On the Treatment of Books

I have often found myself at odds with some of my fellow readers, even those who are otherwise very similar to me, over the the proper treatment of the books we read.  There are some who treat their books with absolute disregard, scribbling in them aimlessly, breaking their spines, turning down their page corners, dirtying them unnecessarily, and I have always felt that there was something wrong about this, ever since I was reading C. S. Lewis’ autobiography, at the age of nine or ten, as he described his tutor thumbing through his books with hands still dirty from the garden, an image that still causes me distress even now.  There are others, however, who approach their books almost as sacred objects, buying only the best editions, ensuring that they not be worn or marked in any way, almost to the point of leaving them unread, and I find this treatment distressing as well, since books need to be read and to be read well in order to do what they are meant to do.

Between these two extremes, I have always thought that books need to be treated in the same way as craftspeople treat their tools, as good woodworkers and cooks and doctors treat the implements of their trade, not leaving them untouched and untouchable, as if they were sacred objects, but neither leaving them to grow dirty and disrepaired.  A craftperson’s tools, when used properly, will come to look worn, because they are performing their function, but they will also be clean and in good repair and put in their place.  In the same way, when properly used, a reader’s books will look worn, because they have been read closely and with attention, at length and at leisure, but they will also be well kept and in their place.  There may be notes in the margins, and the pages may look thumbed, but they will not have been broken and defaced, because this prevents them from performing their function.

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