Most people take their first wobbly literary steps in the comforting space of their local public library.
Think of Matilda Wormwood. Things progress smoothly enough if the cliché applies and a book proves impossible to put down. The problems start when you actually do have to put it down. How do you keep your page? Dog-earring is generally considered poor etiquette, but equally the bookmark is incorrectly divined as the shibboleth that separates the ‘real’ book lovers from the chaff.
I recently borrowed a book from a friend. As I handed it back, her face fell and I noticed sheepishly it looked a little worse for wear. The edges of a few of the pages were folded over. As if that wasn’t enough, the cover was a little frayed where it had been hastily stuffed into a bag for a train journey, and its spine would’ve make the most bendy of yoga teachers envious. A brief look at my own bookshelf confirmed the prognosis.I’m a tactile, irreverent reader who shows no sign of change or improvement in the near future.
Most are familiar with that old adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’. The truth is the majority of things are assessed by their surface appearance, but when it comes to a book that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
No two readers are alike. We forget there are as many different styles of reading as there are of writing. In both cases, the page is marked by each individual’s imprint and records a single personal history. A tatty, tea stained paperback becomes, in this view, a personal statement of engagement with our favourite works of fiction. Well-loved books are a physical record of downtime. They are evidence of old friendship with a writer you have never met that goes back years. Like scars, ripped covers tell their own stories additional to those decipherable within their pages.
In publicly admitting my book crimes, I am cutting myself off from a whole swatch of potential lenders among my friends and acquaintances. Some recoil at the thought of handing over their books to anyone who would dog-ear the pages, or break the spine, albeit lovingly. Agreed: what you do in private with your books is strictly your own affair, but library books and borrowed items should really remain sacrosanct.Scruffy books just aren’t as appealing if you haven’t made them that way. The blurbs of old or damaged books can be hard to read, or even non-existent. Anyone who has ever sat down for a good read only to turn the page and be confronted with an unidentifiable stain will recognize the truth of this. In some cases, bookmarks must be employed – perishables and tea kept at bay. Anything else is just annoying for the librarians and distressing for other readers.
Bookmarks do suggest a tidy and orderly mind. Users tend to exhibit a respect for the physical appearance of texts that probably extends to their positions on the print vs. e-book debate. Makeshift items will do: folded slips of paper, receipts, sweet wrappers, socks and leaflets. The list is only as long as the imagination of the individual and the objects to hand.
It’s not purely a question of aesthetics either. Spines are quick to fall apart, releasing tricky, errant pages. Of course, the whole problem would be solved if books weren’t the flimsy paperback affairs they are today. Properly bound hardbacks usually include a slender and elegant piece of ribbon flopping out the top of their spines. However, it’s important to note that the whole culture of paperbacks is accessibility and democracy; they were launched as a cheaper alternative for a newly emergent literate class. And they beat hardbacks by country mile in terms of convenience, taking up less space in that limited holiday hand luggage.
There are clearly good reasons for taking care of your books, not least that it’s better for the environment in the long run. That said, those that keep their precious tomes spic and-span and in pristine condition, explain themselves using the rhetoric of value. Well-thumbed books become sullied, unmarketable and devalued.
When people say this about books, it exposes a fundamentally problematic attitude to touch that permeates other aspects of life. Laptops, iphones, cars and clothing exist firstly as commodities. Worryingly, using them seems to equate with spoiling them. It’s only seems possible to avoid falling into this trap by joyfully engaging with objects, and treating wear and tear as a necessary casualty of living.