How do you treat your books? It is a question that has divided readers since ink was first printed on paper and bound between two pieces of coloured cardboard.
To some – as American essayist Anne Fadiman brilliantly put it in her 1998 collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – a book is 'sacrosanct... its form inseparable from its content’, so one should ‘attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller’. These, she calls 'courtly lovers' of books.
To 'carnal lovers', however, ‘a book's words [are] holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread and ink that [contain] them [are] a mere vessel, and it [is] no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire.’
So which are you? Are you the reader to whom the thought of writing in the margins, cracking the spine, or dog-earing pages is a sin? Or do you like to put your books back on the shelf roughed up and unambiguously read?
If you're not sure, check yourself against our list of the biggest ‘crimes’ perpetuated against the page.
Sawing books in half
Earlier this month, a man who saws his biggest books in half to reduce their heft similarly tore Twitter in two.
‘Yesterday my colleague called me a 'book murderer' because I cut long books in half to make them more portable,’ tweeted novelist Alex Christofi, alongside a photo of three infamously large tomes, cut in half lengthwise: Middlesex, Infinite Jest, and Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. ‘Does anyone else do this?’ he added. ‘Is it just me?’
Some saw it as nothing less than a flagrant act of biblio-vandalism. ‘This is terrorism,’ fumed one Twitter user. ‘You’re a monster,’ steamed several. ‘For the love of puppies, stop this egregious behaviour,’ pleaded another.
Others, however, were more supportive. The columnist/author Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (and penguin.co.uk contributor) joked, ‘[I] am completely ok with it. In fact it undercuts their hubris in writing such a bloody long book in the first place.’
One problem remains unsolved, however: what you do if you lose half the book?!
Writing in the margins
While studying at Cambridge in 1956, Sylvia Plath lent some books to a friend who had the gall to annotate them in pencil. ‘I was furious,’ Plath later wrote in her journal, ‘feeling my children had been raped, or beaten, by an alien.’
The practice (some call it an art) of marginalia has divided readers since books have existed. Mark Twain was a prolific offender. Virginia Woolf thought it a grave act of violence against the author of a book. Playwright Joe Orton was actually arrested for it.
But then, Edgar Allan Poe thought it crucial to intellectual craft, and marginalised the dickens out of every book he deemed worthy. ‘I have always been solicitous of an ample margin,’ he wrote in 1844. ‘This is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.’
Tearing out pages as you go
It’s late. You’ve read your nightly ten pages of the book beside the bed, and you are just… drifting... off… when suddenly you are awoken by a most unholy sound: paper – good quality paper – ripping. You’ve heard that sound before. It’s the sound of your flatmate in the bedroom next door, tearing out the pages of her book as she reads.
This may sound like fiction, but it was the reality for one Reddit user last year. ‘The reason there’s paper tearing is because she reads books by [expletive] tearing them apart page by page as she moves through them instead of just flipping the pages like a normal human,' they wrote, posting a photo of a bedroom floor, strewn with dismembered pages and another of the hardback’s mutilated remains. ‘Now even the hard covers aren’t safe,’ they added.
But if you’re shocked by that, consider Lord Chesterfield who, in the 18th century, claimed to always carry Latin poetry with him so he’d have something good to read on the toilet, and a practical application for every page he read.
What’s the meatiest book you ever read? For former librarian Jan Bild, it was less the book than the rasher of uncooked bacon she found inside it, presumably left by a patron running extremely late for work.
Then there was the librarian at the University of Liverpool’s library who last week found a slice of processed cheese inside a book. In the wake of the gooey discovery, the library was moved to issue a statement saying that, while students were free to eat cold food in library, ‘we prefer them not to use snacks as bookmarks’.
Eating and reading may be, as CS Lewis once pointed out, ‘two pleasures that combine admirably,’ but bacon and books are not. Nor are coffee circles and book covers, nor jam and printed pages. Nothing sullies a book’s beauty like a blob of strawberry conserve in the prologue.
Leaving it within reach of a dog
If you have a dog, chances are it had a ravaging phase. Like when it was young and it would destroy anything of value it could get its teeth into: shoes, cuddly toys, sunglasses, your limited-edition copy of Ulysses. While it may not have been you who ate it, leaving a book to the whim of your dog is a case of joint enterprise. At best, you served as accomplice to your book-guzzling pooch.
It’s a calamity that’s befallen many a dog-doting book lover, most famously John Steinbeck, whose beloved Irish Setter, Toby, once ate his only manuscript of Of Mice and Men. In a letter to his agent, the author was magnanimous towards the mutt: ‘My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my book,’ he explained. ‘Two months’ work to do over again … the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.’
It’s one thing for homework; not an excuse when it comes to books.
Dog-earing and spine cracking
When you’ve read a book, does it stay read? Are you the sort of person who folds down page corners to remind both yourself, and the book, where you left off? Do you crack its spine until it goes wrinkly with age? Or do you respect your books like keepsakes of a halcyon past, delicately turning its pages like flower petals to keep them as pristine as the day you bought them?
To some, leaving physical marks on books is an essential, and deeply personal, part of the reading process – like leaving footprints on a deserted beach, or pressing your palm into a patch of freshly-poured concrete. To others, it’s pure vandalism.
To the latter, books are sacred knowledge delivery systems that symbolise our taste, our intellect, our moral certainties. To them, a book is to be respected, not treated as a mere object to be exploited. To disrespect a book is to disrespect ourselves.
Correcting wobbly tables
‘Urgh, why have you still not fixed this wobbly table,’ your friend moans as you sit down for a tea, much of which has spilled into the saucer because, for some unfathomable reason, the Danish furniture shop down the road sold you a table with one leg marginally shorter than the others. So, now it wobbles like a jelly.
Your friend is already standing by your bookshelf. ‘Not Moby Dick. Too big,’ she puzzles. ‘Ah, The Old Man and the Sea. Perfect.’ At 112 pages, Hemingway’s 1952 classic fits snugly under the offending leg, rendering the table as steady as its author's hand after three mojitos. ‘You couldn’t do that with a Kindle,’ your friend gloats. The problem is fixed, but your conscience is broken. You can be sure Hemingway never turned books into furniture.