About ten years ago I was having lunch at work with a friend. This particular friend was, like many people, of the opinion that books are precious, valuable objects that need to be preserved, protected and revered. He was extremely frustrated with the way I folded the corners of my pages over to mark my place and the way I occasionally wrote notes in the margins or underlined passages. I lost count of the number of angry lectures I had to endure about the sacred nature of books and the responsibility we as a people have to look after our books so that future generations can reap the same benefit from them as we did. He was stubbornly insistent and, in a rare display of me losing my temper, instead of folding over the corner I tore a page out of the book and used it as a book mark. He was furious.
Even though we have had the mass printing press since about 1440, surely the invention of e-books will finally put this argument to rest?
The word ‘books’ has a very broad application. It is very easy to talk with gushing enthusiasm about being a book lover. I have probably used that phrase myself a few times but it is inaccurate. There are books that I love, sure. But there are some I don’t care about at all and some I downright loath. There are books that have no use to me, like the Hayne’s car manuals. There are genres of fiction that don’t excite me. I love to read but I wouldn’t be happy to just read any old thing. The book isn’t the important part, the words are.
This might seem a finicky point but I think it’s an important one. The book is an object, a method of delivering the words from the writer into the brain of the reader. Encyclopaedias aside, books are not just some dry, didactic means of a writer lecturing us from years ago. At least good ones aren’t. Books are an interaction between the writer and the reader. Good writing is slight and subtle, allowing the readers imagination to draw as much of the picture as possible. If you could extract the visuals we create from reading any given book I’m sure you would see a huge variation between them. The knowledge, experience and emotional baggage we have shapes the books we read. This is what gives literature the chance to be so engaging. But the book remains nothing more than the container that the words reside within.
Dog-earing a page in a paperback does not endanger the future of that same book. Don’t get me wrong, if you want your paperback to remain in pristine condition then go ahead and take whatever precautions you feel you need to, but don’t think that this is crucial to the maintenance of literature. Books aren’t hand-scribed by monks in the basements of candle lit monasteries and haven’t been for a long time. Back then there was a good reason to look after books but those reasons are long gone. Books are numerous enough that if you now feel that you want to record some of your thoughts in the margins then you should feel free. It’s your copy of the book and if you want to record the thoughts that occurred to you during that wonderful writer/reader interaction then you absolutely should. Personally I love to find a book in a charity shop with an inscription in the front or a favourite passage underlined. During my college days books that came with the most interesting sections underlined or notes scribbled down the sides were like a gift from long-departed alumni to me. It always amuses me to note, thanks to the tell-tale fold in the corner of the page that my wife and I both stopped reading at the same point in a book.
It seems utterly counter-intuitive to me that the default condition of a book should be to appear unread. I can remember Neil Gaiman in his blog complaining that proof editions of Anansi Boys had appeared on Ebay with the word UNREAD proudly displayed in the auctions titles. The copy of Bridget Jones Diary that I read was loaned to me by a friend who had read it several times and had posted it around the world so that other people could read it too. It was worn and faded and tatty and looked extremely well-loved. The printing press went a long way to making books almost invincible but digital distribution has completely cemented it. An old fashioned book burning now stands absolutely no chance whatsoever of being successful. The ethereal form of books preserved as a sting of 0’s and 1’s and stored in intangible virtual space means the printed page is no longer the last bastion of preserving the words of a history of writers. The occasional person I meet who dislikes e-books, and predictably can only manage ‘its just not a book’ as their sole criticism would do well to keep in mind that e-books are doing more than print books ever could to create a thorough archive of all our literary works. Project Gutenberg is using this new technology in exactly this way to preserve all out-of-copyright works, regardless of what those works actually contain, giving obscure texts a suddenly broad scope for mass distribution.
And why books over other forms of the written word? I have never heard a rabid bibliophile complain about magazines being pulped at a recycling centre or about the hundreds of daily newspapers abandoned on trains every morning. It seems that the book as an object has been deified for such a long time that it is now engrained in us. That words printed on paper and bound in a book are somehow more worthy than words stored elsewhere. But now that all written works are being stored digitally and purchasing a book simply involves making a duplicate of that digital file print has much less of a role to play in the preservation of literature.
So if you feel like folding the corners of your pages, or writing your own thoughts in the margins, or underlining a passage, or writing an inscription in the opening pages for the person you are giving the book to, you should feel entirely free to do so.