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March 5, 2007

Confessions of a Book Abuser — by Ben Schott


Schott, creater of, most recently, "Schott's Almanac," hit home yesterday with his New York Times Book Review back page essay.

Man, did he make me wince.

Tearing books apart and throwing away the pages I've read; turning down (or up) page corners to mark passages of interest or my place; throwing them away; he nailed me.

Here's his most entertaining essay, which will undoubtedly strike a chord (or three) in the conscience of any inveterate reader.

    Confessions of a Book Abuser

    I have to admit I was flattered when, returning to my hotel room on the shores of Lake Como, a beautiful Italian chambermaid took my hand. I knew that the hotel was noted for the attentiveness of its staff. Surely, though, such boldness elevated room service to a new level. Escorting me to the edge of the crisply made bed, the chambermaid pointed to a book on my bedside table. “Does this belong to you?” she asked. I looked down to see a dog-eared copy of Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies” open spread-eagle, its cracked spine facing out. “Yes,” I replied. “Sir, that is no way to treat a book!” she declared, stalking out of the room.

    I appreciate the chambermaid’s point of view — and I admire how she expressed it. Yet I profoundly disagree. While the ideas expressed in even the vilest of books are worthy of protection, I find it difficult to respect books as objects, and see no harm whatsoever in abusing them.

    There are, of course, some important exceptions: rare books or those of historical interest, books with fine binding or elegant illustrations, unpurchased books in bookshops, and books belonging to other people or to libraries. All of these I treat with a care and consideration that I would not dream of bestowing on the average mass-produced paperback. Once a book is mine, I see no reason to read it with kid gloves. And if you have ever seen a printing press disgorge best sellers at 20,000 copies an hour, you might be tempted to agree. It is the content of books that counts, not the books themselves — no matter how well they furnish a room.

    Indeed, the ability of books to survive abuse is one of the reasons they are such remarkable objects, elevated far beyond, say, Web sites. One cannot borrow a Web site from a friend and not return it for years. One cannot, yet, fold a Web site into one’s back pocket, nor drop a Web site into the bath. One cannot write comments, corrections or shopping lists on Web sites only to rediscover them (indecipherable) years later. One cannot besmear a Web site with suntan-lotioned fingers, nor lodge sand between its pages. One cannot secure a wobbly table with a slim Web site, nor use one to crush an unsuspecting mosquito. And, one cannot hurl a Web site against a wall in outrage, horror or ennui. Many chefs I know could relive their culinary triumphs by licking the food-splattered pages of their favorite cookbooks. Try doing that with a flat-screen monitor.

    All of these strike me as utterly reasonable fates for a book, even though (and perhaps because) they would horrify a biblioprude and befuddle a Web monkey.

    The most rococo act of book abuse is something I have performed only once — and it is a great deal more difficult than countless movies would have one believe. To excavate a hiding place for valuables within the pages of a thick book takes a sharp scalpel, a strong arm and a surprising amount of patience. I had hoped to cut a hole with the exact outline of the object to be hidden — not, sadly, a revolver, but something equally asymmetrical. However, slicing page after page with uniform precision proved beyond me, and all I could manage to gouge was a rather forlorn rectangle. (There are some who would tempt fate by stashing their baubles within “Great Expectations” or “Treasure Island.” I played safe with “Pride and Prejudice,” since I had never gotten much further than its eminently quotable first line.)

    I also enthusiastically turn down the pages of books as I read them — so much so that I have developed a personal dog-earing code: folding a top corner marks a temporary page position, while folding a bottom corner marks a page that might be worth revisiting. In both cases, the tip of the fold points toward the relevant passage. Of course, this could be achieved with a ribbon or a bookmark; but so many books are bereft of ribbons, and I have always thought there is something ever so slightly shifty about those who always have a bookmark on hand.

    My favorite act of abuse is writing in books — and, in this at least, I follow in illustrious footsteps. Mathematics would be considerably poorer were it not for the marginalia of Pierre de Fermat, who in 1637 jotted in his copy of the “Arithmetica” of Diophantus, “I have a truly marvelous proof of this proposition that this margin is too narrow to contain.” This casual act of vandalism kept mathematicians out of trouble for 358 years. (Andrew Wiles finally proved Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1995.)

    Libraries have an ambivalent attitude to marginalia. On the one hand, they quite properly object to people defacing their property. Cambridge University Library has a chamber of horrors displaying “marginalia and other crimes,” including damage done by “animals, small children and birds,” not to mention the far from innocuous Post-it note. On the other hand, libraries cannot suppress a flush of pride on acquiring an ancient text “annotated” by someone famous. Like graffiti, marginalia acquire respectability through age (and, sometimes, wit).

    While I take great delight in marking significant passages, jotting down notes and even doodling in my books, I do draw the line at highlighter pens. One of my schoolmates used to insist on marking the passages he needed to review with a fluorescent pink highlighter. It was gently suggested that, since swaths of his textbooks were smothered in pink, it might be easier to highlight the areas he didn’t need to remember. He should have taken this advice, since the pink glop reacted badly with one particularly porous textbook, dissolving all of the type it touched and leaving legible only the irrelevant passages.

    I am not unaware that the abuse of books has a dark and dishonorable past. Books have been banned and burned and writers tortured and imprisoned since the earliest days of publishing. While one thinks of such historical nadirs as Savonarola’s “bonfire of the vanities” and the Nazi pyres of “un-German” and “degenerate” books, the American Library Association warns that we still live in an era of book burning. Perhaps inevitably, J. K. Rowling’s boy wizard is the target of much modern immolation. One group in Lewiston, Me., when denied permission for a pyre by the local fire department, held a “book cutting” of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” instead.

    To destroy a book because of its content or the identity of its author is a despicable strangulation of thought. But such acts are utterly distinct from the personal abuse of a book — and there is no “slippery slope” between the two. The businessman who tears off and discards the chunk of John Grisham he has already read before boarding a plane may lack finesse, but he is not a Nazi. Indeed, the publishing industry thinks nothing of pulping millions of unsold (or libelous) books each year. And there was no outcry in 2003 when 2.5 million romance novels from the publisher Mills & Boon were buried to form the noise-reducing foundation of a motorway extension in Manchester, England.

    It is notable that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best. And surely the dystopia of “Fahrenheit 451” is more likely avoided through the loving abuse of books than through their sterile reverence. Not that I expect the chambermaid to agree


My favorite book-related quotation is from Ambrose Bierce, who remarked, "Never loan books to anyone. The only books I have in my library are those I've borrowed from someone else."


March 5, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I have stopped reading. I know "mybad" but I cannot get interested in books again? When I was a reader I enjoyed folding the corners down and then actually placing them facedown and almost breaking the spine. I know that doesn't sound too good but it does help in the reading of them.
I am with Ambrose on the never loan a book out. It never seems to find it's way home?

Posted by: Rhonda | Mar 6, 2007 12:34:17 PM

Personal book abuse highlight: sharing a Stephen king novel with my girlfriend - the only English novel available in our Greek resort one holiday, after we'd read everything we brought - by ripping out a dozen pages or so as I finished them and passing them over. She then threw them away after reading. We also tore out and thew away whole countries from 'Let's Go Europe' as we travelled round, er, Europe.

I'm pretty certain Ben Schott will be familiar with the writing of Flann O'Brien. In a series of v. funny articles in The Irish Times (collected in 'The Best of Myles') he described a Book Handling Service, designed to give the appearance of erudite enjoyment to books owned by wealthy philistines. Folded corners, intelligent marginal notes, classy scraps of paper as bookmarks, extensive scuffing and marking would be applied by trained bookhandlers. For an extra fee, handwritten dedications from the author could be faked.The point was to make it look as if you'd a) read a book and b) were a person of taste.

Which is pretty much why I muck about with my books... Though marking proof corrections in the margins is mainly pointless. Why do I bother?

Posted by: BaldingDad | Mar 6, 2007 5:28:00 AM

Wonderful, excellent. I could have written it myself if I could write, had talent, etc.

It must be in my blood because I've been writing in books since the days of Nancy Drew and Catcher in The Rye. My books have been cried on, underlined, thrown against walls, shredded by cats, chewed by dogs, argued over in bed, slept on, used as food trays, dog-eared, spine-broken, toothpaste-spattered, rained on.

I can't imagine NOT taking notes in the margins of books while I read. Fiction, non-fiction -- it doesn't matter. And the food! I love to read and eat, and I can revisit lasagna and wine stains, the odd popcorn hull, chocolate smears...

I once made the mistake of writing a little note in the front of a book I gave to my brother, and I never heard the end of it. He still talks about it. He wants to read a book in a sterile room with special light while wearing rubber gloves and a mask and turn the pages with tongs. So of course, I give him books all the time, and write a paragraph or two in each one, and sometimes even wedge in a little cat hair.

Posted by: Flautist | Mar 6, 2007 1:28:35 AM

I'm so tickled to read that someone else writes in his books, turns down corners (and my method is the same as his!). For years I was a little ashamed of this 'abuse' of my books, but after all they are MY books, I paid for them. I love books and I love to re-read good books. I like later reading my comments on passages, and sometimes add more, especially if I've changed my mind or I've given the idea more thought (sometimes adding later comments in the back, referencing the page number). Occasionally I do loan my books, only to VERY special persons, but I also beg of them to write their own marginalia, to argue with mine, or just to note their own thoughts. Very seldom will anyone do this, though I don't know why. Thank you so much for this post, Joe.

Posted by: Peggy | Mar 5, 2007 10:05:38 PM

Dang it, two posts in two minutes...

Didn't you have something like this a few years ago. It was either this site or another much like it (though not as 'joe') that put this belief in me.

For the last few years, I've taken to using my books as a notebook and it makes things VERY easy to consult or reference in the future (though I've also taken to using 'EndNote' that I'd normally use for academic research to collect notes in a single location...kinda abusing its real purpose).

But every text book I've picked up for the last 5 years has extensive notes in it. I wish I would have done this my first go around in college as it would have made life easier. The whole idea of highlighting is, IMHO, mostly bullshit. If a passage is important enough to remember, its important enough to state why it is important.

You start to realize the relevance to this when you read such things as Asimov's annotated Bible...why shouldn't the most holy of books be treated as a text to your life. As such, reading through his annotations made a LOT of sense growing up. My original one had tons of post it notes -- I wish I would have just written in it because when lending it to a friend, she started reading through my notes and pulled all of them out. Heck, I could have taken an exacto knife to mine like Thomas Jefferson did and edited it in a more permanent way (when he set about to prove that even taking away all supernatural elements of this book still made it a relevant text).

Come to think about it, the only two books I own that I wouldn't consider writing in or defacing are my first editions of the Rubaiyat and a signed copy of Maugham's Razor's Edge. The first probably because of the value and the second solely due to sentimental reasons...

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 5, 2007 5:23:20 PM

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