Confessions of an Idolatrous Book Pinko

May 20, 2010


(from Goops and How to Be Them, Gelett Burgess, 1900)

I have a notion
the books on the shelves
Are just as much persons
As we are ourselves.
When you are older,
You’ll find this is true;
You’d better be careful
To make books like you!

Teresa at Shelf Love wrote a great post about books as physical objects. I am always curious what people have to say about book-in-the-hand, because so far I haven’t encountered anyone who shares my views on the subject.  Teresa mentioned two extremes: people who see books as disposable containers for ideas–which makes me think of a dirty yoghurt container–and people who believe that all books should be handled with the same reverence as sacred vessels.  I’m extreme all right.  And yet neither of these attitudes rings a bell.

I dislike owning books.  Whazzat?  Yes, I said owning books gives me no satisfaction (which isn’t to say I don’t own an entire wall of them, many of which I am grudgingly fond).  My books are a burden, not a joy.  This would place me at the “ideas only” end of the spectrum, if not that I take what can only be described as a maniacal interest in books as physical objects–spatial, historical, tactile, and artistic.  The codex is the invention of the last couple of millenia, as far as I’m concerned.  Books are efficient.  They are modular.  They are dense.  They are made of my favorite thing.*

Hear, hear, you say.  But now I will probably part company with most of you when I say I find these rare, adorable objects communal.  The private part of a book is the idea part, the act of reading.  Book-as-idea is also transitory, and it is different for every reader.  Book-the-thing-in-your-hand is the same for everyone.  We can all see it, touch it: the same book.  It can be bought and sold.  It lasts.  Physical books are more permanent than the ideas within them.

But ideas live forever, right?  Not really.  How many moldy, swolen copies of A Tale of Two Cites or The Hunchback of Notre Dame have you seen jammed into the shelves of a sad provincial bookstore between 1970’s paperbacks, waiting to be thrown in a dumpster when the store finally folds?  A hundred twenty years ago, someone in that very same town (their signature is on the flyleaf) was reading Dickens with the same excitement their great-great-grandchildren will bring to the next season of their favorite TV show.

Call it an antiquarian bias.  For me, a physical book is like one of the toys in the Velveteen Rabbit.  It only fully exists when enough people have read it to make it Real.  Unless it is an art or reference book, owning a book myself always feels trying to make something beautifully ephemeral into something permanent.  It feels weird.  It goes against my gut instinct, a bit like it would go against my gut instinct to murder a great Shakespearian actor, stuff him with sawdust, and stick him in a museum case.  Or maybe a better analogy would be taking a little kid who might grow up to be a great Shakespearian actor and locking him in the cupboard.

“Can I come out now?”

“Shh.  Not now.  My library holds just came in.  I’m reading the new Suzanne Collins.”

“You like Suzanne Collins better than me?”

“No.  Your characterizations are deeper and your vocabulary is more colorful, but I’ve already read you.  I’ll probably never read you again.  I might give you to my sister someday, though.  Here.  Have a fruit roll-up.”  [Slides fruit roll-up under door.]

People will always stop understanding the ideas in a book long before the last copy has rotted away.**  That’s how it’s meant to be.  Ideas die in old stories and are reincarnated in new ones.  Dickens is dead as a doornail back at that shop in Podunkville.  The town’s potential Dickens readers aren’t really typical podunkers.  They aren’t going to discover him in the Book Shoppe; that only happens in big city bookstores.  Or in movies.  If they find him at all, they will find him at school or at their public library.

There is a picture of Andrew Carnegie in my household shrine.  I burn candles for him.***  Is it any surprise I’m a library book idolator?  It’s not a comfortable religion.  Hasty library purges are extremely painful for me.  So is the drop in “library edition” quality that came when they stopped stitching the signatures together on most hardcovers (some time in the mid-eighties), and there were no more full-cloth bindings.  Since then it’s been a slippery slope of cheaper, harsher, thinner paper and flimsier binding materials.  Libraries now invest in as many disposable trade paperbacks of a new, popular book as they can (which take up shelf space and instigate the purges), instead of buying hardcovers–which are at any rate no longer much sturdier than the paperbacks.

I suppose privately-owned books could have the same gravitas as library hardcovers.  Most of them don’t.  I suppose I should be glad no librarian can take away my “dirty old” copy of Pride and Prejudice and replace it with paperback edition that will fall apart in 3 years and a shelf full of duplicate best-sellers that will be jettisoned for the next author of the month.  But I’m not.  Somehow, my friendly old copy of Pride and Prejudice just doesn’t make my heart soar,**** and I can’t walk into a Barnes and Noble without feeling queasy.

The kind of book I love most to read–a fat, indestructible oilcloth or clothbound hardcover with furred corners and a limber binding that has been through countless hands and will go through countless more–is disappearing from the world, booksale by booksale.  A few of them disappeared into my cupboard.  Barnes and Noble doesn’t sell them.

Is that a part of why so many of you take pleasure in buying and collecting books?  They don’t disappear on you?  As much as I hate it when good books disappear from my library, mediocre books that disappear from my house are one of my favorite things!  Even more than bringing them home, I love loading them into my library bookbag and hauling them off to the bookdrop.  It’s like magic.  Poof!  Gone, and yet infinitely available.  Like the books-as-ideas in my head.

This isn’t responsible.  I’m a foolish, carefree grasshopper in an age of library luxury.  “Free books for everyone” is way too good for this world.  How can a concept so beautiful and sensible and totally unlikely exist on the same planet that gave us tackweed, bubonic plague and diet pop?  It’s not even moral.  I am painfully aware that if libraries were the only book-buyers, hardly any books would get published, and a lot of authors would stop writing them.  Keep up the good work, you book lovers of discerning taste and ready pocketbook.  Oh.  And thanks for having my 2.3 kids while you’re at it!

*Trees.  I also take a maniacal interest in old furniture and houses.

**The current shelf life of ideas has kept pace nicely with the quality of books.  Common referents expire as quickly as the cheapest paper, now.

***Not really.  But if I did have a household shrine, I can’t think of anything else I would rather put in it.

**** The fact that Der Mann and I have had eight addresses in eleven years***** may well have something to do with this.

*****Not counting stints as pickup-camper nomads and in my parents’ parked travel trailer.  Did you know they won’t give you a library card if you live in a campground?  Even if you really live there?  Even if you have a land-line phone?  It’s not a residence if it’s got wheels.  Some of those people had been living in that campground for years.


14 Responses to “Confessions of an Idolatrous Book Pinko”

  1. Jodie said

    I can understand your religion but I could never fully practise it myself!:) I think projects like Bookmooch may be a good way for anyone who likes to own books for a bit, but also wants to participate in the collective experience. I guess libraries are kind of like the accessible social history aspect of used books, as while you’ll likely never be able to touch say the books touched by oh I don’t know Newton or Jane Austen(insert own dead reading celebrity here) you can get your hands on those touched by many of ordinary people. Kind of a collective project of book handling. Maybe that idea doesn’t quite hold up…ah well I like it anyway.

    I love getting rid of mediocre books, or even books I really enjoyed but know I’ll never look at again, so freeing. I also like looking over books I’ve kept and handling them even if I don’t read them for ages. You’ve added another image if guilt to my brain to keep Ali Smith’s words about unread books company. You know I actually started rereading her ‘Girl Meets Boy’ again because of the sad way she describes books left on shelves – guilt is a powerful thing. I have books to give away right now, but the charity shops seem really reluctant to take them and libraries won’t have them so I need to find a good used Bookshop I guess.

    • trapunto said

      “Accessible social history aspect of used books”–I like that!

      Why won’t the charity shops take your books?

      I can see why libraries won’t–staff are usually overworked and underpaid–but a lot of U.S. libraries have found a good way to get around that. “Friends of the Library” volunteer organizations run all the booksales. The librarians never even have to sort the donations. They just store them in boxes, and the volunteers hold a sale several times a year. Extremely profitable for the libraries, especially if they have the kind of well-organized brigade who recognize valuable books and put them up for sale to collectors online.

      Of course, if there is simply no space to store the books, it’s a problem.

      I have been thinking about Bookmooch or Paperback Swap, now that I have been hearing about some pretty obscure early 20th century books on blogs. The “owning them for a bit” thing is what puts me off. And postage. I guess I would have to try it and see to know if I like it.

      • Jodie said

        Yes the postage can be a problem and the post office queue is not exactly a fun place to spend your lunchtime.

        We keep getting charity bags that do not want books or bricabrac and the shop down the road is now advertising for everything but books. I guess people just don’t buy up the stock fast enough.

  2. Jenny said

    I do love getting rid of mediocre books! I feel no guilt at all getting rid of books I won’t read again. I always think the books can go to someone who will like them more. But as for owning books myself, I love to own books. I love to browse through my shelves and have my eyes fall on exactly the book I am in the mood for. This is trickier in libraries because libraries are full of books that I will never ever want to read. Imagine how good if the library had a section called “Books Trapunto Would Like”. That is how I feel about having my own collection of wondrous books. Books Jenny Likes.

    • trapunto said

      I can see the appeal of browsing in a library where every book is a good one, and I understand wanting books to go to good homes.

      I think the difference is that I don’t have much faith that I will read books again. I am very strict about only owning books I believe I *might* read again, and yet I almost never scan my shelves. In fact, a year after moving, I still haven’t unpacked my books. Our floors are splintering paint-spattered, nail-studded wood that the previous residents had hidden under dog-pee-soaked carpets. I know we are going to have to put something down on top of them, and the thought of packing up all the books in order to move the bookshelves when when that happens is too much for me.

      (But don’t be like me! Unpack your books whenever you can! It’s worse than not being able to get at your shoes!)

  3. zibilee said

    Ok, I loved the bit about the child in the closet and the fruit-roll ups. I snorted. That being said, I have the opposite problem. I collect books like they are going out of style, and often will keep books that I know I am never going to read again. It’s a problem. In a house with such limited space, my husband has pretty much put a moratorium on new book purchases, but I always seem to get new ones in the house despite the ban. I do frequently lend out a lot of my books, but since they always come back, it doesn’t do anything to thin the herd. If I could read as many books as I collect, it wouldn’t be a problem, but I think I probably have enough books to last for years. I tell myself that at least it’s not shoes, or $400.00 purses, but really, I know I need to stop it.

    I like the idea of a library that only has books in it that I want to read, but that will probably never happen.

    Loved this post. Now I have something to aspire to!

    • trapunto said

      Your loaned books always come back? You must have exceptional friends. Or are you just very careful who you loan to?

      I have no loan policy: I only give books away, because it’s too unsettling not to be sure whether I’ll ever see the book again. That said, my shelves have a lot of books that are sitting there waiting for the right occasion and the right person to give it away. Some of them are duplicates, so I will still have my own copy.

  4. Jeanne said

    Since I consider it part of my life’s work to explain such things as why 18th-century topical jokes were funny and what George Gordon was Lord of, I don’t have the same attitude about books becoming dated…except that I own a book published in 1923 that has never had its pages cut, and although I’ve owned it for over a decade now, I haven’t cut them and read it yet because it’s just such a peculiar thing, and telling the story once the evidence is gone won’t be the same.

    Also I try to own every book I ever read and liked, because what if I wake up in the morning with a bit in my mind and I can’t find the book and reread that part? I used to be able to go through my shelves and find a particular poem I was thinking of.

    Now I can more than likely type a phrase of it into google.

    On the other hand (am I up to four now?) we’re thinking about going through our bookshelves and getting rid of books like the child-rearing ones (“Your Seven Year Old”) and maybe some we didn’t like. But we’ve never done that before. We’ve never given books away or gotten rid of them. Ever.

    • trapunto said

      UNCUT PAGES! I have always thought it must be wonderful to read a novel cutting each page as I went. (Though maybe it would just be annoying.) The whole idea of needing a utensil for reading, just like eating, is unspeakably . . . what? Cool I guess. Like cigarette holders and boot daggers. I didn’t know they were making untrimmed books as late as 1923. Are you saving it for a special occasion?

      So, for you every book is a kind of reference book?

      “I used to be able to go through my shelves and find a particular poem I was thinking of.” –You have the soul of a librarian. Which sounds really bad if you think of the “Marian Librarian” stereotype, but I mean it in the good way.

      If you hold on to those child rearing books long enough, your kids may use them.

      • Jeanne said

        Yes, for me every book is a kind of reference book. I gave a whoop of laughter at that, making all the sixteen-year-old girls in the room with me inquire about what was so funny. They weren’t all that amused, but I think you have quite a way with words.

        Don’t you think most child rearing books, like tour books, go out of date by the time you finish reading them?

        I don’t know what I’m saving the uncut book for. Retirement, maybe.

  5. katelyn said

    Hey, just dropping by to thank you for the comment! I would’nt have known about Nymeth’s blog without you!

    Now that I know people are occasionally reading my blog, I guess I’ll have to start proofreading, ha.

    • trapunto said

      Hey there, Katelyn! No need to proofread on my account, though I do look forward to reading more of your reviews.

  6. Nymeth said

    “And thanks for having my 2.3 kids while you’re at it!”

    lol! This cracked me up.

    I’m a book hoarder more by necessity by inclination. I don’t have access to a good public library, so 80% of the time, if I want to read a book, I have to buy it. Otherwise I just don’t have access to it. And something similar goes for getting rid of books I won’t re-read: to do so, I have to ship them, often internationally, via Bookmooch. There’s nowhere local I could donate them to, as as shipping gets costly, they mostly stay on. Having said this, I do like owning books for reasons similar to Jenny’s. I like having my favourites around me. I’ve just finished a book, The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, that’s full of reasons why both private and public libraries exist. I must fight the temptation to write my post about it in your comments box right now instead of at my blog later 😛

  7. trapunto said

    I wish you a future of library book feasting, to make up for your current library book famine. Nothing is more frustrating than picking through the shelves of a library that has none of the books you most want to read. When Der Mann and I were going around deciding where we wanted to live, we would always visit the libraries. As well as wanting a preview of a place we would both be using a lot, we thought how a town funded their library said a lot about the people in it, and I go and see if they had specific authors in their collection, to get a feel for the character of administration–where they were putting their new-book money. Some of my favorites were the poorer towns that were clearly stretching every cent as far as it would go, hired stellar directors (not tons of new books, but every one a solid choice) and used the building as a community hub.

    Then there were towns that had huge new buildings with fancy amenities that had clearly cost a ton, and lackluster, random collections.

    I love reading books about books. Books about books and libraries sound even better. I eagerly await your review; and fortunately my library has it!

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