Sunday Salon: Books as Objects

Among book lovers, I’ve observed lots of different attitudes toward actual physical books. Some people seem to revere the physical object. Others don’t seem to care about the object, only about the ideas within. Some people think that all books deserve a reverent treatment and get sick at the thought of a book getting tossed into the recycling bin. Others believe that not all books are meant to live forever.

I do love a pretty book. Part of the pleasure in Persephone books, for example, is in the classy dove grey book covers and the lovely endpapers with matching bookmarks. One of my prized possessions is my hardcover copy of The Hobbit with color illustrations. And I was thrilled to score a complete set of Folio Society editions of the complete works of the Brontë sisters last year.

I also love matched sets of books. They just look so tidy and nice on the shelf. If I could commit to one publisher of classic editions, I’d probably fill my bookcases with rows of matching books. Since I can’t bring myself to commit, I’m going author by author. I’m in the process of upgrading my Jane Austen books, currently a hodgepodge of editions of varying quality and condition that I’m gradually replacing with Everyman’s editions, attractive hardcovers with ribbon bookmarks. When I’m done with Austen, I’ll move on to Hardy (I haven’t decided which editions of Hardy to collect).

So it seems I do appreciate books as objects. I like good-looking books. I like matching books. But there are limits. I don’t care one way or the other about the look of a lot of books. The classed up, matching editions are really only a concern for me if the book or author is one that I love. Yes, if you give me at choice, at similar cost, I’ll choose the more attractive edition of a book, and I’m generally a snob about movie tie-in editions, but usually I’ll just read whatever edition I can get my hands on. I don’t mind book club editions. I dislike mass market paperbacks because of the small type, but I don’t have a rule against reading, or keeping, them. And I don’t collect multiple editions of books. I don’t have the space for that. If I get a new, nicer edition of a favorite book, the old one goes to a new home.

I also believe that books are meant to be read. And if I’m going to read a book, it will suffer some wear and tear. I have no qualms about reading at the table or in the bath, and if that means the book gets a little food stain, so be it. I guess I’m what Anne Fadiman would call a carnal lover of books. I’m not wantonly abusive or anything (and I’m extra careful with other people’s books), but I don’t go out of my way to keep my books—even my nice ones—pristine. In contrast, I’ve seen people on the forums express shock and dismay that someone would allow a mere drop of water to get onto their books. (Water-damaged books aren’t allowed to be posted on PBS, so when people do that, it’s fair to complain, but I’ve seen complaints turn into rants about how wrong it is on principle to pick up a book with a hand that has just handled a sweaty glass of water.) Keeping a book in like-new condition as I read is too much work for me.

I also don’t think every book is meant to live forever. I realized this a while back when a friend told me he had “rescued” a set of old encyclopedias from the trash bins at a rummage sale. Really? Are those worth keeping? The information’s obviously outdated. Maybe there’s a huge market in collecting these, but I’m skeptical.

Of course, I’m not advocating tossing books when you’re done with them. I’m as upset as anyone at the thought of perfectly good books being tossed in the trash. I’m disgusted at the tendency of many people today to dispose of everything as soon as it’s used, but I question the value of keeping around unwanted objects just for the sake of not destroying them. And if a book is badly beat-up and lots of copies are available at almost all the typical sources of used books, perhaps that book is truly unwanted.

Personally, I only toss books in the recycling bin if the damage makes them nearly unreadable (pages are falling out, there’s a nasty smell that I can’t get rid of, or there’s serious water damage); I usually give away my used books to friends, on swap sites, or as donations. However, I wouldn’t get angry if I were to hear that the libraries or charity shops I donate books to were sometimes recycling unwanted books. It should be a last resort, but I imagine that here in the DC area they get more “hot” political books and such than they can ever use or sell and that won’t be of much interest to anyone two or three years from now. I see no harm in recycling that kind of thing after it’s languished on the shelves for a good while.

What do you think? Does the look of a book matter to you? Are the physical objects meant to be revered? Should we keep them pristine and perfect? Is it ever acceptable to consign a book to the recycling bin?

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

  • None this week. I got bogged down in 2017 by Olga Slavnikova and ended up giving up on it. I’ll be posting about it tomorrow.

Currently Reading

  • The Language of Bees by Laurie R. King. The ninth Mary Russell mystery novel. I’m over halfway through, and it’s as good as all the others in the series.
  • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (reread). I love Thomas Hardy but have only read this novel once. I’m loving it as much as I remember.
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (audio). I’m finding this childhood memoir to be mostly heart-breaking, but sometimes surprisingly magical, but really mostly heart-breaking—and horrifying.

New Acquisitions

  • The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres. Catherine recommended de Bernieres’s Latin American series to me, but my library doesn’t have it, so I snagged a copy from Paperbackswap. Isn’t the title hysterical?
  • The Guide by R.K. Narayan. A prize-winning Indian novel about a corrupt tourist guide hiding out in a temple who gets mistaken for a holy man.
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37 Responses to Sunday Salon: Books as Objects

  1. Study Window says:

    When I look at my own shelves there are various groups of books that have been bought at different times when I’ve obviously thought that I must have everything in that series regardless of whether or not I actually intended to read each individual novel. There are green bound classics that I bought one a week when I got my first Saturday job, grey backed Persephone editions and of course the original green Viragos. I love the thought of complete sets, but somehow run out of steam (or perhaps cash or space!) half way through and abandon the attempt. I do love the look and the feel of a beautifully made book, but in the end becoming engrossed in what is inside will always win out over the physical manifestation of the story.

    • Teresa says:

      Study Window, I don’t think I’ve ever tried to collect a whole series without the intention of reading them, but I can see why something like Persephone would be tempting. If I got close to having them all (which is unlikely to even happen), I’d probably break down and buy the cookery books or any others I don’t want to read.

  2. gaskella says:

    It’s complicated, but I think I agree with everything you say above, except I am a bit(!) obsessed with the condition of books – I can’t stand reading from tatty old things (unless they’re old Penguins for some reason).

    • Teresa says:

      Annabel, there is a limit to how tatty a book can be before I won’t want to read it. Some smells give me a headache, for instance, and I just can’t read books with a strong smell! And if a book I want to keep is in really terrible shape, I’ll stay on the lookout for a replacement.

  3. bookssnob says:

    I loved this post! I would class myself as a bit of a book collector and I do definitely like getting hold of ‘nice’ editions, though for me, a ‘nice’ edition is as old and fancily-bound as possible. I don’t like Folio society books or anything like that. Persephone Books I do collect because they are gorgeous, but if I found an old edition of one of their books, I’d rather have that, because I just prefer the look and feel of old books and their amazingly illustrated dustjackets. I do definitely think that books have a shelf life (pun intended!) as some books just aren’t ever going to be read again or are damaged beyond repair. In that case, recycling is the place for them. I used to work in a library and we would recycle tons of books every month – the charity shops didn’t want them, our readers didn’t want them, so there was no place for them but the recycling bin. Sad but true. Mostly, they were out of date reference books.

    • Teresa says:

      Rachel, That is interesting. It just shows that “nice” is subjective. I like the idea of old books, but I don’t prefer them over newer ones. It just depends. I have some oldish Hardys that I’ll probably get rid of when I upgrade my Hardy collection because I know I’ll want a matched set. (These are very plain old editions, no fancy dust jackets or illustrations.)

      I know a lot of people don’t like the Folio society books. I’ve seen them referred to a classed up book club editions, which I guess is what they are, and I probably wouldn’t pay full price for them, but the woodcuts in my Brontes are so lovely–much nicer than the ratty old mix of paperbacks I used to have.

      And I was interested to hear your perspective from your library experience. I’m always bemused when I hear people getting angry about libraries culling their collections by putting books in the recycling bin. I doubt that many libraries do that wantonly, and I would hope that most try to pass them along to readers or charity first, but some books just aren’t meant to be read years down the road. (Tossing good books in the dumpster without trying other avenues to discard them is a different matter, and I’m sure that happens, too.)

  4. If I’m reading a book for the first time, I don’t mind some wear, especially since most of the books I read come from thrift stores and libraries. (The White Plague definitely had enjoyed some water damage and some dinners before I rented it.) As long as I can read it and it’s not torn up, I am absolutely fine.

    But once I fall in love with a book that comes from a thrift store, I start planning what edition to buy. I don’t think I’ll toss out my copy of The Hobbit, which is from the 1970s, very worn, and delightfully dated, the day I get a brilliant The Lord of the Rings collection. (Plus, it makes rereading much easier- just toss the beat up one in my purse, where my notebook will scratch it up even more.)

    I also don’t see the problem with recycling out-of-date nonfiction books, especially reference books. That paper could be put to better use!

    • Teresa says:

      Clare, that’s very much how I feel about first reads. Readable is pretty much my sole standard. I am torn about the LOTR books; I’m afraid my copy of ROTK has just one read left–the cover is ready to come off now. But these editions were a gift and the copies I first read when I was 14, so it would be hard to get rid of them. I may try some repairs to see how many more reads I can get from them.

  5. amymckie says:

    I totally agree with you. I love pretty books, and I have a few special books (LOTR that was my grandmother’s and mother’s before me) but other than that anything and everything goes. And I will read anywhere (especially in the bath), a little wear and tear is unavoidable. And while I would be shocked and appalled by perfectly good books being thrown away, you are right. Some do need to go.

    • Teresa says:

      Amy, Yep. I tote around my books so much that I can’t avoid some damage. I’m careful, but I don’t go to great lengths to keep my books pristine.

  6. christina says:

    I don’t think that I’m terribly picky at all. Granted, I don’t want a book swollen with water damage; in fact, I feel it is my duty to toss that one in the recycle bin so others don’t have to deal with its nastiness.

    And speaking of recycle bins, I definitely think that there are just some books that we need to let it go. Your friend who rescued those encyclopedias? I’d be tempted to invite him over for dinner and watch an episode of Hoarders. (My poke is friendly, of course).

    I have this thing, cuz I work with middle schoolers and spend an outrageous amount of money on books for my own personal library. When a book becomes so worn that it has to be tossed I end up feeling both sad and happy. Sad, because, yah sure it’s a book and I’m always going to feel a bit of weepiness to toss one out the theatrical window. But happy because the book was well loved! It only got to that condition (for the most part) because it was READ. That’s something to be joyous about, right?

    • Teresa says:

      Christina, I think my friend’s wife would be in favor of showing him some Hoarders to shock him out of “rescue the books” mode. (I think she mostly just limits how much space in the house he can commit to books.)

      I love that perspective on tossing out worn books! If it’s falling apart, it has been read many times, and that’s a beautiful thing.

  7. Jenny says:

    I’m like you in that I am always hunting for the best edition of any book I love, and once I’ve found it, I will go to some lengths to keep it from being damaged. Once I have the perfect edition, I often get attached to that specific copy of a book. They are meant to be read, of course, but nicely.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, I’m definitely more careful with my nicer editions, but I do still read them while eating (although maybe not in the bath).

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, while eating? I do that too! Unless it’s something really precious, like the Alice in Wonderland my grandmother gave me that she got for her eighth birthday. I meant I’m careful of spines and pages, like I don’t dog-ear, and I nudge full water glasses away from my good books.

  8. I don’t really worry about the look of a book anymore. I don’t love it when I get a used book and it’s full of highlighting and stuff, but I’m guilty of writing all over my own books. I tend to buy a lot of used books, so the condition is always a little suspect anyway.

    • Teresa says:

      Kim, I’d prefer not to see much of it in used books that I purchase, but if the only copy I can get has some marks in it, I’m not terribly bothered. But I don’t write in my own books much, except for books I’m reading for school or really any theology-related book. (I did make lively argumentative notes and references to original texts in my copy of the DaVinci Code, which I eventually donated away, but I decided my fact-checking notes were a public service!)

  9. Aarti says:

    I love books as physical objects, too. I don’t know if I want the same editions of all books, though I do like matching covers! However, I also really like the FUN covers, so if I saw a book I loved that didn’t “match” the rest, but with a better cover… I’d get that one!

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti, Oh, I’d be torn in that case because I do love the matching ones so much! Maybe what I should do when I decide to “upgrade” to a matching set of a favorite author’s books is to check out all the editions available and choose the ones where I like the overall design better. So maybe Penguins for one author, Oxfords for another, and so on.

  10. I seem to be in the minority on this one, but I don’t really like to collect matching anything. Not dishes and not books. My In Search of Lost Time collection has three different editions in it, mostly because I switched translations halfway through. So I have the first three volumes in Modern Library (including the mass market of Swann’s Way that started it all), the last four volumes in Penguin bought in Oxford and two in a nicer Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (starting the collection over again!) I’ve given some of my Jane Austens to my mom, hoping she’ll keep them so I can buy new copies, but they’ll still be paperbacks! For some reason I find hardcover books a bit too formal and off-putting to actually read out of. Books are meant to be read and loved and used. Cracks on the spine are my badge of honour. ;) I prefer new pretty paperbacks to used ones, but sometimes it’s simply cheaper to buy something used.

    And I work in a library where we recycle books, old icky paperbacks as well as outdated stuff, especially donations that can’t be used or sold. Honestly, we don’t have time or space to keep it all.

    • Teresa says:

      Carolyn, I have some unmatched sets too, just because I got them as I was reading them, but I would love to get matched sets eventually. I don’t actually have a strong preference between paperbacks and hardcovers.

      I went out with a guy a few times in high school who gave me a hard time about cracking the spines of my paperbacks. I thought that was silly. I wasn’t trying to crack them, but if I was reading a book, I sure as heck was going to open it!

      And I do worry sometimes that my library donations will end up recycled, but I try not to donate beat-up books or books that I’ve seen multiple copies of at the FOL sale every year. And I try to see the donation as a chance for a good cause to get a crack at the books before they go to the bin.

  11. Nicola says:

    Great post. I just replaced all my battered old black Penguin Jane Austen’s with the Everyman’s classic editions with ribbon bookmarks and beautiful dust jackets. Now I’ve seen a Penguin hardback edition of Emma with a dark green cover and embossed Regency chairs on it which I really want!

    • Teresa says:

      Nicola, I know exactly which Penguin edition you’re talking about! That whole series looks so nice, but I’m reluctant to get them because of my author-matching compulsion!

  12. Jeane says:

    There are some books I have very nice editions of and I try very hard to keep them pristine. Others I’ve bought used or read over and over, and they show the wear. I try to take care of them just so they don’t get so beaten up they start to fall apart. It does make me sad when I have to recycle a book but sometimes you just can’t read them anymore- I mean the yucky, moldy, gum-stuck tattered-to-pieces ones. As long as new editions are being printed, it doesn’t break my heart.

    • Teresa says:

      Jeane, It does occur to me that buying a new edition of an old book does help keep those books in print. So there’s an up side to the discards!

  13. Kristen M. says:

    I’m kind of in the middle with books — I collect (matched sets by author just like you are doing) but I also pass on ones that I don’t think I will explore again. I treat them well but, like you, if something happens it’s not the end of the world. My in-laws, on the other hand, buy paperbacks and then throw them away when they are done. It drives me crazy!

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen, it sounds like we’re pretty similar. I pass on almost any book I don’t think I’ll read again. And I can’t imagine just throwing out paperbacks! They sound like perfect candidates for an e-reader, though.

  14. Melissa says:

    There’s something wonderful about a well-loved copy of your favorite book. There are some lovely matching sets and I’m a sucker for a gorgeous book, but I love my tattered copies that have obviously been read and reread.

    • Teresa says:

      Melissa, I do get sentimental about some of my tattered copies, but only the ones that have been read over and over by me. Not so much my tattered used bookstore finds.

  15. rebeccareid says:

    Now that I have a house with a wall and a new bookshelf, I’ve become a bit more in love with the prettiness of books. I’m working on getting my collections of books together. And I do hate Mass Market Paperbacks. They are too small and look bad on my shelf. How’s that for a superficial reason?

    As for throwing out books. Yes. I do that. When they are falling apart (such as the cover coming off, the pages no longer staying together), I don’t hesitate. I’ve noticed some listed on bookmooch with a condition note (“just tape the cover back on and you’re good to go!”) but I think that is beyond tacky. Plus it’s a pain to read. I do still have my copy of Robinson Crusoe that is falling apart simply because I have not yet found another copy (I always buy used…)

    I also have thrown out a few books that I think are trash and I don’t want to spread around the world via bookmooch or paperback swap. Such books were normally gifted to me and I just, um, don’t think they are worth passing on in any way.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, My built-in bookcases have definitely upped my interest in having pretty books. And I have passed on books I thought were terrible via swap sites. I figure someone will appreciate them even if I don’t.

  16. Kathleen says:

    I’m definitely a carnal lover of books. I’m not afraid to mark a page or make a mark provided the book is mine. I would love to collect some lovely editions of my favorite author’s works some day when I have time to think about what I really want.

  17. Juxtabook says:

    As a bookdealer can I plead with people to throw more books out! The books I have to put out of their misery because their owners couldn’t bear to do it is beyond count. Clearly if it is unusual or very old you should check with a bookseller before recycling, but really how many copies does the world need of the best seller of ten years ago!

    • Teresa says:

      Catherine, There are certain books that seem to show up in multiple copies at every used book store I ever go to, and I can totally see how the “market” for those books is flooded. I would think twice about taking those to donate even.

  18. chasing bawa says:

    I love a pretty book too, although they don’t necessarily need to match. And like you, I read books while I eat and when I’m in the bath. And I tend to do a cull once a year when my shelves are groaning. However, there are certain books that I treasure just because I read them at a time when I needed them or they’ve changed my world view a little. Those I guard ferociously!

  19. DKS says:

    Re. Are those worth keeping? The information’s obviously outdated.

    Did they have pictures? Some of those old encyclopaedias are worth owning for the illustrations, beautiful things, regardless of the text. Someone interested in graphic design could cannibalise them happily.

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