On Monday, David Barnett wrote a paean to tatty paperbacks on the Guardian website here. He even included a photograph of one of his most treasured books, a battered copy of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It is, quite frankly, falling apart. I’m surprised it’s still readable.
I, on the other hand, hate battered books. Almost every book I own appears brand new. I have paperbacks I bought in the 1970s which look like they were published last week. Some of the books I’ve given away or sold – on eBay or Amazon marketplace – are in as good condition as those you’d find on the shelves of your local Waterstone’s, though they might be ten, twenty or thirty years old.
I have bought tatty books, of course. Some books that I want to read, but have no intention of keeping, I will buy irrespective of condition – usually from charity shops. And they’ll go back there once I’ve read them. Books that are going in the collection, however, have to be fine or near mint. But if I discover that I really like the book and want to keep it, and it’s pretty dog-eared – then I’ll go and buy a new copy of the book.
I have lent books to people and been seriously pissed off when they’ve returned them with broken spines and creases in the covers. When you borrow a book, it should be handed back in the same condition it was in when it was lent. You don’t borrow someone’s car and then return it with dents and scrapes and smashed headlights, after all. And yet, some books you really want people to read because you love them so much. Some books you will accept the possibility of damage because you want someone else to share your opinion of them.
It’s not just the condition of books. Genre fiction has a fondness for series. I admit to having inherited the “squirrel gene” from my father. (This doesn’t mean I’m half-man half-squirrel, it just means I collect things. Books, obviously, in my case.) Series are good for collecting. Except when publishers change the cover design halfway through the series. Or when two books of a trilogy are published in hardback, but the third is only published in paperback. I find that really annoying. I’ve been known to wait until a trilogy is complete so I can buy all three books with a matching cover design. I have also replaced books in a trilogy so I have them all in the same format, rather than one in trade paperback and two in A-format paperback.
Given that most of the books I buy are out-of-print and second-hand, you’d think I’d be a gibbering wreck most of the time. I find the book I’ve spent ages looking for on eBay, click on “Buy it Now”, and days later a parcel is shoved through my letter-box… Sellers on eBay tend to display a wide variance in their interpretation of terms such as “fine”, “very good” or “good” when relating to condition. It can make book-buying a bit of a lottery. I have returned books because they were not at all as described. But usually I tend to only buy from sellers who post a photograph of the book in which the condition is plain to see. As a result, I’ve not bought books I really want even though there are copies available. I’d sooner wait until I see a copy in a charity shop, second-hand book shop, or dealers’ room at a convention, where I can see in person whether or not the book’s condition is good enough.
There is probably a fancy Latin name for the above behaviour. I don’t care. What it means to me is that my books will last. I can return to them again and again, and not worry about pages falling out. After all, you can’t read a novel when it has pages missing.