Care and Feeding of Books

The Sunday New York Times Book section had a charming essay called Confessions of a Book Abuser (registration required).  Ben Schott opens:

I have to admit I was flattered when, returning to my hotel room on the shores of Lake Como, a beautiful Italian chambermaid took my hand. I knew that the hotel was noted for the attentiveness of its staff. Surely, though, such boldness elevated room service to a new level. Escorting me to the edge of the crisply made bed, the chambermaid pointed to a book on my bedside table. “Does this belong to you?” she asked. I looked down to see a dog-eared copy of Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies” open spread-eagle, its cracked spine facing out. “Yes,” I replied. “Sir, that is no way to treat a book!” she declared, stalking out of the room.

The essay ends up being a meditation on books as objects, arguing that “it is notable that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best.”  This behavior is different than book-burning, whose object is the destruction of the ideas within the book.  Dogearing and writing in the margins and even spine cracking are, instead, signs of a kind of vigorous reading. 

I certainly understand his point.  I don’t write in my books, but I’m an unrepentant dogearer, even of library books–though when I borrow a book from a friend I am kind enough to use a bookmark.  I dogear because I hate having to worry about the bookmark.  I never know where to put it while I’m reading, and I’m always worrying it’ll fall out and I’ll lose my place.  Plus, if I’m going to use a bookmark I want to use a nice one, and those tend to get bent and mangled when you’re carrying the book in your bag.  And what if I drop it on the subway?  Yuck-o-rama.

But I can’t agree with this:

The businessman who tears off and discards the chunk of John Grisham he has already read before boarding a plane may lack finesse, but he is not a Nazi. Indeed, the publishing industry thinks nothing of pulping millions of unsold (or libelous) books each year. And there was no outcry in 2003 when 2.5 million romance novels from the publisher Mills & Boon were buried to form the noise-reducing foundation of a motorway extension in Manchester, England.

You might not want a book anymore, but somebody else might.  Libraries and schools are always having book drives, and there are sites like BookMooch where you can trade your books for other books.  But that would take work, and time, and effort–something that our pageturner-loving businessman clearly doesn’t have.  And those pulped books become other books!  They’re not just thrown in the garbage with all the rest of the gross trash people discard at airports.

Beyond that, books are something that should be kept.  I have to admit to a certain amount of paranoia, induced by reading James Kuntsler’s The Long Emergency.  I’m pretty much assuming that the lights will go off in my lifetime, so I’m building a library that I can re-read until I’m a very old lady.  Books I don’t want for that library, I give away.  I’m also collecting books that I’d want to share with my future children. 

I’ll close by saying that my cookbooks are covered in stains, and my knitting books have pages excised for easier transport of patterns.  I’m no book prude, but I believe books are meant to be kept.

This post is in honor of a book I read for work this weekend, one of those YA books that’s all about dropping brand names and pop culture references, where all the girls are popular, even the ones who are supposed to be “real.” Ick.

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