Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How to Treat Books: Thoughts on Building Book Towers, Writing in Margins, and Cracking Spines

When I was in college I spent the night at a relative's house, and bored, after everyone had gone to bed, I perused a bookshelf filled with rows of pristine hardcover gold-tinged classics and pulled one out to read. Later, I set the book down, dangling it over the edge of an end table because I couldn't find a bookmark.

The next morning the relative, clearly upset, scolded me: "Don't you know how to treat a book?"

I stammered out an apology, not daring to mention that my Dangle over the Edge Method was me trying to show proper respect for her book. My usual strategy for saving a page was folding it over at the corner or simply setting the book down, splayed out.

I felt like a book barbarian. Here, I'd always thought that how you treat a book respectfully was by reading it.

Confession: as a kid I constructed high-rise apartment buildings for my barbie dolls out of books and blocks.

In school I took notes in the margins of my books.

When I open a new book, especially the pristine hardcover type, the first thing I do is crack the spine for easier reading.

More confessions: My cookbooks have food stains on the pages.

When my kids were little, I let them gnaw on their board books. My daughter ate all four corners of her Pat the Bunny book and I thought that was adorable.

A few years ago I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room reading and suddenly the ending of the book I was in the middle of writing scrolled out in my mind and I did the only logical thing: I scribbled it all out in the margins.

I've been thinking about books and how I treat them because I just read Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.

If you are a fellow book lover, you will love this collection of essays about books and reading. Some fun topics covered: how to properly mingle your spouse's library collection with your own, (you're not truly married until you do), what it's like to grow up in a family of compulsive proofreaders, (you will find yourselves out to dinner with each other correcting the menus), the joys of browsing in used bookstores (Fadiman and her husband once purchased 19 pounds of books in an afternoon that they then had to tote home on a train), and the respectful treatment of books (Fadiman, when she was a child, I am happy to note, built towers out of her father's books and had no qualms about letting her children eat the corners).

Unlike Fadiman, I did not grow up with many books in my home, save for the ones I made block high rises out of-- a handful of Reader's Digest books and a set of World Book Encyclopedias, 1975 edition. My mother was a big proponent of the public library and she gave me quarters to buy a paperback every now and then from the Scholastic Book Fair. My prized book possessions were the complete set off Trixie Belden, #1 through #16. Also, a book on Greek mythology, a book called The Best Loved Poems, and a book on astrology, Love Signs by Linda Goodman.

Interesting fact: the only book that I still own from the time is Love Signs by Linda Goodman.

Today I am a compulsive collector of books.

Walk into my house and here's what you will find--

In the living room:

(My husband, God love him, built these bookshelves
and the shelves in every house we've lived in) 

In the kitchen:

(note the torn up Joy of Cooking, center, courtesy of the dog)

In my office:

 Next to my bed:

Years ago, still mourning the loss of my Trixie Belden books, I came upon the complete set in a used bookstore and promptly bought them.

They sit on my office bookshelf, spines cracked, tattered, written in, and possibly gnawed on by somebody.

I promise you: I know how to treat books.


  1. After the first few paragraphs I was on the point of recommending the Fadiman book to you--glad I read through to the end first! I love it.

    1. I can't believe Ex Libris has just now come on my radar (gift from a lovely writer friend)! It's so good, something I will likely reread every year :)

  2. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, a library card was the key to the kingdom of the treasure (of books) and the world of literature.

    1. So very true. I still go to the library weekly, but I can't stop buying books!

  3. I love EX LIBRIS too! One of my favorites.

    1. Now I want to read all her recs in the back of the book!

  4. The combining of books in marriage made me laugh. True!

    1. You must read this book, Yvonne. She tells the story in a much funnier way than I can.

  5. ER, to each her own? I'm the OCD anal-retentive reader, striving not to break the spine, cursing myself when I bend a cover. But I do love my books. And I still have my original set of Trixie Beldons. The entire series. My Choose Your Own Adventures; Robert Arthur's "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Adventurers. Only my books for English did I mark up, and I had to work my way into it. Read on!

    1. Totally not knocking you, Shari, for treating your books with loving care. Would NEVER EVER knock a fellow Trixie Belden fan :)

    2. As long as we love our books, that's all that truly matters. I'm envious of all your book cases. Right now, my bookcases don't have enough space for all my books, so I've got a lot still in boxes. Since they've been stuck there for 3 years, it's probably time for me to double-up some shelves, the same way my bedroom bookcase is! And, you've given me an idea for my own blog post--I should write about my roots as a reader--and Trixie Belden!