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06 March 2007

Book (Ab)use, My history of

Dorothy posted about book abuse, referencing an article in the New York Times Book Review. Reading her post & the comments led me to thinking about how I have treated books in my life and what the physical presence of books means to me.

I have always loved to read books but I haven't always had hundreds of books surrounding me. When I was a child, I would sometimes look at the books my mother had in a small case in her bedroom. I can only remember three: a poetry anthology with a pearly pewter binding and bright turquoise lettering, a book about Pope John XXIII, and a memoir about a widower with a very large family. I used to visit the bookshelf, half expecting something new, but there never was. Magazines would float in and out of the house, seeming to arrive on their own, but books had a presence, a sense of sitting on the shelf from the start of time. They were hallowed items, seldom held in one's hand. They were almost as untouchable as the glass figurines on the living room coffee table.

Then one day they arrived: the Readers' Digest Condensed books. The brown faux-leather bindings lined a new shelf in the living room. Three or four appeared at the same time, a new one following every few months thereafter. They looked serious to a 8-year old, awed by four entire books bound together in one. I used to touch them gracefully, imagining that I could feel the words beneath my fingers.

A few years later I started to read some of them. I had to request permission at first, approval that the book was suitable for me. "I can't keep you from reading that first one", my mother would say, "but you don't tear pages out of a book. I better not catch you." And I had to promise that my hands would be clean and that I wouldn't mess the pages.

That was okay for the first volumes. Many of the books didn't hold my attention beyond the first 10 pages. But, then one day, one arrived that I knew wouldn't be allowed. I would have to sneak-read Love Story. And sneak I did, every day after school, for about 15 minutes before my older sister or my father came home, I would take a flash light and that volume and read in the back of a coat closet. I would be careful to not bend a page, to not break the spine -- tell-tale signs that I had read the contraband material. Mostly, I was confused by the book. What did Ollie mean by calling his father a sob? That he cried a lot? That didn't seem right. But, I finished the book, envious that my older sister had been able to see the movie and almost giving my secretive reading away by trying to correct her on plot points.

I continued to read other Condensed Books and to peruse the shelves expecting other new books to arrive. James Mitchner's book Centennial was published and was a R.D. Condensed choice. I knew it must be important because there was only one or two other books in the volume, not the usual four or five. I gobbled it, loving every word. I told my mother daily for weeks that it was the best book I had ever read, recommending that she read it right away. I'm not sure that the book ever moved far from the coffee table, my mother always exhausted at the end of a long work day. Books she read would sometimes slip from her hands as she started to nod. She was always upset later that she might have dropped the book and "ruined" it.

Then, two things happened that made me realize that these treasured books were not the 'real' thing. One day I overheard my father referring to someone as an S.O.B. An SOB? A sob! Just like Ollie's dad. I knew what the abbreviation meant; it meant that kids weren't suppose to know about it. I realized that something wasn't right in the book -- there were shorthand words in a book, just like parents used. Soon thereafter I was at the mall with a friend. We passed a display of Mitchner's Centennial. I realized that it was three times the length of the Condensed version. What had I missed?! Not only did my family not have many books but the ones they did have were not quite books, not quite truthful to the intent of the author, I thought. I never read a Readers' Digest book again.

As soon as I started working in high school, I started making trips to the record store and the book store every payday. My knowledge of books, like music, was very limited. My budget was too. Vinyl was cheap -- a couple of bucks would buy a new album. Paperbacks were about the same, but they were more confusing to me. I knew what my friends were listening to, but they didn't offer reading suggestions. Each book I would buy was carefully chosen, taken home and carefully placed on my dresser or night stand. I would often hold the books, turning them over, paying attention to how the pages were stitched into the binding. I noticed how they looked and how they smelled. I read the front page copyright material. I read dedications in the front and colophons in the back. Every word was mine! I owned them. I treasured them! No longer having to be carefully of being found out for having a book I shouldn't have read, I still gingerly held each book as I read it.

A turn-of-events: I wandered upon a used book sale. Miles and miles -- the whole mall -- of tables of books. I had never seen so many books for sale before in one place. I kept picking up books, until I couldn't hold any more. One of the vendors gave me a box. I filled that up. And that was the start of my library. 50 books for less than 20 dollars (an enormous amount for my earnings). As I looked through each I realized that there was a reason that they looked so dogeared. These were obviously books that had been read, underlined, passages read aloud to others, pages turned down, highlighted, underlined, fondled. They had character. They had been read. And they were beautiful.

I think I stopped caring then about breaking book bindings or turning down corners. I like to take a paperback and fold the back cover behind the front as I'm reading. If I'm reading a hardcover, I have to remove the dust jacket so I don't mangle it. Rarely do they find their way back to the volume, usually landing on the bookshelf for awhile, later to be discarded. I read with a pen in my hand. I outline my thoughts and reactions in the margins, as if leaving notes to a future me who will re-read the book. My husband frequently comments about how I will break a binding. It never gives me pause. I will continue to do so. When I read a book, it conforms to my hands physically, as my brain tries to bend with or around what I am reading.

My books are treasures. I have them in every room of my house. There is always one or two in my car or my office. I like having books. I like the physical presence of them. But they are meant to be read, not to sit as an object d'art. A few years ago because of extensive water damage, I had to dispose of a book collection of about 1000 books. Seeing them piled into trash bags and thrown into a dumpster was heart-wrenching. I miss having many of the volumes. Sometimes I will think of something from a book and want to re-read a passage. Before, I could go to my library shelves, find the work, and lose myself in its pages. I miss that ability, but I don't miss the essence of the books that remain in my memory.

Turning pages, breaking spines, leaving coffee cup stains on the cover? Is that book abuse? Not in my book. A book can be written in, have its binding broken; it can be lost, mutilated, or destroyed by a flood. But, if it has been read, it isn't really gone. Book abuse is having books on shelves like sacred objects, like museum pieces on display. Book abuse is being concerned about the ideas in a book being too dangerous to introduce. Book abuse is worrying about the turned down page or the coffee cup ring, instead of opening your mind to the beautiful ideas of the words between the broken spine.

9 comments:

Emily Barton said...

"Book abuse is worrying about the turned down page or the coffee cup ring, instead of opening your mind to the beautiful ideas of the words between the broken spine."

What a beautiful sentence! I couldn't agree more that the real abuse is not to read books.

jenclair said...

Isn't it interesting that some people have too little respect for books and others venerate them as objects. Like you, I value the content, not the vehicle, as the real treasure. Great post, Cam.

Courtney said...

Oh, I love how you share your reading history with us - thank you so much for that - I really enjoyed this! I can just picture you in the back of the closet with your flashlight (well, I don't know what you look like, but you know what I mean...) -

Dorothy W. said...

What a great post! It's fun reading people's reading history. It WOULD be hard to have all those books damaged by water.

I've always loved books too, but haven't always owned a ton -- for the longest time it seemed like such a luxury to own a lot of books (now, however, I find myself collecting them amazingly fast).

LK said...

I've enjoyed following this discussion.

I have always loved the physical presence of books. Just swooned at the library when I was a little girl.

I love to come across used books with inscriptions in them or notes.

Basically, I am agreeing with your lovely sentiments: Book enjoyment is not book abuse.

Cam said...

Emily, JenClair, LK: thanks for the nice comments. Happy to know that others share my sentiments (although I am not surprised given my experience in blogging about books).

Dorothy -- the books weren't the only thing that we had to get rid of. In total most of the contents of 4 rooms. I don't miss anything -- except the books. I can't count how many times I thought "I have that book" and then realize I had that book and it's loss is felt.

Courtney -- you made me laugh, thinking about my school picture circa 1970. A brief description: a little too much babyfat for my age, long stringy hair, parted in the middle. Wire-rimmed, round lens glasses (hippy glasses as my mom referred to them). Starched white blouse and scratch-y red plaid school uniform, designed for little girls & unable to (gasp!) hide a growing bustline of a pre-teen. Not seen in the pic: blue knee socks that would never stay up, day-glo pink & yellow Flower Power stickers on my binders, almost always a book in one hand, nervously twisting hair in the other (a habit I am thankful I grew out of by jr high). I wish I still had the picture to scan & post! Not surprising that I retreated to a closet to read when I was suppose to be playing outside. A big nerd. Kinda what you pictured?

That walk-in closet was also where I hid when I wanted to hear secret conversations between my older siblings. It wasn't until Mom sold the house a few years ago that anyone knew that I use to hide there.

chiefbiscuit said...

I love to get books out of the library that have a used look - coffee cup stains, grease spots, crimped from being rained on ... book abuse! Bring it on!

sandishelton said...

Oh, Cam! I come from a family that treats books as if they are museum objects, while I (guiltily) love to read in the tub! My books all have splash marks, and some have actually bathed at times...and the books I go back to again and again look awfully bedraggled by the time I've put them on my shelf. How great to read such a wonderful post and to know that my way really does make sense! (I mean, I knew it made sense to me, but to hear my mother go on about "those who abuse books"--whew! You'd think prison was where I belong. Thank you, thank you!

Pearl said...

That's a lovely meditation. I enjoyed reading it.