How We Read Our Books

how-to-open-a-new-bookI recently came across this image online (facebook no doubt), and it got me thinking about how we interact with our books. As is obvious by posts like this and this, I am a tactile reader. I write on pages, break spines, dog-ear pages, and by the time I’m through reading a book, it looks, well, thoroughly read. In fact, it’s a pretty safe assumption to make that the more worn (or can we say loved, instead?) a book looks, the more I enjoyed reading it, or at least, the more I got from its pages. It’s quite easy to pick out my favorite volumes from my library by the amount of tape on the spine holding it together, and it’s not uncommon for me to have to repurchase new, readable versions of these titles. As I’ve written in previous posts, my copy of Huxley’s Island is a perfect example of this, as is my old ratty copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters… and it’s that very book that brings me to this post.

A couple of weeks back, before starting this glorious winter holiday, I stood in front of my high school AP European History class with the intent of discussing Montesquieu’s contributions to the Enlightenment via his Persian Letters. I was standing in front of the class, casually prefacing the work in question, when I pulled out my old, tattered copy. I hadn’t thought anything about the state of my book as I started leafing through it, but almost instantly my brilliant lecture was interrupted by gasps and other sounds of shock and horror. Apparently, the state of my book was enough to completely derail the day’s discussion. Montesquieu forgotten, the students instead interrogated me regarding the sad state of my old paperback – “Is that tape holding it together?” “How old is that book… like 100 years???” “How many ink colors are on that page?!?!”

I have to admit that as far as I was concerned, that particular book wasn’t even close to the need-a-new-readable-copy state yet. It was worn, sure, and some of the text was obscured by a 13 years worth of annotations (hey, each reading yields different insights!), but that’s what made that particular copy mine. The seemingly unending layers of side notes were evidence of my ever evolving dialogue with the text and with the author; the myriad folds and dog-ears were landmarks of the many pages that were lingered on, discussed, and thought about; and the nearly disintegrated spine held together by tape was tangible proof of just how many times I’d opened up that volume to join Usbek on his travels through Europe. My book, because and not in spite of all of this, was familiar, comfortable, and uniquely mine.

I collect old books, and the same holds true in regards to what I find most desirable in them. I tend not to look for pristine, mint condition books, but rather ones with evidence of being well read and loved. I admit to feeling a bit like Indiana Jones as I look for evidence of previous readers… in the notes they’ve scribbled in the margins, the slips of paper they’ve left tucked between the pages, and in the folds in the pages where they left off reading. I try to imagine what pulled them away from the book when they dog-eared the page, or what thought process led them to jot down the nearly indecipherable note between the lines of the text. The book, because of these “imperfections” becomes much more alive for me, and as I read it I feel like I am connecting not only with the text, but with the others who touched and turned those pages before me.

Clearly many disagree with me on this. When I borrow my boyfriend’s books I read them with utmost care, as he and I are poles apart on this issue. I take care not to crack the spine, nor leave a mark in the pristine pages. And I can, to some degree, understand the thoughts that give rise to the need to take such care of books… it’s a feeling born out of the same bibliophilia that lead me to annotate away. But can I admit to the little thrill that I feel as I read his otherwise perfect books and find lightly underlined passages? I linger on those lines as he must have, trying to unlock their magic and importance, the underlining and lightly scribbled notes lending a certain excitement of discovery. Those marks, no matter how few in number or how lightly and unobtrusively drawn in they are, create a roadmap that, if followed, allow me to read the book with a new and different understanding.

So although I know that many of you out there are screaming in protest of this “defiling” of books, I will go ahead and continue annotating and folding away, and let the hundreds of cracked spines on my shelves tell of all of the remarkable places that I’ve been in the pages of those volumes. And just maybe somewhere down the road, someone will pick up one of my bent and scribbled-in books, and instead of tossing it aside, read it and find little bits of magic and insight through my many marks.

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6 thoughts on “How We Read Our Books

  1. I’m so precious with my books! I almost never write anything on them, use bookmarks religiously and have special care when I travel with with.However, I wish I was more like you, sometimes I long to write something on a page and do not for fear of damaging the book when I should perceive it as enriching the book.

  2. There are several topics that swing through various reading groups like comets, attract interest, and then fly off into forgetfulness until they loop around for another go at a newer audience. Nowadays we have the ubiquitous digital vs. paper & ink, but the old topics are still valid and elicit personal responses from even the most timid lovers of books and reading. The argument concerning writing in books, turning down page corners, bending the spine in your back-pocket, have large numbers of militant followers on each side. Could the next war be set off by the indiscriminate use of a Hi-Liter?

    (A quick anecdote: I took my old, well-worn copy of Tristram Shandy on a cruise. It was held together by a sturdy elastic band but when I took the band off for reading on the sunny deck in the middle of the Caribbean, a naughty zephyr whipped several unglued pages off to a watery death. I bought a new copy of Tristram Shandy when I returned home.)

    I make unreadable notes in the margins, underline or hi-lite obvious passages, write detailed character lists on the index cards I use for bookmarks, and when I’m finished reading the book, I donate it and all my erudition to the book exchange or the local library. The Hi-Liter is my friend: look what neon has done to bowling … don’t books deserve the same? Imagine books that could only be read in black-light?

    But now I am old. I bend over, squint, and my nose drips. I have probably a thousand books on my shelves to read but my eyes are not cooperating. Nowadays I am doing easily half of my reading on my digital tablet (I use an iPad). The words are much, much larger but my reading habits are not much changed: I bookmark pages, write notes, hi-lite passages, keep detailed character lists with the eBook, and when I’m finished reading the eBook I press erase and make the magic gesture that starts hundreds of new book titles spinning like a slot machine until I tap the lucky one.

    I guess in some ways the digital vs. paper argument will supplant the argument about writing in books. But for now, I’m all for it!

  3. It’s funny, our logic is similar but leads us in different directions. I don’t write in books, and look for used books without annotations, because every time I pick up a book I want to try to look at it with fresh eyes. I don’t want to be influenced by previous readings (mine or anyone else’s). I’m trying to find out if the book has anything new to say to me today, rather than remember what it meant for me or anyone else before.

    I guess that is one benefit to electronic books. You can write all over them and then turn that writing on or off as you prefer. If only I could train myself to use the technology more often.

    Nice post. Thanks!

  4. I dog-ear, and then, after I’m done with the book, I patiently transcribe notes onto my laptop (both the quote and my thoughts). I then arrange these notes in logical order and blog about the book. It is a long and laborious process. And then I un-dog-ear the pages carefully and try to make the book look virgin again.
    Sometimes I pick up the same book years later, come across evidence of a once-dog-eared page (where the crease has survived my best efforts to smooth things over) and wonder what exactly I saw in those lines that was noteworthy.

  5. I have to admit, I’m someone who takes good care of books… and wouldn’t dream of writing in them…but then, when I find an old book and see someone’s handwriting, someone’s notes or personal messages from many years ago, I always read them and wonder about who they were and what the world was like back then.

    And I have to admit, if I left my books to my son, I’m sure he’d be kinda disappointed to find them in almost pristine condition. In fact, to some extent, those books would lack character and personality – soul, even – because they would be identical and almost indistinguishable from any other copy produced at the same time.

    So I say go for it. Make your books – and your relationship with them – your own because just as the author has left a part of their soul in those words for you to know, so others may come to know you from the words you add to those of the author 🙂

  6. Ha! My best friend’s wife could give you a run for the money, I think. I tell her she is a true consumer of books!

    I picked up bibliophilia from my parents. My dad taught me that trick illustrated in your diagram at an early age. He was also prone to write his name on page 151 (or 51 if the pages didn’t go that high).

    I’ll dog ear and annotate and highlight, no problem, but I seem to have the strange facility of being able to read a paperback while leaving the spine utterly pristine. It’s not intentional, but it does make it easy to tell which books I’ve loaned out!

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