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Rachel Cooke presents an ode to good book design in the Observer, which also discusses the different ways in which we treat books. It's been a while since I read Anne Fadiman's delightful Ex Libris, but Cooke has reminded me of Fadiman's distinction between the different sorts of bibliophiles - those who are "courtly" or "carnal" book lovers. And I am, as anyone who's asked to borrow a book knows, a courtly book lover.

I look after books. It causes me genuine pain to crack a spine or crease a cover. I mean, I read A Suitable Boy without cracking the spine. Whether it's likely to rain or not, I keep a plastic bag in non-waterproof bags to protect books from water damage (I seriously can't bear to read wobbly water damaged books - the awful creaking of the pages!). Of course, I don't think everyone should keep to these freakish standards - unless I lend them a book. I make it very clear if I lend someone a book that I expect the lendee to look after it, and I can think of few ruder things than to treat someone else's book in a way in which they would not treat it themselves.

I don't give a shit if you crack your own books' spines or bend back the cover or write all over them or throw them down the stairs. But if you borrow my books, you look after them. Or you can replace them. And no, I'm not joking. I think if you borrow anything, from a saucepan to a pair of shoes, you treat them not as you treat your own stuff, but as the owner of the borrowed items treats hers. And yes, that goes even if you think the owner is anal or weird. I once loaned someone a book who returned to me a creased, water-rumpled mess without a word of apology. I can't imagine she'd have behaved the same way if I'd loaned her a top and she'd given it back to me in rags.

Is it anal? Yes. Is it verging on OCD? Probably. But they're my books. So I treat them my way. And anyone who borrows them should do the same.



( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 16th, 2006 10:53 am (UTC)
But if you borrow my books, you look after them.

Yes! Yes yes yes. I lent a book to an ex-friend* once - it was in pristine condition. I got it back in flitters.

*It took a bit more to make her an ex-friend, I have to admit.
Apr. 16th, 2006 10:55 am (UTC)
I love Ex Libris. I rediscovered it on my shelf a couple of months ago, and promptly had to go and give a copy to a friend as a present. It's the sort of book you want to share.

I have the same thing about treating them carefully. I've lent books to friends, who have said, "Have you actually read this?" And I get very sad if they don't return them in the same condition. Which is odd: I'll buy second-hand books, even if they're not in perfect condition, and I don't mind that. But I hate damaging them myself.
Apr. 16th, 2006 11:54 am (UTC)
I'm exactly the same! It's okay if you get them pre-wrecked, but to do it yourself....
Apr. 16th, 2006 03:23 pm (UTC)
Me too! I generally try to get secondhand books in good condition, but I dont mind overly if they have to be rather battered. But I get really upset with myself if I don't manage to keep a book as pristine as possible, and when other people have returned books in lesser condition, I get rather cross.
Apr. 16th, 2006 05:32 pm (UTC)
I get really upset with myself...

Me, too! I packed a couple of books loose in the boot when I came over on Friday, and I really peeved with myself to find that the cover of one had got creased. It was just *unnecessary*.
Apr. 16th, 2006 10:59 am (UTC)
I don't think it's anal or weird! I'm the opposite with books, but I try extremely hard, on the rare occasions that I borrow books from others, to treat them with extreme care. I don't actually tend to borrow books from people because I'm always afraid I'll mess them up. I prefer to get my own.

One of the stupidest things I've ever done was lend a really expensive (like $200, and in the early 1990s, that was even more expensive) pure silk, cream-coloured dress to this chick who didn't even like me very much. When she returned it about 18 months (yes, EIGHTEEN MONTHS) later, not only had she not bothered to have it dry cleaned for me, it was stained with water and spilled drink, it stunk of booze, and had big cigarette burns all over it. And she said nothing about it, and didn't even thank me for loaning it or apologise for returning it late. I don't really loan things to people anymore.
Apr. 16th, 2006 12:04 pm (UTC)
Oh good Lord, that's horrendous! I feel your retrospective pain. Ouch.
Apr. 16th, 2006 12:18 pm (UTC)
Yeah, her loanership skills were pretty poor.

I actually quite enjoy books that looked like they've lived, but that's probably the archaeologist in me, and I wouldn't impose that on someone else.

I don't think wanting the condition of your books respected is limited to people who can't bear the sight of a cracked spine -- it's just about people being polite enough to do their best not to treat your stuff with disdain! I wouldn't be THAT annoyed if a book came back less than pristine, but I'd definitely be peeved if there was real damage to it.
Apr. 16th, 2006 03:45 pm (UTC)
I suppose that I see things like creases and cracked spines as a step towards the book falling apart, which does happen with paperbacks - creased cover corners do often eventually fall off, and repeatedly bending back a spine does cause the pages to fall out. So it's not just an aesthetic thing. I do like slightly worn books, but I do see a difference between slightly frayed cover corners and whopping big creases across the front.

I dunno exactly why water damaged books horrify me so much - I just hate the texture of the wobbly pages, and the way they go sort of stiff when you turn them.
Apr. 16th, 2006 11:20 am (UTC)
Not weird at all! I am a lot better about looking after my books than I ever was when I was a kid - all my much-loved chalet paperbacks are somewhat battered, with bent covers and chocolate stains - and am certainly always far more careful than that with other people's books. What I cannot stand and have never done, though, is what my dad does to paperbacks - he breaks the spine whenever he reads one and then wonders why I freak out if I ever see him reading something of mine. It actually causes me pain. Uck.
Apr. 16th, 2006 11:41 am (UTC)
I used to be terribly anal about spine-cracking. Now I've got over it. Sort of. But borrowed books do require that extra bit of care - and you're right, people are much more aware of how they need to return clothes in good condition than they are books.

I mean, I read A Suitable Boy without cracking the spine. That is hard-core.
Apr. 16th, 2006 02:44 pm (UTC)
I think I owe you a new copy of Gaudy Nights. I tried SO HARD not to open it more than 45˚ and to keep the spine as perfect and smooth as it was when you gave it to me, but I've never, ever tried to read a book like that before and I think it takes practice. Sorry!

But then, I want to read everything in electronic format: books annoy me massively. But I promise I did try!
Apr. 16th, 2006 03:32 pm (UTC)
Well, that's actually the second copy of Gaudy Night that I've bought - I used to have a really manky second hand one with the cover half-off, so I bought that nice American edition to replace it and match my other ones. So I think going through three editions would be a bit much, even for me! Really, I just shouldn't lend out my favourite books.
Apr. 16th, 2006 05:14 pm (UTC)
If it's any comfort, I completely adored Gaudy Night, after not particularly liking the first one you lent me. So at least the spine were not (only very, very slightly) creased in vain!
Apr. 16th, 2006 05:12 pm (UTC)
Gosh I am so the complete opposite of you. I like my books to look loved (by which I mean, thoroughly used up - cracked spine, bent corners, the works). If I've finished a book and it's still pristine it's normally a sign that I didn't particularly like it. Obviously if I'm borrowing a book from a friend I take good care of it, but with my own, really as long as the pages stay glued in I'm happy.
I once got into trouble when I worked in a bookshop because a lady wanted a discount on a book with a bent cover. I pointed out (rather facetiously, I must admit) that a bent cover didn't change the story, and refused to give her a discount. My boss wasn't very impressed, but it seemed like a valid point to me.
Apr. 16th, 2006 07:02 pm (UTC)
Ha! That's awesome!
Apr. 16th, 2006 09:44 pm (UTC)
Was the awful friend me? I know I got that Amelia Peabody a bit wet, and I'm REALLY sorry, I felt awful, but it was excessively rainy that day and it seeped through the plastic bag ... sorry again!
Apr. 17th, 2006 12:23 am (UTC)
No, of course it wasn't you! You are the perfect person for an anal person like me to lend books to, because you look after them! Amelia just got a tiny bit damp, despite your valiant efforts, but this case (which was when I was in school) involved a book looking like it had gone in the washing machine.
Apr. 17th, 2006 11:23 am (UTC)
I always try to look after other people's (especially yours, since I know you like to keep them in good condition), but I'm more cavalier with my own. I ALWAYS break the spines of large volumes, and I tend to get them a bit bent. I don't turn down the pages or write in them though, and I TRY not to get crumbs between the pages or coffee rings on the covers! (I don't eat when i'm reading your books, don't worry!) Actually, re turning down the pages, I might do that in a trashy sort of book, like a second-hand Patricia, because they seem more disposable, but I never do it in my regular books.
Apr. 16th, 2006 11:50 pm (UTC)
I'm like you with books -- I want them to look perfect. I'm the same way with DVDs, too; I can't stand it if there's dust on the disc (or little scratches), or if the case is battered. And this is why I don't lend anything to anyone unless I'm positive they treat their possessions the same way (and even then, I'm reluctant to lend DVDs because they're so easily damaged).
Apr. 17th, 2006 03:37 am (UTC)
Oh, I am utterly, wretchedly carnal with my books. I write in them! I break their spines! I DOGEAR THE PAGES! (I feel like that has to be in caps - every time I say it at a party, people gasp.) I drop them in the bath and then dry them on the radiator! Sometimes more than once!

That said, I have only once returned a book in a different condition than when I received it, and it was a dirt smudge on one page that made me feel like a criminal for years afterwards.

I do - and this is another topic for bookish conversation - keep lended books for far too long, though. Like, weeks! Terrible.
Apr. 17th, 2006 02:58 pm (UTC)
I break the spines too, because there's something so pleasing about a book that will lie perfectly flat like that, even though I know it's not good for the longterm health of the book. I also dogear the pages, because bookmarks always end up falling out, and memorizing the page number of where I left off doesn't work either. For this reason I don't like borrowing books, because I know I'm a lot more physical with them than other people are and I don't want to harm something they really care about.
Apr. 17th, 2006 04:20 pm (UTC)
I love that distinction. And I'm a carnal lover of books, so I'm not actually very found of borrowing books unless I know the owner can also live with the affects of a book living in my handbag for a week.
Apr. 17th, 2006 10:34 pm (UTC)
I once decided to make nots in the margins of a book. With a pencil. Actually, by "notes" I mean little stars next to sentences I liked. It felt so... naughty.
Apr. 18th, 2006 12:57 am (UTC)
I'm very careful about the expensive books in my library, but paperbacks I've learned to be chilled out about to an extent. However, whenever I go to buy a book, I'll sift through the entire stack to find the elusive perfect copy. The slightest bump or thumb mark can send me to another shop. I'm that fucked up.

A friend of mine, who is less than sedulous in the care of lent books (he read my abridged Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire in the bath and it swelled to twice its normal size having already been pretty gigantic to begin with) enjoyed karmic payback when he lent a guy a rather thick volume containing the collected Sherlock Holmes only to receive it back, sans warning or explanation, and discover that it had been extensively vomited into.

I hated Ex Libris and quite wilfully cracked its bastard spine.
Apr. 18th, 2006 08:58 am (UTC)
However, whenever I go to buy a book, I'll sift through the entire stack to find the elusive perfect copy. The slightest bump or thumb mark can send me to another shop. I'm that fucked up.

Ha! I not only do that with books (leading to strange glances in Hodges Figgis as I gaze at every copy to find the one without thumbed covers or crumpled spine-corners), I do it with magazines too! Although I will admit that once the magazines have been bought, I treat them much as normal people treat their magazines. I'm not quite that bad.

I remember quite liking Ex Libris when I read it, despite her treatment of books causing me physical pain. That and the account of her and her husband throwing out all of their "doubles" when they moved in together, including treasured copies with great sentimental value. My boyfriend Patsington and I have never done this even though our house is preposterously full of books - I get sent at least two a day for reviewing purposes, 99.5% of which I don't want but which end up hanging around the place for ages until (a) a charity bag collection or (b) I can persuade poor Patsington to drive me and the books to the local charity shop/second hand book shop/public library. On the plus side, my local library love me so much because of all my donations that they have given me a special long-term library ticket and never make me pay any fines. Heh heh heh.
Apr. 19th, 2006 01:12 pm (UTC)
I go through the whole stack when I purchase books too. I hate it when a new book is all scuffed before I even bring it home. I am careful of my books as well; I've had people think I hadn't read a book yet when I loaned it to them. They can get a little scuffed at the corners from being in my handbag, though.

However, I am disgraceful when it comes to returning borrowed books. They are always in the same condition they came to me in, but It takes me forever to get them back to their owners. That's why I don't borrow them. I have a few books here that friends have *insisted* that I borrow, and it's like I have a mental block about them -- I'm just never in the mood to read them, I don't know why. There's always something else I have to read first.
Apr. 23rd, 2006 07:14 pm (UTC)
I'm *such* a courtly book lover, though there are books I've read so many times they appear to belong to a carnal lover. On occasion I've been known to pass those copies along to carnal lovers as an excuse to buy new shiny ones for myself.

You said you read A Suitable Boy without bending the spine. I'm working my way through that now, at about page 900, without a bend yet. The spine is curved, though, as I always have happen when reading thick books. Did you manage to keep your spine flat, or is it just curved but unbent? And if it's the former, how *do* you manage it?
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )


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