I love books. Bound, paper, physical books. That’s obvious from some of my past writings. There is nothing I enjoy more about my work than opening a carton of brand new books and placing them on the shelves. Handling them is an almost sensual pleasure. Thus when I see these lovely objects mistreated, my emotions range from sorrow to anger.
A large part of my business is selling used books, and I get the majority of them from customers who exchange them for credit toward more books. This arrangement gives me a view into the ways readers handle (or mishandle) their reading material. I can’t help but believe it also gives me an insight into their character (yes, on this point I become judgmental, and work hard to hide it from the offending parties).
Most people bringing used books to my store are serious readers, lovers of books, and their offerings are neatly stacked in boxes or bags, having been reluctantly culled from overflowing shelves and hoping to find another loving home. Frequently the owner will watch as I pick through their collection, pointing out books he or she especially loved and occasionally deciding that one or two must return home. Too often, however, books are packaged like the trash, thrown randomly into plastic garbage bags so that the covers twist and tear, pages fold, and paperbacks develop an unfixable twist or curve. It seems that these books are brought to me as an effort to save disposal costs rather than in the hope of sharing the bounty with another reader. Opening these bags can be heartbreaking, yielding dark thoughts about “book abuse.”
Some misuse or maltreatment of books is less obvious at first glance, but keenly observed by the discerning book re-seller. Books seem to be convenient coasters, yielding covers decorated with coffee rings or other, usually sticky, substances. They are a convenient place to note phone numbers, appointments, and shopping lists, especially on those blank or nearly blank early pages. Dog-eared pages indicate how frequently the reader stopped for a while, or how many places she thought worth returning to. Can’t they find a slip of scrap paper, even a piece of tissue, to mark these places? I give away bookmarks with purchases in a partial attempt to keep pages smooth. It is hard to tell how many cracked spines these days are due to the appalling practice of leaving a book open, face down, flat, until it is read again. As you might guess, I handle the books I read gently, and often when I finish, even with a mass market paperback, you can barely tell it’s been read. Yet more and more frequently I find spines cracking and pages spilling out in new books on the first reading, leading me to believe that lax manufacturing standards rather than abusive book handling may be the cause.
Other signs of abuse or indifference are the “rolled” paperbacks, missing covers, and storage in damp basements (or around here, barns). I don’t fault someone for wanting to roll back half of a book as if it were a magazine, if that makes reading more comfortable for them; it’s their book. But it creates heavily creased, rounded spines, loose pages, and a book that looks ugly on the shelf. It’s definitely not my image of a “gently used” book, per my advertising. When customers return rolled books I know they have purchased from me in good condition, I bite my tongue to keep from saying, “What have you done to my baby?” Missing covers are sometimes just damage from rough treatment, but on occasion people have turned up with whole cartons of paperback books with the front covers neatly torn off. When I explain that I can’t take them, not only because they are incomplete, but because they were most likely sold illegally, and explain about returned books and authors’ royalties, etc., I get sheepish hemming and hawing but never a straight answer on where they came from. Books that smell of mildew usually come in large batches when people are cleaning house (or barn), and it doesn’t take much explanation about why I cannot resell them. More common are the “wavy” pages and brown stains from those who claim they read in the tub (never that anything was spilled on the book, or that it was left outside). As with the rolled books, I support anyone who reads their own books in any way they want, in the tub, or in the rain. I just want them to understand that the book is not then very appealing to anyone else.
Our county’s Friends of the Library organization is currently preparing for their annual book sale, which features over 100,000 books and raises significant funds for library programs. (For those in the New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania area who may be interested, it is in the National Guard Armory in Flemington, New Jersey on April 21 and 22; www.hclibrary.us, click “Friends of HCL” for more information.) As a book dealer, I am not allowed to help with the sorting of the donated books (volunteers get to purchase early), but I was there this morning with my own donations, watching neatly packed boxes as well as trash bags (and even trash containers, which the owners wanted back), being unloaded. I know from several customers who are volunteers for this event that they observe the same spectrum of book use and misuse that I see. (For those who might attend this sale, please note that the “abused” books are discarded and you will find a great selection of books in good condition).
As to judging character by the way a person treats books, I will use a real author’s words, which were part of the inspiration for this piece:
“One paperback was placed, spine splayed open, on the side table. I don’t like to abuse books like that, but on the other hand, one of my guests was probably reading it and wanted to mark the place. I picked up a bookmark from a stack I keep on the table (which was right next to the paperback) and placed it in the book on the appropriate page, then closed the volume to try to save what was left of its binding.” (from An Uninvited Ghost by E. J. Copperman)
Alison Kerby, the first person narrator here, is obviously a person of impeccable character; she does her best to save a book while trying to be tolerant of a guest who has mistreated a book but is at least reading. We learn elsewhere that in furnishing her guest house she has acquired over two thousand books for its library. She’s a woman after my own heart. And the anonymous, oblivious guest? Probably the villain.