I’m reading a collection of essays at the moment called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. The essays explore the various aspects of the reading and writing life, such as: how to marry someone else’s books, messages on flyleaves, You-Are-There reading, the pitfalls of being a compulsive proofreading and plagiarism. However, I particularly enjoyed the essay ‘Never Do That To A Book’ about how people treat their books.
The essay is about the debate between those who crack the spine of every new book and people like my boyfriend or sister who read books open at a 30° angle. The only time I’ve ever fallen into the latter camp was when I read a book I’d bought for someone as a present before giving it to them. Otherwise, I fall squarely in the first camp. I am a spine-breaker. I also often save my place in a book by placing the book facedown and splayed open. In fact, my copy of Ex Libris is spread out on the table next to me as I write this.
I also fold the pages of a book behind and I have no problem with scribbling in a book (though usually in pencil). As a kid I would always mark my place in a book by folding down the corner of the page. I still do this from time to time with certain reference books, but I’ve mostly grown out of that habit. I now use proper books marks (which often get left in the book after I’ve finished it – Fadiman refers to these book marks as romantic memos), sometimes train tickets and very occasionally a receipt, though this always seems a little profane.
The latter camp, the non-spine benders, find these practices horrifying, but I’ve always thought of it as a sign of how much I love my books. The more bent and folded and scribbled in, the more the pages start to fall out, the more I love a book. For example, two of my favourite and most read books are Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy and The Peregrine by J.A. Baker and they look like this:
Fadiman and her family also sees such treatment of books as a sign of a true bibliophile – though I was slightly horrified on reading about by her father’s practice of tearing out chapters he’s completed to reduce the weight of paperbacks whilst travelling.
Fadiman also spurns cookbook protectors: What a pleasure it will be, thirty years hence, to open The Joy of Cooking to page 581 and behold part of the actual egg yolk that my daughter glopped into her very first batch of blueberry muffins at age twenty-two months! I must also confess to being delighted on opening a cookbook to a recipe I haven’t cooked in a while and finding sugar in the crease between the pages, or a splodge of dried tomato sauce. Often these traces of food take me back to the last time I cooked the dish. It also comes in handy for finding recipes I cook frequently; the lentil daal we eat regularly is easy to find because the page is so crinkled and stained, and the crease is full of rice grains and spices.
I’m not sure the two camps should intermingle and they probably shouldn’t start relationships – my boyfriend and I are in different camps, but fortunately our reading interests do not overlap. I did once read his ‘lending’ copy of Ossian’s Ride and enjoyed it all the more for its bedraggled state. Though I was the one who finally caused the covers to be divorced from their pages.
It also occurs to me that ebooks have solved this dispute by making it virtually impossible to inflict any damage on a book. Even when I annotate an ebook I’m not really defacing it. Perhaps I could smash the screen on my Kindle, but then, I’m not sure I love it that much.
Let me know where you fall in this debate and how you treat your books.