• Hands Off My Books

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Rants & Raves     Comments 16 comments

    Patina can be beautiful. I love copper roofs that have turned turquoise, and weathered wooden beach chairs (though I’m wary of splinters). But I hate, hate, hate wear and tear in my books.

    In my collegiate youth, I didn’t mind highlighting or notes in books, especially in textbooks. (Thanks, previous owner, for doing some of my work for me!) Even in non-textbooks, I found handwritten notes fascinating. It was as if the book had come with an additional story–a story about the previous owner and his or her perspective.

    Today, however, I’ve completely reversed my opinion. Torn covers and coffee stains have become aesthetically awful to me. They don’t say, “This book was loved”; they say, “I’m a slob.” (Confession: there is coffee on almost everything I own, and yes, I am a slob. I just don’t want it to be that obvious.) A book is a beautiful thing. How arrogant of me to think I should leave my own grubby markings on it.

    Part of this change of heart is due to my hardcover copy of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. A lavish purchase during my super broke, just-out-of-college days, I carried the book everywhere while reading it–and I almost ruined it in the process. Featuring a beautiful and intricate drawing of a wind-up bird’s internal gears, the cover became scarred with small stains. The edges got nearly worn away. To me, that’s not beautiful; it’s a sign of my carelessness.

    The other reason I reversed my love of book patina: I earned a master’s degree in information studies (when I started my degree, it was called library science), with a specialization in preservation administration. I don’t use my degree professionally, but it’s inspired me to take better care of my personal library. I never eat while reading, lest a crumb dirty up the page or tempt a varmint into nibbling on the book. I try to avoid cracking the spines and dog-earing the pages (unless I find a typo, because I’m a snotty perfectionist like that). And I definitely don’t write in them. I still buy used books, though I’ve become picky about those as well; but I’m just as careful with them as I am with my new books.

    So I’m a nut about keeping my books in near-mint condition. But how the hell do I read them?

    The short answer: carefully. The longer answer: I read hardcovers at home, and the only reading material in my purse is my e-reader or paperbacks that don’t have a lot of sentimental value. (When I got a signed copy of Far and Away, the newest book by Rush’s notoriously reclusive drummer Neil Peart, my husband purchased an additional unsigned copy of the book so we can pore over it without panicking that we’re ruining something priceless.)

    I realize a lot of people will find my book preservation efforts silly or snobby. Others may claim this is a pathetic attempt to inflict order within a chaotic world over which I have little control. I can’t argue with that. But I can say that enjoying a book and keeping it in good shape don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It takes some effort, but it’s worth it to me.


    When she’s not revising her first trilogy of YA novels, hugging her rescued dogs, or playing “Rock Band” with her husband, Sarah Rodriguez Pratt writes for her blog ThatsAGirlsCar.com. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University and a Master’s in Information Studies from UT-Austin. A native Texan, she grew up in McAllen but has called Austin home for over a decade.

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    Christopher Savage

    I get what you’re saying. You want preservation. I think that’s great, in a sense. There’s a tactile romance people invest in their sacred objects. We all want to preserve those objects so we can save a sense of the sacred amidst a sea of profane materials. There’s a connection there we seek to conserve so we can always return to it and feel special again. Makes sense. I, however, adhere to the patina and the slovenliness. The ephemeral nature of books appeals to me more than their preservation. I suppose it’s this age of information, what with an abundance… Read more »


    Interesting. Especially the idea of being connected to the book’s other readers. Brings to mind old-school library books, where you can see everyone who checked out the book before you. I really like that idea and perspective! But what I don’t like is the arrogance of some people who think they’re worthy of leaving their mark on something. It’s not as bad as an animal pissing to mark its territory, but…then again, for some, it totally is. Not you — your appreciation sounds like it comes with a great amount of respect and appreciation, which I in turn can respect… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    I’ll admit it, I’m a notetaker and I often make those notes on the pages of my books. (Please don’t hate me, Sarah!) I have all kinds of ideas while I’m reading and being the Type A person I am, I fear that those thoughts will leave me if I don’t commit them to the page. It’s a habit that helps me to fully digest what I’m reading. Would it kill me to grab a sheet of paper to scribble on? Certainly not. I probably shouldn’t speak for David, but I’m going to anyway. He makes notes in pencil and… Read more »


    Sadly, erasing does damage book pages. (Thanks, grad school degree, for teaching me that.) It might be inconsequential damage, but fibers of the page are still being removed or wrecked.

    Full confession: I will still dog-ear pages for things other than typos, but I don’t underline or circle specifically what I loved about the page. It was amusing to pick up a book I hadn’t read in 10 years, find the dog-eared pages, and try to figure out what I loved about them.

    David Duhr

    Well, I make pencil notes on books I’m reviewing; otherwise I forget everything.

    Then I erase the notes simply because we’re running a library. If we didn’t have those books out for the public, I wouldn’t bother.

    But that’s all I’ll say for now, because I promised SRP a blog response/rebuttal. Which I probably won’t get around to, because I’m a sad sack.


    Whoa. Silverfish. You hate ’em right?

    I hate ’em myself!



    Karen W

    I have never liked to see marks in books. Never. Not as a kid and not now. In my college days, I pored over the used textbooks to purchase the most pristine. I do admit that I marked in my textbooks but I justified it telling myself that it was because I was furthering my education. As far as other used books, I frequent Half Priced Books but I still look for the least worn tome I can find, even going so far as passing over a purchase if I didn’t find one that met my standards. If the spine… Read more »


    I do that all the time. (Sorry, Half Price Books.) And I’ve almost sworn off buying used books from Amazon because some sellers take a lot of liberty with phrases like “Very Good Condition.” One book had food stuck to the cover. That was NOT “Very Good Condition” to me.

    David Duhr

    If you want to swear off Amazon completely, you won’t get an argument from me …


    To me it really depends on what I’m reading. If it’s something like Nabokov/Dostoevsky/etc., then I like seeing notes and will leave my own, as their works interconnect and there are so many relevant details and levels of meaning. Seeing other people’s notes introduces me to new perspectives, and I like buying that type of book used. Then again, I tend to only make notes in books that I feel have strong reread and literary value. Otherwise, I get distracted by taking the time to write stuff down. Actually, I’m oddly not bothered by beat-up books. I think they have… Read more »

    Laura Roberts

    I think the idea of preserving books, in an age where most debut at the paperback level (unless they are meant to be collector’s items with leather-bound covers, or are written by huge names who’ve already made their millions) is a wee bit silly. Sure, I want my books to last and to look nice, but I also know that the quality of bookmaking has declined over the years, and not just because of Print On Demand. You probably have had one of those paperbacks where the cover comes unglued from the spine? I remember this happening to all of… Read more »

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