Confessions of a serial book abuser

June 6, 2015

While I was sorting out books to dispose of recently, I was a little shocked by the condition of some of them, and by what I had done to them.

I’ll start by saying that I know there are people who like to keep books in pristine condition. It isn’t possible, and it doesn’t work. I know, because I sometimes turn to a book I bought twenty years ago and have yet to read, and it has inevitably degraded over time: colours of the cover and spine fade, the glue weakens or crumbles, the paper goes brown or spotty.

I’ve always felt my books are mine to do what I like with. Mainly I read them, but they do get used – some would say abused. Over the years, for instance, I’ve got better at using bookmarks, but if I don’t have one to hand, then I will fold over the corner of the page… I have always written my name and the date I acquired a book on the flyleaf. This never did stop me lending and then losing books, so now I often use a post-it note instead, especially if a book has nice endpapers.

I log when I read a book – just the date, on the back flyleaf. Useful information, shocking at times.

I suppose my worst offence in the eyes of many will be the fact that I annotate some of the books I read. Mitigating circumstances: I’m not as bad as I was when a student, when every book was annotated and usually in ballpoint pen! This, of course, eventually meant they were unsaleable, and some of the books in the recent cull went to the recycling bin rather than the charity sale because of this. But I still annotate, though now I use 2B pencil, and jot ideas down on the back flyleaf rather than throughout the text, so that theoretically I can clean up the book. And yes, I get furious if I buy a secondhand book that contains someone else’s marginalia, though this is usually because some internet seller has described a book incorrectly and I’ve bought someone else’s annotations unawares.

I don’t feel guilty about any of this: the book is mine, I read it, think about what the writer has to say, interact with her/him, and learn… what I am more concerned about is my magpie habit, that I must keep every book, rather than moving it on to another home after I’ve done with it. However, I’m working on that. There is a kind of secondhand bookshop – if you’ve been in one, you’ll recognise the type – where your heart sinks as you look at rows and rows of hundreds of mouldering, ancient books and you think, these all need throwing in a skip… I don’t want a library like that.

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