Books and how to treat them

A librarian friend of mine hurt me deeply this week when she said libraries do something called ‘weeding”, which is exactly what it sounds like — rounding up old, damaged, and unpopular books and — yes, gasp — throwing them away.

This confession traumatised me so deeply I had to blog about it and for this, I’m grateful to that friend. Sometimes blog ideas are hard to come by, especially when it’s a hundred degrees outside and I’m too hot to even think, let alone think about something specifically.

Anyway, books. Rationally, it makes perfect sense that books don’t last forever and they don’t need to. Books, like my friend says, are not the stories in them, they’re just bound paper. She’s absolutely right, of course. But for me and I expect for other sentimental readers, physical books are more than that. They’re more than the stories in them, too.

The featured image of this post, as some of you might have guessed, is of Stephen King’s It, volume two. It was published in 1992 and bought by me not longer after publication. Incidentally, It happens to be one of my favourite Kings, so I’ve read it about a dozen times and I’m not exaggerating.

For reasons that have to do with the length of the book and the state of book publishing in the early 90s in Bulgaria, this volume started to fall apart sometime around the third or fourth reading. I kept re-reading it. By the time I met my then-future husband and book-binding enthusiast in 2000 most of it was loose pages.

Since then, he has sowed and glued it, I think twice. Also since then, much higher quality editions of It and other King novels that look like well-used hankies on my shelves have come out. And yet I haven’t thrown out a single one of them. I had to part with a Four after Midnight volume 1 because a friend’s dog ate parts of it but that’s a completely different case. If it’s unreadable, it’s too late, sob.

It’s all pathetically sentimental, really. My tattered copy of It is the book in which I first met the characters that are still some of the best, full-blooded, complex people I’ve ever known. It’s the book I fell in love with. It’s the book I’ve learned so much about plotting and pacing, and everything about writing from. The only way I’m giving that book up is if perishes in a fire, which is not happening.

Or take an even older favourite. My Family and Other Animals is one of the first books that were not folk tales that I read in my life. It has underlined nouns in some chapters, which tells me I must have been in third grade when I read it for the first — or maybe second — time. It also has ancient brown smudges from the chocolate cream sandwiches I used to eat by the dozen while I read. Little C. has had something to say about that but I don’t care.

While it’s an older book than It, My Family and Other Animals was made to last — it is a properly bound, sown and not glued hardcover, so there are no loose pages. Yet the paper is beginning to fall apart. Its back fell off, too, but Big C. glued that back on. Are there newer editions? Of course there are. Am I swapping it for any of them? Did you not hear about my ancient chocolate cream smudges?

I also have them on the last part of the trilogy, by the way, because it was decades before I got my hands on the second part. That one’s smudge-free and it feels wrong. Sadly, I no longer stuff myself with chocolate cream sandwiches while reading. But these smudges are there to remind me of a happier time when I didn’t care about my caloric intake.

I realise my self-professed reverence of physical books sounds weird in light of the smudge confession but it’s not. Rather, it’s not so much reverence as true love. I don’t just read books, I consume them. My copy of Interesting Times, which was my English Practice book in my first year at university, is full of underlined verbs of movement and reflexive pronouns because we had to write papers on various grammar subjects that year. It would make for a very annoying reading experience for anyone else but me. For me, it’s full of both Pratchett’s brilliance and memories of a time now gone.

I also break books’ backs, dog-ear pages and, yes, underline sentences, sometimes. I have no respect, as such, for the physical body of a book. I will twist it any way I need to in order to read comfortably and that has occasionally included tearing the book in half because it was badly glued. I’m an irreverent reader by any set of criteria.

I’m also suspicious of people who read their books barely opening them to avoid breaking their backs. It’s the same kind of suspicion I harbour towards people who have never drunk alcohol, dislike mayonnaise, and have no appreciation for P.G. Wodehouse. Incidentally, the early 90s copy of my first Wodehouse story collection is currently sitting under half a dozen other books because Big C. just glued back its covers on. For the third time.

If you ask me, I’m perfectly fine with throwing the covers away. Big C. not so much. He is a reverent reader. But throw the old copy out and buy a new one? No way. I still vividly remember when my mum bought the book on our way to a dentist’s appointment for me and while I was being tortured behind closed doors, she giggled at Strychnine in the Soup. When we got home, she gave me the book and the memory of the dental torture vanished without a trace. I’m never throwing such memories away for a new and shiny bound stack of paper.

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