Culture Vulture

Loving a book to bits

Readers who dog-ear pages are not abusing books

A friend recently sent me a link to a column on The Guardian's books blog: "How well do you treat books?" asks writer Alison Flood, before going on to detail how she destroys the copies she loves.

"Their battered, dog-eared state is testament to my love for them," she writes. "The battering, I think, just improves the flavour."

As evidence, she posts a picture of one poor novel she ripped in half because she wanted to share it with someone on holiday and didn't want to lug the entire tome around.

I could practically hear the throat clearing over the Internet. The said friend who'd forwarded me the piece is also the one who has endured for years my constant reminders not to break my books' spines or dog-ear their pages when I lend them to her. In our decade-long friendship, I've clucked my tongue pedantically every time I saw her toting a bashed-up book and shuddered in horror every time I saw her turn down a corner instead of using a bookmark.

After reading Flood's blog post, I found myself revisiting my lifetime of book-protecting pomposity. What if I'd somehow gotten it wrong? That we owe it to the books we own to read them so vigorously that it takes a physical toll on them? And not handle one's tomes with kid gloves and maintain a library that was no different than a bland bookstore? Have I literally (literary?) been going through life without making my mark on anything?

"Book abuse" - as I see it - has probably been going on for centuries. In the old days of illuminated manuscripts, when books were so dear that they were out of reach of the masses, the answer would have been a no-brainer: handle with care. But in the age of cheap bestsellers via, books as material objects have been greatly - and sadly - devalued; consumed and tossed about wantonly.

Yet perceived mistreatment of a book still provokes strong emotional, even visceral, response in people. A Google search on "breaking a book's spine" yields 17.3 million results (in 0.31 seconds).

Scottish blogger Edd McCracken (how apt) wrote in 2012 on the Book Riot website that he "hates people who break the spines of books". When a close friend cracked the spine of his copy of The Damned United by David Peace, he went berserk: "Why would you maim this innocent, defenceless book? WHY?"

In contrast, in a 2011 essay for The New York Times, English author Geoff Dyer describes how he likes the way his books show "signs of wear and tear, of having been lived in (by me), like a pair of favourite jeans". Slogging through a copy of Richard Overy's Why The Allies Won, he took it everywhere until it was in tatters: "Spreading in direct proportion to the amount of the book's contents that were being loaded into my brain, those creases became the external embodiment of the furrow-browed effort that reading it required."

I love the idea of how a book undergoes a physical transformation with you, and that it'll bear the scars of your reading it long after you forget its contents. There are some (not many, but some) books in my personal library that are like this.

There is that aquamarine-spined Penguin edition of Joseph Conrad's Victory, which bears huge gash-like creases on its cover, forever reminding me that it was on my school-girl lap the day my mother rammed into the back of another car in her red Mazda Astina sports car, and it flew onto the chassis floor and got squashed (nobody was hurt). Like Victory's damaged lovers, Axel Heyst and Lena, trying to soothe and repair each other in vain, I spent more hours than necessary trying to rub out the creases on the book's cover.

Two decades later, as the paperback sits on the table next to me as I write this, I can finally appreciate how the folds in front look like those of a paper aeroplane, even as I recall the giggling green girl I was then.

A copy of Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a narrative of the civil war atrocities in Sri Lanka, that accompanied me to the former Ceylon in 2000 came back with its crisp edges rounded from being jostled around in my suitcase.

But then, I discovered those padded envelopes that books from the website invariably arrived in, and used them to transport my books on overseas trips. And so, my copy of Susan Orlean's My Kind Of Place went to Iceland with me and back, and stayed in pristine condition.

So, while I understand the principle behind why people love their books to bits and no longer scoff at them, I don't think I'm ever able to do the same.

To me, books are tools that enable me to live life better and more thoughtfully. And as any craftsman would tell you, one should keep one's tools clean and well-maintained, not leave them out dirty to rust in the rain. Sighing with satisfaction over what a banged-up state your tools are - again, in my book - does not make you more hardworking or passionate about your job. Reading books roughly could mean but, alas, does not guarantee that you read it more profoundly.

What I do regret, however, is not defacing the insides of my books more. A sub-set of book abuse, but separate and distinct, is marginalia - those random thoughts and reactions doodled as a reader sits with pencil in hand. English novelist Graham Greene famously scribbled all over the books he owned, which were eventually archived in Boston. Back in 2012, journalist Robert McCrum had asked, also on The Guardian book blog: "If we're not Graham Greene, how much ought we to write in our own volumes?"

It is a question of authorial confidence, I think. I regret not committing my thoughts boldy to the margins, to compete with the seemingly unassailable truth of the printed word; afraid that I will be embarrassed by that earlier reader-me when I open the book again. I prevaricate, I stall, penning my observations or analyses on sticky notes that I carefully affix to the pages, knowing that they can be removed any time, as opposed to indelible ink.

No more, I say. I will love reading my books so much, I will write notes to them, on them. To kill the inner editor who suppresses my private selfexpression, I need first to gag that inner librarian who admonishes us to treat all books as sacrosanct.