The Way We Love Books

The other day, I posted a photo of me and the mister’s four sets of spectacles, with the caption “House of nerds.” A Dick Francis novel I was in the middle of re-reading sat face-down next to them, as an aside.

The nerdery got laughs; the Dick Francis unearthed a bunch of delightful commentary, and then, a well-meaning friend posted this:

Commenter writes, "May I comment on how you shouldn't put your books down like that?"

Granted, this did not sit well with me. It might be because this has been a solid week of f**kery from all sides, but I’ll temper that by saying this has never sat quite right with me. First of all, my books, my way, okay, but second of all, this rankles particularly because I used to be this kind of person, the kind of person who would gasp if someone dog-eared pages; who said she’d rather die than mark up a book, who who who who…

You know.

And then, sometime in my mid-30s, I realized this was a front, a way for me to be seen as a serious “book person.” Moreover, it was sillypants: What the frock do I care how other people treat their books?

Another friend later weighed in on that post, saying, “It’s a mass-market paperback, not a first-edition Dashiell Hammett,” and Well-Meaning Friend wrote something back about how all books should be treated with care and how they are all the same. Which is, of course, a load of horse shit, and I do mean that in a draft-horse-sized way: mass market paperbacks were made to be accessible to people who don’t want to lay out as much money for books; their dollar value is inherently different, and historically, they may not carry the same weight. (Yeah, okay, literally, too.)

My initial comment to the whole “treat your books with care” argument was gut-check: As a writer, my books are tools of my trade, and I treat them the way I’d treat any tool: I’ll use them as I see fit, even if that includes putting them down face-down, dog-earing them, or marking them up, so they can continue to be valuable to me as tools.

Deeper down, it looks like this:

Books are utilitarian, objects of commerce. Their value is not in pristine covers and unmarked pages. Their value is in the impression you glean from them, in your excitement in passing them on; in the joy–or sense of relaxation–you get from returning to a particular book time and again.

Were I to treat books with the care Well-Meaning Friend wants me to take, I wouldn’t own any books, and therefore I’d be unable to pass them on: I’d just spend all my time at the library, in temperature-controlled rooms. I’d never know the joy of reading outdoors, under a tree, or on a beach. I’d never know what it’s like to take refuge in a book on deployment, where I can crack it open and digest a few pages before finally falling asleep, unwittingly smashing mosquitos between its covers and imprinting them with sweat from my fingers.

So yes. Books are valuable. But they are also companions. They go with me wherever. They are the tools of my trade. But they are also well loved, like my favorite pair of jeans, or my beat-up notebooks. I cannot do without them, just like I cannot do without pencils or pens and paper, and so they are bound to retain some marks of their travails.

Of course there are exceptions. A compilation of art I lugged home from England that had been passed down to me from a friend who’d had it passed down from her stepfather in the 70s, for instance. That lives on a shelf and gets dusted and bemoaned whenever a new fray appears in its book binding. The ARC of Twilight, which I read once and hated. Still, it’s a keepsake, a gift from a friend who used to work in publishing. Even that has its marks, from being carried around in my work bag on my commute while I was reading it.

This, I think, might also be the reason that I can’t really sink into an e-book. Yes, yes, there is no tactile sense of page, of progress, but there is also no sense of making something truly your own, of havingness, with an e-book. There is no “Oops, dropped it into the bathtub,” there is no “I liked this section, so I’m going to mark it up for later,” there is no “I can use this in my next class, so it needs a dog-ear or a Post-It so I remember to photocopy it for my class.” There is no sense of memory. “Hey, what’s that mark from? Is that…oh, right, that’s from that day I was eating sherbet and reading on the porch.” “What’s that…is that…is that beer? Oh, right, from reading at the brewery.” Sometimes, I open books and find foliage from the day a shedding tree dropped a leaf or a flower into the book I was reading, and that never fails to make me smile.

Of course, the final word is this: What do I care how you treat your books? It’s your library. Do as you see fit.

books open to show post-it flags; highlighted sections; ink annotations

(left to right: my own novel; Tiger Reading, by Gish Jen; The Orde-Lees Diaries, Thomas Orde-Lees)

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

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