My Controversial Book Post: On “Used” Books

Bookshelves

I have always had strong feelings about books. Books have been such a big part of my life that it impossible not to develop feelings about them. Lately, however, while my opinions remain strong, I’v found that they have changed in a fundamental way.

For as long as I can remember, I have always tried to treat my books gently. The thought of a creased page corner to bookmark a page filled me with horror. I always handled paperback books with tenderness, taking particular care not to crack the spine of the book. When I read a hardcover book with a dust jacket, I was always careful to remove the dust jacket so as not to damage it in the handling of the book. I was often loathe to loan out books out of fear that the person to whom I lent the book, regardless of how much I trusted them, would not uphold my standards of reverence for the tomes.

I find these day, however, that I no longer feel this way. My reverence for books has never been higher, but looking back on my gentle treatment of books over the last twenty years or so, I see what appears to be now as silly, and even selfish behavior with respect to books. Indeed, my opinion on the handling of books has taken an almost 180 degree turn. Here are just a few of the ways my opinions have changed.

Books should be used, and well-used at that

Books tell two stories: the story the author has written, and the story of readers interaction with that writing. Whereas folding down a page corner to marks a spot in the book used to look like a desecration to me, I now see it as a reader’s interaction with the book. The creased page may simply provide history: where the reader paused in their reading. On the other hand, it may provide other insights. It may be a place that the reader found particularly insightful, or particularly annoying.

A pristine book looks good on a shelf or in a collection, but a pristine book is also very likely an unread book, and what good is an unread book. Whereas I used to love the way a brand new hardcover book looked freshly arrived home from the bookstore, I now find that I much prefer the look of a well-used book. A book with a wrinkled dust jacket, and with page edges yellowed from constant touching is a beautiful sight. Indeed, sitting down with a pristine book and reading it so well that by the time the book is finished, it looks well-used has become an almost sublime experience for me.

It has also made me realize that the unique aspect of wandering the stacks of a used book store, or a library , is the fact that all of the books there are well-used, and often by many people. It is quite an accomplishment to produce a book that many people want to read, and for which many copies are printed. It is an exceptional accomplishment when a single copy is read again and again by either the same person, or many people.

Today, there is nothing that looks so good to me as well-worn book. Indeed, I see a well-worn book as a book of the happiest sort. And while I am a big fan of e-books and audiobooks, even a oft-read or listened to e-book or audiobook lacks a well-worn look.

Books should be a collaboration between author and readers

I used to cringe when I opened a book in a used bookstore, to find that the previous owner had scribbled in the margins, or worse, highlighted passages throughout the book. How could someone deface a book in such a manner?

Now, I see this in a very different light. Writing in the margins of a book is a reader’s way of holding a dialog with the author. It is an ancient method. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams frequently wrote in the margins of their books. Perhaps in middle age, the revelation has come to me that writing in my books, highlighting passages, jotting notes, counterarguments, and other things is a way for me to interact not only with the text but with the author. When you think about it, this is pretty remarkable. You can have arguments with Mark Twain, or Mary Shelly, or Carl Sagan, or Marcus Aurelius.

Marginal notes and highlights provide not only a dialog with the text, but also a history of the reader’s interaction with the text. Over the course of successive readings, a reader might find their opinions changing in the margins of the book. If you are lucky, you might come across a copy of the book with some anonymous reader’s notes already in the margins, to which you can add your own. Now, the dialog has become something more, a unique discussion among readers that potentially span decades.

Books should be given, never lent

In an episode of the new Battlestar Galactica, Commander William Adama gives President Rosilin a book, and when she says she’ll return it when she finished, Adama says, “It’s a gift. Never lend a book.” I have come to embrace this. A person needs to be able to interact completely with a book, and this is difficult to do when the book is not your own. Indeed, as a big library user as a kid, this is probably where some of my resistance to writing in books comes from. These days, I’d much prefer to simply give someone a book rather than lend it to them.

This is something that has been made more difficult (and complicated) by e-books. There are ways of lending e-books, but in doing so, you are not getting the full experience of all of the notes and highlights I have made to the book prior to giving it to you.


None of this is to say that e-books are evil or of a lesser form than traditional books. That is a debate for which I do not have enough experience and wisdom to tackle at this point. I love e-books and audiobooks and they have pros that balance out their cons. But I do believe all books should be well-used, and that well-used look is most easily seen in traditional books. E-books might be well-used, but the nature of its form masks the use.

These days, I much prefer the look of a bookshelf of disheveled books, cracked spines, bent pages, missing dust jackets, than that of the pristine shelf of perfect, but unread books. And I think this goes a long way to explaining why I prefer used bookstores and libraries over chain stores–not because of any economic circumstance, but because of the well-worn books.

5 thoughts on “My Controversial Book Post: On “Used” Books

  1. Thanks for your thoughts Jamie.

    When I have time and opportunity, I DO make notes in ebooks–when a passage has moved me, when I want to think about what I’ve read, fiction or non fiction. I’ve never really been enthused by writing in a book, and I still am not sure why.

    A library full of books, untouched and pristine, is much sadder, though, than a library of well worn books, well read and loved.

    And yes, never lend a book. Give a book. No argument there.

  2. Was that…a television reference?!?

    The saddest part about our upcoming move west is the thought that I will need to weed the physical book collection. I’ve taken to buying ebooks for “fun” reading, but to hold onto my hardbacks for books I want to last. Those books that even if electricity were to stop tomorrow, I could crack them open and return to an old conversation with a friend. I’m pretty sure that’s what compels so many of us to want to write – to take that next step from have a dialog with the author to starting the conversation.

  3. I love this post. makes sense, as I love used books. I love the journey that a used book took in it’s life to get to me. Who owned it before? Did they enjoy it? I love buying a book used, just to find something someone left in it – a bookmark, a post it note, a movie ticket stub, random pieces of paper that I have no idea what they are.

    I try to treat my books as best I can, but those marks on the spine (and the occasional underlined word or circled page number) is a record of my experience with the book. So when I find those same notations in a book i’ve purchased used, it’s a fun mystery to try to guess what someone else’s marks mean. What exactly did they find so important on this page? Are their notes in the margins a note to someone else, or to help them remember something?

    And I love that your bookshelves started out so orgazined, and then you ended up shoving stuff wherever. Just like our shelves.

  4. I am of mixed response: I love used books because a couple of used book stores helped me read (and acquire) so much within the genre.

    But having struggled to preserve a collection over 46 years now, through moves, leaky roofs, insect invasions, careless friends (not to mention book thieves) I’m not so keen on the wear and tear parts you talk about. Nor are books for lending OR giving away. They’re for keeping…and looking at…and fondling…and loving and hugging and squeezing and….

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