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 Paperbackswap.com 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.