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Battered books? Criminal!


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.

12 thoughts on “Battered books? Criminal!

  1. I am neurotic about the condition of my books. I remember the sense of physical hurt I experienced when I discovered a microscopic dog-ear in my otherwise pristine copy of STAR WARS by George Lucas at the age of eleven. I accept that when reading a thick paperback it is probably impossible to avoid a crease or two in the spine, but even that pains me.

  2. I cannot agree more, but I can disagree with exactly one point. When I lend books, I want them back, which hardly ever happens. When I do get them back, they are often in poor condition. Last week I decided not to lend anyone any book.
    Too many of my 7000+ books are tattered. When I moved from the USA to Amsterdam I left many behind, hoping to get them someday. But I decided to donate them to the post-Communist Charles University in Prague. Right after they got there, they were all destroyed by the big flood, I think in 2002.
    When I moved within Amsterdam I sold many of my SF books, thinking I’d lost interest and in any case would never read them again. That was in 87. But a Dutch philosophical colleague said to me, “You know George, we’re not going to read The Critique of Pure Reason again, after we become 65.” I was shocked, realising he was probably right. So I bought many *used* SF books in The Book Exchange, a fine 2nd hand shop. As a result, very many of my SF books *are*, unfortunately, tattered. At least I have a great collection. Some books I bought again, new. My best buy was the complete Cordwainer Smith short fiction edition, in hard cover, published by the NESFA. It’s more complete than the recent SF Masterworks edition, is hardcover, and cost me only $25 plus postage (then low). I think you mentioned the Masterworks edition, but I bought the NESFA’s without knowing about it.

  3. Makes me go into a rage when someone returns a book and they have broken the back. Good thing most of my books are digital nowadays. I guess you can be trusted with a book Ian. 🙂

  4. I actually don’t mind tattered books, but that’s largely because my books don’t just sit on a shelf. I don’t just read at home, but rather on the metro, at lunch break, by the pool, etc. Stuff happens. I like passing books to other people who will enjoy them, regardless of whether they come back, and if they do come back, I’m just as likely to lend them to someone else.

  5. Dude, books are meant to be read. Good books should look like they’ve been read till their ink is rubbed off. That is a mark of a well loved book. Sure you can have your pristine, uber deluxe copy with the collectible cover but how is a book supposed to know how you enjoyed it if there isn’t a crease or a dent or turned down corner? Respect for a books comes from reading it over and over, lining it’s most important passages in ball point pen, dog earing it’s page corners, breaking it’s spine in half and covering it’s cover in coffee rings.

    Maybe you don’t want to buy a dog eared copy, but there is nothing wrong with having them in your collection. If I went to your house and saw all those pristine books on the shelf I might think you didn’t actually read any of them.

      • If you love something, you look after it. You don’t abuse it. If you saw my collection, you’d realise I love books – and no, I haven’t read them all. Yet.

        • You know I always respect your opinion, but on this we’ll have disagree. I’m not saying I intentionally abuse my books, but I don’t consider reading them with other than tongs and surgical gloves abuse either. Paperbacks are not objects of display. They are meant to be consumed, carried around, rolled up and stuck in a too small pocket. I only keep the books I have read and loved. All others offend mine eyes 😉

          • PS these comments do not reflect how I feel about leant books, I rarely borrow books. Usually I give books to others, pass them on and they do the same for me. If I ever do borrow a book either from a friend or a library I always return it in the same condition. Because it is not mine to abuse as you are want to call it.

          • I bet your book collection isn’t even organised alphabetically by author either 🙂

  6. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in how I treat my books and how I expect other people to treat them if I lend them out. Sometimes I talk to people about this need to keep my books in good condition and they look at me as if I’m completely barmy.

    Problems occur when I go travelling and take books with me (and yes, I also feel the need to keep my guidebooks in good condition which isn’t always feasible due to weather conditions).

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