loving abuse of books than through their sterile reverence.

A reader can love books without mistreating them, yes, but for me, it’s a sign of taking them seriously if they look a little used.


Filed under Books

23 responses to “How to treat a book

  1. Thanks for mentioning this article. I tried to read it yesterday but the pictures of the boo going through the washing machine were too much for me to bear. But Schott has a valid point which you so eloquently relate. The books I love most are the books that have indications of my reading, notes in the margin, a creased spine, or a cover that is worn from me carrying it around with me in my bag.


  2. Schott is very funny and wise–and this essay was a great little treat. You’ve picked out my favorite bit. My husband read it aloud to me. One of the great lists!


  3. Very funny, Dorothy W, wise and thoughtful, too. The day I figured out how to use the internet, I started searching for and buying good, cheap “reader’s copies” of books I wanted or already loved in hard covers, the better to abuse them. My aging paperbacks feel apart all on their own and tossed themselves away a chapter or so at a time as I re-read them, but the old hardbacks: I can bump and fold and upend them and they just absorb the abuse and gain character. The unexpected advantage of the used books is that they often come with signs of wear and use from their original or interim owners. I get the feeling reading them that I’m joining a non-simultaneous book group.


  4. I will have to go and read the entire essay. Although I am still a bit particular about my books (not liking the cat the use them for scratching for instance), and I am not so particular anymore that I won’t turn a page down or crack a binding. I like that my copy of W&P is showing its own “war wounds” of my having read it. I will be able to look at it later and remember what I went through with it. I also used to not like used books, but now I sort of think they have character and I like the idea of someone else having enjoyed it first! Very funny about the Mills and Boon books!! Can you imagine? Maybe in a few hundred years or a 1000 that area will be excavated, and what in the world will people of the future think??!!


  5. I read the essay too and found myself nodding in agreement with everything he was saying. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about the way I treat my treasures when other readers would boast of never cracking a book spine. (Then how do you read it comfortably? I would wonder to myself.)


  6. Thanks for this post! I am a bit of a book abuser so it was a relief to know I’m in good company, but that I am not on a slippery slope to being a Nazi. While I dog-ear and bend the spines of my own books, I do try to be respectful of the books I borrow.


  7. This post reminded me of something funny. In 2005, I joined a group of friends for a homeschooling conference (we were the speakers). All of us had originally come to know each other as we read and discussed the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, and we had all brought our books with us. Mine are filled with pencil marks–both underlining and comments. The page edges are dirty, and at least one volume (of six) has had it’s paper cover taped back on. I was astounded to see that one friend’s books were pristine, as if they had never been read at all (though I know otherwise), and I commented on it. She explained the way her father treated books and had drummed it into his children’s consciences. She showed us the special way he had of “breaking in” the binding of a new book gently, so it would not be stressed or cracked. Later, another friend arrived, and HER books looked worse than mine–some covers were missing, and one of the books had fallen into multiple pieces. I could relate to that.

    But we all loved our books, and the lady with the pristine books had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in her living room which could keep you browsing for hours.


  8. I have a similar copy of Clarissa on my bookshelf that proves I’ve read it from cover to cover!
    I’ve moaned about book abusers in the past, although even more annoying for me is people who have shelves full of untouched books – all in perfect condition.


  9. I am most definitely a book abuser, although it took me years to get used to the idea of writing in books that weren’t school books, and I still only use a pencil when I do. I once had a friend tell me that she didn’t feel she really owned a book until she’d cracked its spine.


  10. Ted

    I love the fact that the one they put through the washing machine was Lady Chatterly’s Lover — a very “dirty” book.


  11. count me as another book abuser – everybody in my family is – we take books into the tub, read them with cups of coffee and messy snacks, we take them to the beach and get suntan lotion on them and we drop huge gobs of jelly on them from our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We fold pages back to mark our spots (book marks always fall out) and we underline and highlight wherever appropriate. It is the ONLY way to read – messily, and fully engaged.


  12. I do like the essay you quote from – it’s very amusing. I can see I shall have to get hold of the volume in question eventually! I can read a book so that it doesn’t look like it’s been read. So I’m not big on book abuse, but what other people do in the privacy of their own homes is fine by me.


  13. One of my biggest problems with reading library books is that I can’t write in them, dog-ear a page or put my coffee cup on them. I’m a book abuser, but I never would have considered myself one. I would like to consider myself a book user. I live with my books and though I have a few editions that I revere and take care of, I enjoy making notes in my books and making them a part of my everyday life. I have scuffed boots as well. I’m not pristine and neither ar the things I own.


  14. Stefanie, yeah, it was rather distressing to see that book in such bad shape — even a book abuser like me can see that …

    Anne — how nice to have the essay read to you by a husband!

    David, I like that idea of a non-simultaneous book group. What’s particularly fun is finding personal notes left in books or other people’s bookmarks. I’ve found scraps of poems too.

    Danielle — there is nothing cooler than having a big huge novel looking well-worn on your shelves because you’ve spent so much time with it — what a way to carry a memory.

    Imani — comfort is so important. If I can’t read a book in bed, I’m a little less likely to read the book at all.

    Charlotte, you are most definitely not alone! Not all the commenters here are book abusers, but many of them are.

    Karen, you are right; there are many different ways of loving books. Keeping them pristine can be one of them — although it’s not my own, obviously.

    Stephen, yay for Clarissa! I love books as decoration for a room, but not when they are obviously unread and are there ONLY for decoration.

    Emily, there is something wonderful about making a book one’s own, so you could recognize it as your own even in a pile of similar books. But using pencil makes sense — that way I can erase the stupid things I write 🙂

    Ted, you’re right — that book “needs cleaning,” doesn’t it 🙂 Actually, I’ve never read it, and would like to one day.

    Courtney — fully engaged, that’s exactly it. I like your description of this as a family trait.

    Litlove, thanks for being tolerant of us book abusers 🙂

    Mike — nice to “see” you again! Yes, “book user” sounds better — we have this habit fully under control, right?


  15. Interesting. I’m not much of a book abuser, but I also don’t go out of my way to keep them in mint condition. Most of the classics I own are filled with Post-It notes; they make good bookmarks and I have more room to scribble, rather than trying to cram something into a margin. And I usually return books to the library with Post-It notes. One of the ladies at my library, who’s familiar with me, once commented on a book I was returning: “Did you even read this one?” I told her I had, and she feigned a shocked expression and said, “I know you’ve read a book because you always return them with these sticky notes.” Then I mumbled an apology and promised to start removing my stickies before returning books, but she told me that one of the ladies likes to read the notes I leave in books, so they set them aside for her to look at. How funny. Can’t imagine that my stickies are particularly illuminating, but if she likes them, I guess it works.


  16. That’s great, Brandon — you’ve got a reader of your marginalia!


  17. I have mixed feelings about ‘book abuse’. I’ve affectionately abused books in the past – my copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ has been dropped in the bath (at least once), is full of marginalia from studying it (three times – once at school, twice at university) and important pages are marked with sticky notes and paper clips. And I *like* it that way. It feels like my book, and mine alone. It has my history written all over it, literally.

    But these days I tend to be very careful with my books; I like to keep spines uncreased and I cover HB dust jackets with those plastic protective covers. I think this is because books mean a multitude of things to me: I love to read them for their content, but I also enjoy simply owning them as objects. In fact, they’re the only things I really *love* to own. I’m incredibly protective of them, and I like to see them sitting prettily on my shelves.

    So, I don’t know. I suppose I’ll only abuse a book if I feel I know it well enough to make it part of me; otherwise, I treat it as an external object. Perhaps this is an essential difference in how we experience books: readers who ‘abuse’ their books see no earthly reason to preserve a book’s shell, and are more interested in its ‘soul’, its content. Whereas readers who shelter their tomes experience books as texts and as objects?


  18. I like your reasoning, Victoria — although I’m not sure I like the dualistic thinking that’s a part of book abuse, following that logic. And when I really think about how I treat books, “use” is a better descriptor than “abuse” — my books don’t look terrible, really. I just like the look of a book that’s clearly been read — so maybe I experience books as text and object, but like the object to look like it’s lived a little. If that makes sense 🙂


  19. Edd


    I could never be a book abuser but that is an individual decision on the part of the reader. There is an argument on both sides but in my opinion it is the words inside or the escapism to a new and promising dimension that a book brings to its reader. If you look closely at my book library most books are well preserved but if you look even closer you will see many books that have been read multiple times. Many of my books contain archival covers and several are in archival boxes. One such book in a box is a signed First Edition Hard Cover of Earnest Hemingway’s, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” It is also signed by his second wife. My father met Mr. Hemingway in Panama and later in Key West, Florida, where Mr. Hemingway presented him with the book. But I can not tell you the number of times I have read that one single book and will again in the future. I did not read the essay but feel you did an excellent job in your post and I enjoyed reading comments from your readers. I believe it is all a sense of perspective and does not diminish a person’s love of a good book.


  20. Nic

    I’m with litlove on this one – when I read books, you generally can’t tell from looking at them that they’ve been read. (I also much prefer, when buying second-hand, to get pristine almost-new copies). And with Victoria – I love to gaze at my books as well as read them. I like them to be perfect, and it bothers me (way too much!) when the spine creases or the corner gets bent or something – I find myself unconsciously smoothing down the damaged bit as I read. Heheh, books as substitute children, anyone? 😉


  21. I definitely fall into the category of a book abuser even though my abuse is limited to writing in books, folding the corners, and occasionally littering them with the crumbs of whatever food I am eating while reading. I still cannot bring myself to actually tear pages out of books though.


  22. Ouch. I got a sharp pain at the very mention of tearing pages from a book! One distinction, though. If we’re planning to take paperback travel guides on a trip and, say, we’ve already booked hotels, I might surgically remove the Hotels chapters from the book and rebind the book with tape. There’s not much market for used travel guides, anyway, and I can sometimes reduce the traveling weight of the book by half with a good surgery.


  23. Edd — wow, you have some great Hemingway stories!

    Nic, books as substitute children — yeah, I’ll buy that (although my true substitute child is my dog …)

    Bookbinds and David, I’ve torn pages out of a book only once that I can remember, and it was a travel book — a guide to the Appalachian Trail, in fact, where we needed only a few pages and needed to carry as little weight as possible. Otherwise, definitely, I’m not cutting out pages.


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