One of my first college writing teachers asked us to do the following exercise: choose a page in the grammar book assigned for the course and write in a page margin the worst thing you’ve ever done, then tear out the margin where you wrote it and throw it away (or eat it, if you are really ashamed of yourself).
The point of the exercise was two-fold; to illustrate how much more real things become when they are written down, and how silly it is to treat your college textbooks like heirlooms. Your school books are there for you to interact with, not just to read. He encouraged us throughout the semester to write in the margins about the text we had just read and any thoughts of our own we had about it. To his mind this practice causes the reader to engage more actively with the material. I did as he suggested in that course and many subsequent college courses. The effect was that I remembered things better and had many more ready ideas when paper writing time came around. I know what you’re thinking (if writing in books seems wantonly destructive to you), just take notes in a notebook, right? Not the same. Really. Perhaps it’s the very idea that what you are doing seems destructive, or it makes you nervous because somebody else might read your notes and see your scribbles, that makes it seem so much more immediate. It’s ownership, I think, as in “This is my book and these are my thoughts and damn you all for judging me for my actions or my ideas!”.
For many years there has been a debate between those who collect books and those who just like to read them, probably ever since books became things that even poor people could own in great numbers. According to “Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine”, there are two types of readers, “book consumers” and “book collectors”. I guess I qualify as a “consumer” if you go by their definition, but I resent the implication that the book itself means nothing to me. I can certainly appreciate a signed first printing of “As I Lay Dying” as much as any collector, and would not lay a fingerprint on it, but if I’m reading a used paperback that I picked up for $1.99 at my local used book store (shout out to Downtown Books & News in Asheville, NC) then I’m not worried about leaving a coffee ring on the cover. I might even do a little “active reading” and write all over the margins, or dog-ear the pages where Faulkner first writes “my mother is a fish,” just so I can show it to somebody who doesn’t yet know how great that book is.
According to “Firsts”, if you are a book consumer, “You will never be a book collector. We have found from experience that if you do not understand the difference immediately, you never will.” Is that like the part in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere tells Julia Roberts that there are two types of opera-goers? If you see it and love it, you will always love it, if you see it and don’t love it, you can learn to appreciate it, but it will never be a part of you? I’m not arguing with that. I’m not a big opera fan either. It just seems a little, well, snobbish. An effort to make a distinction which can place the collector coolly at least one level above the consumer.
Certainly, there are many millions of books that qualify as works of art in themselves, or historical artifacts, but isn’t the content of the book actually of utmost importance? Frankly, the buying and selling of books based on everything except the content is more objectionable to me than highlighting in fluorescent pink. I recently saw a listing for a first edition, first issue copy of “The Last of the Mohicans” going for $22,500.00. James Fenimore Cooper was a crap writer. His writing is racist, misogynistic, has very little basis in any historical or other reality and, frankly, is all very boring because of that. It comes across like the fantasy of a little boy in a grown man’s body. I would even call it offensive and relatively inconsequential in terms of literary history. The only thing I like about his contribution to American letters is that the nickname of the star character on M.A.S.H. was given to him by his father, who apparently loved Cooper. Oh, and he popularized mind candy fiction, and it’s debatable how grateful we should all be for that.
I don’t keep books often (I already said I’m not a collector) unless there is a sentimental attachment. I’d rather pass them on to friends or family members who might enjoy them and encourage them to pass them to others in turn. My sisters and I have exchanged our copies of various Jane Austen books among ourselves until we three have read all of her books at least once. I finally just read “Pride and Prejudice” and I’m really glad that my sister doesn’t care how long I keep it or what condition it’s in when I give it back. I’m glad we can compare Elizabeth to Fannie over glasses of wine without worrying about what shape the dust jacket is in. I love to see well-worn books on a bookshelf. It makes me more fond of the person who owns it and it makes it more comfortable to reach out and touch it, read the first few pages and suddenly decide that I must borrow it. I’m more likely to read it in the first place if it looks like someone loved it before me.
I’m not putting you down, book collectors, and I can certainly appreciate your passion. Please do not think I would ever write in one of your books if you loaned it to me, or that I would even think of dog-earing the pages. But maybe you better give me the $1.00 “reading copy” instead, as long as it’s not missing any pages.