On the Physical Abuse of Books

Dog-eared pages, bent bindings, scribbled-in margins... Books were meant to be loved—aggressively

  • Share
  • Read Later
Glow Images/Getty Images

When I left college I thought — based on a staggeringly inadequate understanding of how the world worked — that I might like to go into book publishing.

After a lot of unsuccessful querying of eminent firms in that field, I obtained an internship with a non-profit publisher called The New Press, a dynamic and worthy company that was just preparing its first season of books. I’m happy to report that The New Press is still in business to this day. But not thanks to me. I was a really bad publishing intern.

Though I did learn some important lessons at The New Press. For example: one day I was chatting with the woman who handled the printing and distribution side of things. She was making a technical point about bindings, which I was failing to grasp, so to illustrate what she meant she picked up a book and — with a little effort — tore it in half.

I froze. I stared at her.

“What?” she said.

(MOREWorld Book Night: Which Titles Will Be Given Away in 2013?)

The “what” was, I had never seen anybody rip up a book before. I guess I was raised in a household with a lot of reverence for the physical sanctity of books. You didn’t destroy books. Hitler destroyed books. The sanctity of the physical book was analogous to the sanctity of the physical body. You would no more rip up a book than you would pick up a hammer and smash somebody’s knee with it. And given a choice, you go for the knee.

But my feelings about that have changed. I am now an absolute bastard to my books.

This didn’t happen right away. After The New Press I went on (piling up abandoned careers with a will) to work at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, where books were treated with tender professional care. When you took a book off the shelf, you didn’t just grab it, you placed your fingers on its upper surface and carefully tilted it toward you; only then did you grasp it with the other hand and draw it out. Some librarians even wore white cotton gloves to handle books. (There were two schools of thought on this; personally I found the gloves made me clumsy and apt to tear pages.)

But since then my behavior toward books, especially my own, has declined precipitously.

Partly it’s a result of regular reviewing. When you get ten or twenty books in the mail every single day, to the point where when you come back from vacation you find them drifted waist-high around your office door, you start to relax your standards. The life of any one book becomes cheaper.

You start to fold down the pages. You start to write in them, little lines and squiggles in the margins — you have to, otherwise you’ll waste years of your life hunting for that one quote you’re pretty sure was on a right-hand page, about a third of the way through, except it isn’t. (I’m a die-hard pro-paper-book partisan, but even I have to admit, it sucks that they’re not searchable.) By the time I’m done with a book, most of my review of it is scrawled in the back pages, and, when I run out of space, on the front matter, curving around the colophon or the note on the type like a swarm of army ants on their way to skeletonize a baby deer.

(MORENaNoWriMo: Is National Novel Writing Month a Literary Threat or Menace?)

Becoming an author changes your attitude too. Once you see where books come from, and how they’re made, they never seem quite as sacred again.

And yes, on occasion I have thrown a book I hated across the room. I’m pretty sure everybody has. That’s when you find out the books are actually pretty tough — it’s damn hard to break them when you actually want to.

If books could scream, like the roses in that one Roald Dahl story, they would scream bloody murder when I start to run a bath, because in addition to being a read-walker, I am a read-bather. However dry you try to keep your knees and hands, a book is never the same once it’s been in the bath. It’s wavier.

(And since I’m confessing terrible secrets, I might as well come clean — ha! — and admit that not only am I a read-bather, I am occasionally even a read-showerer. That never ends well for anyone involved.)

I do have books that I keep safe. I’m not a monster. I’ve got a couple of shelves of valuable (or at least valuable-looking) old books that I would take an armor-piercing bullet for. But as for the rest of them, bottom line, books aren’t paintings. They’re meant to be read. And loving books is a little like loving people: when you love them, you always hurt them, too, a little bit.

Sort: Newest | Oldest

When I was in college I was lucky to take a seminar with Edward Tufte on Information Design.  One of the perks of being in the seminar was that we used three of Tufte's beautifully crafted books (published by his own Graphics Press) as our texts.  I remember being shocked when one of my classmates whipped out a highlighter and began marking up The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, adding fat yellow streaks to the text and circling those carefully reproduced graphics.

I'd never mark up a craft edition like that, but after years of guarding most of the books I own, I think I'm coming around to your position for the everyday stuff -- better to use a book than keep it pristine.  I'm not there yet, but your article brings me a bit closer to chanting: Viva marginalia!
--Rudi, of QuadrivialQuandary.com


"...when you love them, you always hurt them, too, a little bit." So very true. all of my favorites (despite my care) have some blemishes. Dad's old copy of The Hobbit's cover fell off in my hands. The Fellowship of the Ring is even worse - in half and coverless. Grimm's Fairy Tales split right down the middle (at my favorite story - The Two Brothers). Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises dog-eared and tired. And YOUR book (though I've only had it for a few years) is tea stained and littered with notes in the margins and sticky notes - it's one of my favorite books on my shelf. I like to think that this all adds character to them though.


I have discovered the joys of a kindle in a clear ziplock bag.  Bathe, shower, read in the rain as you walk home from the tram stop - doesn't matter, as long as the bag is closed properly, your reading matter is safe. I understand the love of the feel of paper and the sound of pages turning, but I still love my e-reader.


I like the look of a beat-up book because I feel like it's been enjoyed or achieved its purpose, especially in times like these where people don't read much anymore.

emmaherself like.author.displayName 1 Like

no. 1 why is time using livefyre too, did disqus  beat up the jock of highschool commenting systems? 

no. 2 i recently read an article about the best read man in the world: (http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/11/07/book-shopping-with-the-best-read-man-in-america/) and it greatly reminded me of this article

no. 3 how do you shower read? i think i need to get on that...even though i have a kindle i think i read more books on paper and you just can't get people to sign a kindle like you can a physical book. also im weirdly obsessed with those paper that have the jagged edges and very good serif font. 

no. 4 even though i dont lend out my books (to anyone not worthy) i haven't been treating them very good either. i've been writing in them since grade 11. i try to write very neatly and in light pencil only though and only on my books, never the libraries. 

no. 5 it's nice to know that people, successful people, came from a lot of places and didn't just shoot into the stratosphere of fame and wealth 

no. 6 work is boring and i made a list