When I enjoy a book or feel a lot of feelings about it, I like to interact with the text. I look up the words I don’t know, highlight my favourite quotes (initially in pencil; I return to the quotes when I’ve finished the book and highlight the very best with a marker) and comment on the story: from “I love this” and “yay” to “so dramatic” and “uuugh”.
Similarly, I delight in reading what other people have written in the margins of their books. My grandfather always puts a little pencil mark in front of passages he enjoys. As a result, whenever I borrow a book from him I feel like it comes with an extra dimension: I’m both reading the book and simultaneously following his reading of it.
Now, I do understand why some people keep their books pristine: books are pretty. I, too, want to have them for the sake of having them. To admire their beautiful cover or pretty typeface. Especially when I have read a good book and built an emotional connection with it, I don’t want to take it back to the library. I keep it on my shelves so I can glance at it and feel enveloped in its atmosphere.
In short, books are decoration. You don’t even have to read every book you own, it can also serve the purpose of looking good on your bookshelf. When asked by an interviewer whether he had read the several thousands of books in his studies, famous Dutch poet J.C. Bloem answered “of course not”. He explained that he had these books so that every so often he could take one from the shelf, page through it and contentedly think to himself “hmm, yes, I might read this one day”. However, when I have read a book, I want there to be some ‘proof’ of the process. The broken spine, scribbles in the margins and train tickets hidden in it are a testament to the good time I had reading that story.
Books also contain intangible memories. Do I really need my row of Arden editions of Shakespeare plays when I also have his collected works? Probably not. But they remind me of my time studying in the UK so I will keep them anyway.
Moreover, I know I am not the only person who upon entering a house immediately looks for books. They do not only brighten up a room and make their owner appear intellectual, but they are also a great topic of conversation. Many a good friendship has begun with discovering that we admire the same authors.
So, books are vessels for the stories they tell, both concretely and implicitly. For me that story is made more powerful by scribbles and broken spines, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how you treat them: books are just things.
What do you think? Are you team good-as-new or team scribble-in-the-margins? Do you ever judge people on what books they have? Leave a comment!