What We Do to Books
Illustration by Stephen Doyle
By GEOFF DYER
There has always been a lot of discussion about the effect that reading books has on us. Far less attention has been paid to the effect that we (the readers) have on them (the books). I don’t mean on the reputations or royalties of the authors who wrote the books but on the actual physical objects themselves.
As a kid I borrowed books from libraries. When I was a student I often bought used books, some with other people’s annotations in pencil. These could be erased, but I occasionally settled for a book with the previous owner’s name and notes in ink. Either way, such tags make us feel as if we are walking in someone else’s footsteps (if the notes have been made with a pen, the footprints are set in concrete). These days, unless I find myself in very unusual circumstances, I’m reluctant to read a book that shows any sign of prior occupancy. Mainly but not exclusively cosmetic, this aversion has proceeded in tandem with an increasing unwillingness to take other people’s readings — their opinions of what they have read — at face value. Back in the 1970s I submitted to the joyless experience of wading through my secondhand Penguin Modern Classics edition of Conrad’s “Nostromo” (the cover shows an image of Zapata by Alfredo Zalce) partly because Walter Allen, according to a quote on the back, considered it “the greatest novel in English of this century” — which makes me glad we’re no longer living in what must have been a truly wretched century for literature if that was as good as it got. Perhaps the desire to read books before they start trailing clouds of reputed glory is what leads people to become publishers or agents.
Personally, I’m content to wait until they have been published — and, ideally, remaindered. I don’t mind the ink blots or lines used to indicate a book’s status as commercial outcast — a widespread though not universal practice — but I always choose a copy with the mark on the bottom of the page rather than the top, so that once shelved the book effectively conceals its unwanted origins. That way I’m not reminded it’s a remainder.
Other than that mark the book should be in near-mint condition when I start reading it, but I am not obsessive about keeping it that way. On the contrary, I like the way it gradually and subtly shows signs of wear and tear, of having been lived in (by me), like a pair of favorite jeans.