A few days ago, I borrowed a book from my sister, Jemima. For the sake of avoiding the mention of potential future blog post topics, I won’t say what book it was. That’s not what I wanted to talk about, anyway. What I really wanted to talk about was the condition of the book. It wasn’t especially old or messy, but my sister has a somewhat carefree attitude when it comes to looking after books. This includes holding the book open as wide as it will go, letting the corners get all splayed and fluffy by not really paying attention to where she puts it, and occasionally falling asleep on it. Treating books like this (not that it’s bad, by any means) probably isn’t that uncommon, but it always manages to mildly shock me. The thing is, I treat my books in a very different way to my sister, and in fact many other people I know. I tend to act like they’re rare, sacred documents on matters crucial to the balance of the universe – rather than cheap paperbacks from the local bookshop. There’s even a sort of personal code I follow with regards to book care, with strict rules that apply to all books regardless of whether they’re an expensive, hardback classic or ten-a-penny, second-hand book. Some of these all-important rules include:
- Hold the book open as little as you can whilst still being able to read. This avoids creases on the spine. I spent years cultivating the art of this, and now it’s actually fairly natural for me to hold a book with its pages open at a 35 degree angle. Yes, people have thought this is weird.
- If you have to lie a book down on its side, put it spine down. It took me one battered and creased copy of Gulliver’s Travels – which then spent several weeks after compressed under a stack of my heaviest books – to realise the importance of this.
- Do not fold the edges of the pages. Either use a bookmark or pay the price by having to spend a good five minutes flicking through the book to find your page, in a method of torture akin to trying to find the end of a roll of sellotape.
- Do not write in the margins. To tell you the truth, I think the idea of this could be quite nice. You know, jotting down your thoughts on a book while you read it and looking back years later to see what you put – but I just can’t bring myself to do it.
- Do not put books on the floor. They will get stepped on. No, really. It is inevitable.
- Do not place other objects on top of books. My dad is terrible with this. If I leave a book on the coffee table, a mug of tea will end up sitting on it. Every. Single. Time.
That’s a good part of the list of unwritten (until now) rules I have for looking after books, though it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how particular I am about the things. But before you vow to never borrow a book from me, let me tell you that I don’t really apply these rules to other people. As in I won’t expect you to follow these principles as religiously as I do, or at least I try not to. I do attempt to follow the same rules in relation to other people’s books, but I do admit, in a bit of a backwards way, that it’s somewhat liberating when you borrow someone else’s book with tea stains, bashed-about corners, and creased up spines. Everyone knows how horrible it is to give back a damaged object a friend has lent to you, and how tense it can be when you try not to break or ruin it in any way. So it’s kind of a relief when you realise that this book isn’t likely to get much worse under your protection.
Moving on to a slightly different area of bibliophilia*, many booklovers will surely agree that the joy of reading and owning books doesn’t just come from the writing inside. That’s obviously the most important part (what would be the point in reading a good-looking book with blank pages?), but it’s only one component of the whole bookish experience. For one thing, there’s the general quality of the book. Legible font, handy carrying size, and good page quality all make reading a book that much more enjoyable. I know some people adore e-books – to which these characteristics don’t apply – and I understand why (though that’s another topic), but I’ve always loved the experience of actual, paper books, and I don’t think I will ever truly cross over to the side of electronic reading. Not only are there the practical sensibilities of book-buying, but there’s also the extra excitement to be found in searching for or discovering a book with especially special, although ultimately entirely superficial, characteristics. There’s not really, at the end of the day, any point in having a book with its author’s signature, that was an old or rare edition, or has a particularly pretty cover. Still, the pointlessness of it doesn’t stop these traits from being part of the fun of buying and owning books, and it definitely doesn’t stop me from spending 20 pounds or more on a book, just because it had one of these features, when I could have bought a just-as-technically-good copy for less than half the price. These features, which aren’t really worth anything when it comes to practicality, nonetheless are yet another enjoyable aspect of books.
I mentioned in the list of rules that writing inside books – as in ones already with printed writing in them, not notebooks – moderately horrifies me. This is probably due to the fact, as also stated above, that I view books as something immensely valuable, and not just in the financial way. Viewing books this way is, in my opinion, justified. They contain knowledge, convey thoughts, and are built around the one of the most important qualities of humankind that has enabled us to become the dominant species on this planet – language. And I try not to judge people I don’t know, but, if I’m honest, I will like you a little bit less if you mistreat books. Not that I mind if you don’t worship books like it’s sacrilegious to get a dent in them; I just mean that people who blatantly, for no reason at all, abuse books. For example: when I’d ordered a second-hand book once to come out through the post to this Middle Eastern country, which likely has some of the most disrespectful post inspection officers in the entire world, I imagined it would only have some wear-and-tear (the info on the website said “very good” condition) when it got to my house. Wrong. The book had a giant, fat, pink W-shaped pen mark on its front cover. I’m trying really hard not to go into a rant here, but let me just say that I was not happy about that. I know it was customs that did it. The otherwise good condition of the book showed it had been looked after by someone who cared to a respectable degree about the treatment of their books – not someone who draws W shapes on them for no good reason. Just…….argh. Damn you, customs.
So that’s the end of my book-based ramble. My point of writing this was really just to spread a bit of book love. I do have a great amount of respect and adoration for books, which is both a good and a bad thing. Maybe there are some people who think I’m an obsessive bibliomaniac**, but perhaps there are other people who feel the same way as I do. In my opinion, what makes books so great isn’t just what defines them to be a book (i.e. the writing in them). It’s also everything that surrounds books, like their sentimental value and the simple pleasure in being around well-loved books, whether that means scribbled-in and dog-eared ones or excessively clean and tidy books. And to the customs officer that drew on my book, if you ever read this……..I still haven’t forgotten.
*An intense love of books. Those with bibliophilia are bibliophiles.
**An intense love of books that extends to the point of mental and/or physical health issues.