When working on my master thesis on Arthurian fiction last year, I read Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur for the second time. I had the Penguin classic edition, which consisted of two volumes. As I did the first time, I did most of my reading in the train while commuting to class or work. As it is, bags are not very book-friendly. My copies already looked battered after the first time I had read them, so you can probably imagine how they looked after I finished reading them. And then came the searching for citations, marking pages with colorful sticky notes, putting pages spread-eagled on the surface of my desk because I needed to do some typing…the spines had multiple cracks, pages came loose, the covers had multiple scuff marks because they took a tumble from my desk more than once…
Considering they were practically falling apart when I had finished my thesis, I replaced them with a very pretty Barnes & Noble leather-bound edition. Here’s a picture, as an alternative to the shabby paperbacks I no longer own:
Though I’m very happy with this fancy hardback edition (it even has illustrations!), I did feel some regret replacing my battered copies. I’m not even the overly sentimental sort. They might have been nearly falling apart, but they were read twice, and they were loved, and it showed. This one? Hasn’t been actually read yet. And I probably won’t anytime soon; as much as I love Le Morte D’Arthur, it isn’t exactly easy reading material.
Whenever I hear people (customers, co-workers) at work about keeping books pristine, or see a blog post or video stating that people can’t stand cracked spines or ‘abused books’, I keep thinking about those battered paperbacks of Le Morte D’Arthur. Of all my other paperbacks that brave my bag and get put back on my shelf battered and bruised after I finish reading them. Of my copy of Great Expectations that has water damage because I dropped a glass of water on it by accident (imagine having to blow dry your book at 2AM; it generally makes for a funny story). Of all the paperbacks with cracked spines on my shelves, because they’ve been read as opposed to the paperbacks that haven’t been read yet. You can actually pick them out if you look at my bookshelves, and I love that you can see that they were read.
So, most of my read paperbacks are not in pristine condition. I don’t willfully abuse my books, but they inevitably look ‘read’. Bigger books have cracked spines at the very least. Does this matter? Does this mean I don’t love my books? I think this notion not loving it is a bit silly. Of course I do! To each their own; nothing wrong with cherishing your pretty hardcovers (or paperbacks), and I’m not saying pristine books aren’t loved. But cracked spines and scuffed covers don’t mean books are ‘abused’.
I think battered copies have a certain charm. They look read. Loved. When I traveled, to work, to class, to another country, they went with me. And all the wear and tear, all of that reading and loving and accompanying me during travel, shows that I read and loved them.
Of course, there are ways to handle books to prevent the cracking of the spine, but where is the fun in that? I hold/read them the way I do because I prefer reading them that way. I could put them in a plastic bag to prevent damage by travel, but why bother? I see books as things to be used. To be enjoyed, yes, loved, but also to be used. To be read. For instance, A Storm of Swords is my favourite installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It also looks the most battered of my copies of the series (all of these paperbacks are small bricks). It’s bound to get worse when I get around to reading it a second time. And that’s fine. If a book gets even more battered after reading it multiple times, it only shows that I loved it, right?
That’s not to say that I don’t have pretty, pristine books on my shelf. I used to get fancy hardcovers a few years ago, because they look good on my shelf. I sometimes still get them if I don’t feel like waiting for the (mass market) paperback. However, I’m more inclined to read those fancy hardcovers only at home, because I don’t want them to get damaged. But because I don’t have a lot of time these days, and my spare time has to be juggled with other hobbies and obligations, I do most of my reading in the train and during break times at work. This means that hardcovers tend to sit on my shelf for ages until I finally get to them (especially because borrowed books are also read at home; they’re not mine to batter, so I keep them as pristine as possible). I don’t have such reservations with paperbacks.
So ultimately? I get a lot more use and love out of those battered paperbacks. Their shabby state shows that I’ve read them and loved them. To me, that’s the point of buying and reading books. And replacing a battered copy with a pristine hardcover, like I did with Le Morte D’Arthur? I had to resort to using tape to keep the pages together, so there was little choice, but I probably won’t do that again…