The Debatable Importance Of Books

The Debatable Importance Of Books

When I posted about whether or not it’s okay to write in books, I didn’t really expect it to spark debate. Partly because I don’t get a lot of comments on this blog, and partly because it’s usually my political posts that are controversial, not the ones about books. But hey, anything that brings my readers out of the woodwork to debate with me, right?

And then because we ended up having some in-depth discussions, I thought I’d write a follow-up to clarify a few things that I might not have said very clearly in my first post, or where I might have given the wrong impressions.

First off, I’m not advocating the gleeful destruction of books.

Well, not most of the time. I’m totally cool with people getting copies of books specifically for making art — chopping them up, folding them into fun shapes, that kind of things. I’m also totally cool with people drawing over books. To be honest, I’m cool with people doing whatever they like, as long as the books are theirs to do it with, and aren’t, like, limited editions or something. What I’m not advocating is scrawling all over them just for the sake of it, or damaging the spines so badly you have to duct-tape them for no reason at all. Because that’s pointless.

Instead I’m urging people to think about what’s really important.

Is it really about the pages? Is it about having a copy on your shelf that’s pristine and looks like it’s never been read, without even a name on the inside to mark it as yours? Because if it is, then that’s your call. To me personally it seems a little sad never to personalise books. I love that I’ve inherited books from family members and friends and that the front pages mark the journey those books have taken — my 1908 copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader has had several owners, who have left their names and doodles behind.

I’m also encouraging people to live and let live.

This is where I might have been misleading in my post, or even in my comments. I might’ve sounded like I was telling you that you have to write in books and if you don’t, you’re some kind of heretic. I didn’t mean that, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression! I’m totally cool with it if you want to keep your books clean, but what I’m not cool with is people who think that’s the only way to respect books. People who think it’s ‘desecration’ to write inside them. People who think you can only do that if you have no respect for books. NOT COOL. I respect books, I really do. But for me, respecting them doesn’t mean treating them like priceless artifacts. It means using them and making them my own.

I think annotating books can improve them; I’m not saying every book should be annotated.

I also used an annotated page from this book as the cover for "Fleeting Ink". As it happens.
I also used an annotated page from this book as the cover for “Fleeting Ink”. As it happens.

I don’t study Anglo-Saxon. The only reason I’ve kept hold of this manky old copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader is because of the drawings inside — rabbits and cats and various doodles that suggest at least one of its three previous owners was not a big fan of Old English. Probably my grandmother. She told me herself she hated it, and she used to draw a lot. These give it a certain unique character that I want to hang on to, even though the book itself isn’t particularly useful to me. But a lot of books I read without ever picking up a pencil, because there’s no need to. Again, I’m not suggesting everybody fill the margins with comments just for the sake of it.

I don’t think books as objects are worthless, but I think they’re less important than their contents

A gorgeous cover, a brightly illustrated spine, smooth white paper, clear print… all of these things affect the reading experience, and how a book looks on the shelf. Of course books aren’t a totally worthless part of it. I’m not saying stories should be beamed straight into our brains. I’m just saying that in the end, I’m a lover of stories more than I’m a lover of books. I devour them because of their contents, and while I’m probably fonder of them than the average person and would be devastated to lose mine, I think books are only a vessel.

I still think it’s absurd to be utterly opposed to writing your name on the contents page of a book, no matter how clean and new you like to keep your books. (If I buy books new, I like to keep them crisp as well. I mostly buy secondhand books so this isn’t an issue, but I still write my name on the new ones.)

I don’t think it’s desecration to write in a book. Or even damage. I think a book that falls apart is damaged (sometimes through love), but a book with annotations is merely annotated — the things that make it the book are still there, and have just been added to.

I think it’s just as valid to dog-ear your pages, highlight favourite phrases, and write in all the margins, as to keep a book in pristine condition and never so much as crease the spine. I think there’s an attitude among a lot of readers that the former somehow makes you less of a bookworm or whatever. It doesn’t. It just means you love things in a different way.

I don’t value my copy of Good Omens any less because I chose to underline favourite jokes, because for me, those marks do absolutely nothing to alter the value of the book. It was secondhand and battered when I got it, so I guess that’s part of it, but I just… love books in a very tangible, physical way that usually doesn’t leave them in perfect condition, and I think more people should feel free to do that.

I’ll probably find there are still things I’ve missed out, but hopefully this clarifies my thoughts — and if anyone else wants to add to the discussion, feel free. To write in books or not to write in books? That is the question.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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