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.