Book-lovers often disagree about the proper way to take care of their books: there are those who cherish their books by keeping them in pristine condition, and those who express their love by practically destroying them. I belong to the latter group.
My most beloved reads are my most worn — the covers are torn, the margins are scribbled in, and the pages are dog-eared. There’s my old copy of Mrs. Dalloway, with its pages full of teenage musings on love and death, or my Great Gatsby paperback, with feminist-fueled notations on each the novel’s more misogynist moments. There are less intentional markings, too, like my duct-taped hardcover of Love Letters of Great Men, which my dog once used as a chew toy, or my stained copy of Franny and Zooey, which happened to be in my purse with a leaky takeout container of Thai food.
One of the greatest things about books is their unique physicality: they’re durable, easy to carry, and fairly cheap, so there’s no big incentive to keep them pristine, at least from a financial standpoint. And while book covers can be beautiful, the most important things are the words on the page, so who cares if that book jacket gets a few scratches? No matter what the damage is — whether an embarrassing annotation or a questionable food stain (or both) — I’m glad that my bookshelf is full of them, because when a book is truly loved, it’s going to get beaten to shreds. Here’s why:
1. Because when you reread a book — whether in six months or six years — you’ll want to remember what your thoughts were.
One of the signs of a great book is the amount of thought and reflection that it provokes in its reader. And one of the best ways to record those thoughts is to write them right there in the margins. Sometimes these are just minor comments: “love this analogy,” “breathtaking description,” “new character.” Sometimes they are more personal reflections, relating to the events going on in one’s life at the time. For instance, in my high school-era notes in Mrs. Dalloway, I decided that fear is “the most powerful feeling (besides love).” Of the character Peter’s reflection that “one could not be in love twice,” I scribbled, “I believe it… for now.”
Embarrassing? A little bit. But am I glad that my 17-year-old self jotted down those thoughts? Absolutely. Otherwise, I would lose half of the enjoyment of rereading Mrs. Dalloway — the pleasure not only of experiencing the story again and again, but of seeing past selves reflected back at me. (And imagine how I’ll feel in 20 years, rereading those same faded pages.)
2. Because one must have a book with them at all times.
Like any diehard book-lover, if I have a spare moment in the day, I want to be reading. Laundromat? Reading. Subway car? Reading. Standing on the sidewalk waiting to meet a friend? I'll let you handle this one. And when an unexpected down moment arises, I will not find myself lacking in literature. This entails always finding a way to wedge a book into my purse, no matter how tiny. If I have to practically fold that paperback in half to get it to fit, I’ll do so, even at the expense of harming the spine or smooth pages (who needs ‘em?).
This fear of being book-less is also the culprit behind sandy books (beach reads), food-stained books (lunchtime reads), and water-stained books (the occasional bath time read!). And the list could go on. A little bit of wear and tear is worth it for the comfort of always having a book on hand.
3. Because sometimes books are confusing.
Whether it’s an unfamiliar word, a passage written in another language, or a puzzling cultural difference, when reading certain works, there can be moments that just don’t make sense. (Shakespeare, anyone?) When these instances arise, there are often helpful footnotes or endnotes. If there are, it’s helpful to mark the note so you remember it. And, if not, there’s Google. But why Google something only to have to do so again the next time you read the book? The better option… DIY footnotes! If I don’t know the significance of a word or phrase, I always try to define it in the margin. It’ll be helpful for the next time I read the book, and simply writing down an explanation can help me to remember it.
4. Because dog-earing pages is useful, damnit.
Bookmarks are like socks at the laundromat: they’re always getting lost (or making a break for it, whatever the case may be). When that happens, what other choice do you have than to fold down the page corner? It’s the easiest way to mark a page, not to mention the cheapest. Even if you have a bookmark, dog-earing pages can a useful tool for marking passages that you want to remember, saving you the time of having to flip through the book later in order to find a certain page.
5. Because when you really love a book, you want to share it with everyone.
When I’ve finished reading an awesome book, all I want to do is discuss it with whomever else has read it. (This is one of the main reasons why book clubs are popular.) If I can’t find a friend who’s read the work, no problem, I’ll just lend her my copy to read. As unimportant as it seems, lending and borrowing books can be one of the great pleasures of a relationship. It’s a way to share your tastes and thoughts with the other person, and provides the basis for great literary discussions.
Of course, sharing books pretty much guarantees that some copies will get returned in a different state than the one in which they were lent out (if they get returned at all)—they’ll have someone else’s notations, stains and/or animal chew-marks on them. All of those little changes just add to the uniqueness of the book, though, and serve as permanent reminders of the person who borrowed it.
6. Because sometimes bookshelves just aren’t enough.
Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those tastefully categorized, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. My rinky-dink shelving unit — like many a book-lover’s — is simply too small to hold my ever-growing collection of books. That means my books are forced to make a home wherever they can: stacked on the floor next to the bookshelf, piled on the desk, balanced on the nightstand, balanced underneath the nightstand…you get the point. This free-flowing organization method works, except for the fact that some books end up getting a little bit dirty, especially those that are stored near the floor. But, hey, I think that muddy shoeprint really becomes the cover of Twenty Years A-Growing.
7. Because used books are the best books.
A good used book is more than a win-win — it’s a win-win-win. Used books are usually dirt-cheap, always better for the environment (when compared to buying a book new), and often have unique characteristics, like notes from the previous owner or cool vintage book covers. The best used books are like time capsules, transporting traces of the previous owners.
Because used books are already worn down, there’s no incentive to keep them looking nice. In fact, the opposite is true—because they’re already marked up, it’s even more fun to add new notes and markings. For example, one of my recent purchases was an old red cloth hardcover of Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, with a handwritten inscription in the front dated December 2000. It also has underlines throughout, marking certain words like “simpered” and “contiguity.” I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m excited to do so, not only to enjoy the contents, but also to see what the previous reader found interesting and to add my own notes to his. (I know that the reader was a male from the name on the front page.) Maybe I’ll even add a new inscription to the front, or a sticker… or I’ll probably just end up spilling Thai food on it.