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.