Debate: should you keep books pristine?

From: Sam Parker
To: Sarah Shaffi

Subject: Slightly scruffy books

Hi Sarah,

This is a little awkward, but the other night on Zoom when we were talking about our favourite books of 2020, and I held up my copy of Grown Ups by Marian Keyes, I couldn't help but notice you winced a little.

Now I know it's a bit battered-looking, but that joke someone made about whether I'd dropped it under a bus felt uncalled for. The spine has crumpled a bit, true. And the egg stain on the front cover is unfortunate. But it's a big novel and – as we all agreed – an unputdownable one, so like only the best books it often accompanied me to breakfast.

If my books are dog-eared, I couldn't help but notice your own looked as bright-eyed and glossy as new born puppies. Do you actually read them, or just turn them over admiringly with a pair of gloves on?

Yours scruffily,

Sam

From: Sarah Shaffi
To: Sam Parker

Subject: Re: Slightly scruffy books

Hello Sam,

Implying I don't read my books just because they're not covered in egg is a low blow, and one I suspect stems from the fact that you know you're mistreating your books. Also, just how were you holding Grown Ups that you managed to drop your breakfast on to it?

Look, I will admit that I like a pristine book. I don't turn the corners of pages, and I don't purposefully crack a book open so the glue breaks. I don't write in the margins of books, or highlight a quote I particularly like. We all have different love languages when it comes to books, and it just so happens that mine involves keeping them looking good.

Maybe this need to keep my books clean can be traced to a couple of incidents from my childhood.

First, there was the time I left a banana in my bag, along with a school library copy of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising. Let's just say that I forgot about the banana for quite a while, and that book never went back to my junior school. I think it scarred me for life.

And then there was my secretly reading a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which my mum bought for my younger brother as a birthday present, and which I just had to read before we gave it to him. Spine creases would have been a surefire sign of my sneakiness.

I don't expect everyone to keep their books like I do mine; there is some inevitable wear and tear that comes from the act of reading physical books. But food stains and rips? Come on, that's not how you treat something you like.

Sarah

From: Sam Parker
To: Sarah Shaffi

Subject: Re: re: Slightly scruffy books

Hi Sarah,

Interesting you can trace all of this back to childhood. For me it's probably rooted more in adolescence, when carrying a battered paperback around was a useful stand in for having an interesting personality. I'm not sure I ever grew out of that entirely.

That said, I've never seen folding, cracking or being slapdash-in-the-bath with books as an act of vandalism, but rather an expression of love – a bit like when you want to squeeze your pet too hard. To me, a battered book is a charming thing, evidence of a passionate affair, perhaps even a bumpy ride. Life is for living, and books are for stuffing in your back pocket and accidentally dropping on the floor a few times.

I'll admit it's a rather selfish stance, and not very attractive to would-be borrowers. Then again, for me that's part of the appeal.

Last point on this. My partner recently pulled a particularly grubby old book of mine from the shelf and found my name scribbled in childish cursive next to the year '1997'. She found it rather charming, while I was instantly transported back to reading it for the first time while listening to the Spice Girls. It's nice to make books your own, isn't it? Or am I just a monster in denial?

Sam

From: Sarah Shaffi
To: Sam Parker

Subject: Re: re: re: Slightly scruffy books

Hello Sam

Not a monster at all, although perhaps there's a happy middle ground where you take slightly better care of your books (also: your newly adopted cat does not like being squeezed that hard), and I stop treating mine like they're museum exhibits to be preserved in their original state for all time.

I don't think you'll ever catch me spilling my lunch on them, but perhaps the odd page turned down here and there when I don't have something handy to use as a bookmark wouldn't be so bad. And that would certainly be easier than trying to remember what page I was on.

And you definitely won't catch me stuffing a paperback in my back pocket, if only because most women's clothes don’t have decent sized pockets. But that's my fight to have with the patriarchy.

Sarah

Who do you agree with? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk or on Twitter.

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