How Do You Love Books?

The internet has always been a place of raging controversy, from the profound to the trivial. I’m not the first to observe that people, at least in our culture, tend to divide fairly equally over many issues. Be it about important issues (like guns or abortion), or about the trivial (like computer games or actors), we rarely agree on anything.

It starts when someone says something and people react. Then more people react to the people reacting (and new people get on board with reacting to what the first person said, starting new waves of reaction). More and more people react to reactions, and the epidemic spreads.

This mind virus was about hurting books, so lots of people had opinions.

It started with a tweet from writer and editor Alex Christofi. In it, he writes:

Yesterday my colleague called me a ‘book murderer’ because I cut long books in half to make them more portable. Does anyone else do this? Is it just me?

The tweet has a photo of three thick books Christofi ripped along their spines to effectively produce “part one” and “part two” — two thinner, easier to handle, books.

(Part of my amusement comes from one of the books being Infinite Jest a beloved cult classic by David Foster Wallace. I’ve tried three times now to read it. Each time: got bored, put it down, didn’t pick it up again. I don’t understand the fuss about it. It might be one of those books you have to encounter young to be impressed by.)

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Of course people reacted. There is always a spectrum from those who don’t see what the fuss is about to those who care deeply and passionately (and often want to convince everyone else to see it their way).

If the issue is, in any way, a big red button for people, the reactions from the deeply caring can be downright incendiary. Which of course causes equally fiery counter-reactions.

And so it goes.

The thing about books is, they are a little like pets. People who care about them tend to care a lot. Books are the sort of thing one can make central in life. Books, especially certain books to certain people, are cherished.

There is also that some books are objects of art. In some cases, such high art that the content is secondary.

That is the other thing about books: They are physical instances of abstract text (which is reified language). So books have a dual nature. There is their content, and there is the embodiment of that content.

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For me the controversy started with an article in lifehacker (dot com): Cutting Books in Half Is a Hack by Beth Skwarecki. The article starts off by acknowledging the intensity of the issue, but goes on to support the idea:

Some hacks are not for everybody. If the idea of damaging a book makes you feel faint, please scroll past this post and go lie down until you’re ready to read about some less terrifying life hacks. But if you’re not squeamish, let’s talk about why cutting books in half is a genius idea.

The author tackles many of the arguments against and provides some good responses. She ends with the big objection: “But you’re hurting a book!”

She points out that, firstly, the book exists as a means to deliver content to you, and secondly, that it’s your book. Her final line says it all:

Books exist to be read, so go ahead and read them whatever way you like.

Exactly so. Assuming you do own it, treat it however you like. Obvious different standard apply to other people’s books (including library books).

I agree. I don’t know I’d go so far as to rip a book into parts, but I have nothing against dogearing or page folding. I’ll highlight passages that impress me and even sometimes make margin notes.

But it does depend on the book. Some books — most paperbacks, for instance — exist solely as a content delivery mechanism. Treating a paperback as a cherished object to keep pristine makes no sense.

A hardcover made from quality paper, with a good binding and cover, however, is a whole other matter. Now we’re talking art object and damaging it in any way diminishes it.

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At that point I had no idea there was a raging controversy. Someone said something in a tweet; someone else reacted in a very sane manner; end of story, right? A mere blip of mild passing interest.

But then I read Never Do That to a Book by Anne Fadiman in Slate (dot com). She tells a tale from her youth when a hotel chambermaid left a note for her thirteen-year-old brother:

SIR, YOU MUST NEVER DO THAT TO A BOOK.

The brother had left the book open face down on the nightstand. The maid closed the book and left a bookmark — the aforementioned note.

The subtitle of the article says it all: “Sure, you love books. But is it courtly love or carnal love?”

And that I thought was a neat way to put it. Ms Fadiman writes that the hotel chambermaid had a courtly love of books — a love that seeks to keep the loved pristine and virginal.

This is an attitude many do share. It comes from a time when books were much more valuable in themselves. They cost more to make, they cost more to obtain. Personal libraries were collections of a kind of wealth.

Some books, some libraries, still are, of course, but most books today are just commodities. They are cheaply made and easy to obtain. People frequently just leave behind a John Grisham or Stephen King novel they’ve finished.

Any why not? Of what further use is it? It’s done its job.

The other end of the scale is a carnal love for books — a love that consumes them (and often destroys them or leaves them never again the same).

I have a buddy with a book-loving wife who consumes books. Covers vanish. She doesn’t need to rip them into parts. They fall apart at the spine into nice small novelets that scatter around their house.

Which is a-okay with me. It’s just a funny contrast. I can tell which paperbacks I’ve loaned out because those have noticeable spine creases.

I apparently have the ability to read a paperback without marring the spine at all. They look like new when I’m done. I’ve been asked if I open the book only slightly and peer down into the crack. No, as far as I can tell I read them normally.

Maybe, as a guy who has worked with his hands most of his life, I just have a good touch? I never strip screws I’m tightening, either.

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I was raised by book lovers who instilled a high regard for books in me. And I took to them like the proverbial duck to orange sauce. I trace a great deal of who I am to the many books I’ve met.

At the same time, I was never given an unbending reverence for books, either. My dad’s habit was to write his name (actually he used a rubber stamp) on page 151. (Or page 51 if the book was really short.)

That way, if it was lost and found, he could prove it was his book. (Back then books were expensive, and we didn’t have much money.)

From an early age, I wrote my name on page 151 in books I bought. And I was never afraid to highlight a particularly important passage. (Again, I learned from my dad. His copies of Shakespeare plays had lots of underlining and margin notes.)

So I guess I’m somewhere in between carnal and courtly. I don’t consume books, but I don’t treat them as pristine virgins, either.

It’s getting to be a bit of a moot point, anyway, with electronic books (which I’m totally sold on when it comes to content-only books). I love the ability to highlight text, bookmark pages, and easily look up words.

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Bottom line, total trivial tempest in a teacup. But it is interesting in how it rings psychological bells for some people. The outrage of harming a book!

There is something nice about physical books, though. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but there seems more physical ceremony.

That’s one reason vinyl records remain popular with some. There is a physical ceremony involved in getting out a record, setting it up, and playing it.

Stay carnal, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “How Do You Love Books?

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’m the same way. I’ve never been particularly hard on books, but I’ve also never been shy about folding pages or worried that much about their condition. A friend who used to borrow my books expressed horror at all the page creases he found in them. Wanton destruction of a book doesn’t bother me, at least as long as it isn’t one of mine.

    But since virtually all of my reading these days is electronic, it’s rarely an issue anymore.

    The outrage people feel about books being torn up or whatever makes me wonder what’s going on at a psychological level. Are they unconsciously attributing feelings to the book? (I don’t mean this in any kind of belittling manner. I actually tend to do the same thing with anything I’ve owned for a long time.) If not, then what’s behind the outrage?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, ebooks really emphasize the content, and I love them for most purposes. I will say Apple had Randall Monroe’s What If? on sale for $2.99, so I snapped it up. I bought the hardcover for a friend for Christmas, so I’ve seen both to compare. And, in that case, the physical book was a bit nicer, due to the diagrams and special formatting. (OTOH, the footnotes popup when you touch them in the ebook version.)

      “If not, then what’s behind the outrage?”

      I suspect some of it goes back to when books were really valuable. Before Gutenberg, books were hand-written and very often works of art. I think some people still have that sense of books in general and see defacing them as defacing a work of art.

      It may be that, in more modern times, for many books really meant borrowed books — library books. Certainly library books were a huge part of my early exposure. There’s an ethic about doing no harm when it comes to other people’s property.

      There is also that some have a reverence for the written word and authors. They may see damaging the book a damaging the author or the author’s words.

      I get it because I sort of have that reverence (or had it more in the past). Over time I found myself more and more willing to have my way with non-art books, although I can’t imagine cutting them into parts. For one thing, it seems like it would make one edge of the spine kind of gnarly and uncomfortable to hold. Sharp ragged edge doesn’t seem like something I’d want to hold.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Some ebooks also are a lot better if you have a large color display. One of the reasons I don’t use the hardware Kindles is that I find reading on an iOS device more flexible. This is particularly true for the eTextbook ones. Of course, you have to be willing to spend money on multiple devices.

        My big issue with cutting a book into parts would be that it becomes useless if I ever want to re-read it, or just go back and check particular passages. Granted, that doesn’t happen with most books. (And it happens a lot less overall as I get older.) But I still don’t like eliminating the option for what seems, at most, a very minor convenience.

        I spent a fair amount of time myself reading library books, although most of the ones in our local libraries back then were pretty old (from the 50s, and this was us in the lates 70s, early 80s). My family eventually discovered used paperback stores and a huge number of books in my collection come from those times.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I had enough exposure to early PDA devices that were specialized (one was an electronic address book — pretty much all it did), that I was very leery of buying anyone’s hardware reader. By the time those came out, I was well aware of what a small laptop could do.

        I agree the whole thing is a tempest in a teacup. Going back and re-reading passages is definitely something I do, and it’s been mentioned that referring to footnotes at the end of the book can also be a problem. Not to mention you end up keeping your book in a baggie.

        So, meh, whatever. Dealer’s choice.

        But I am fascinated by how much other people get upset about the “destruction” (or “murder”) of a book they don’t own. And which, as far as I know, don’t qualify as works of art — not the physical book, anyway. I do get the thinking behind it, but it seems (from my perspective now) something that self-awareness and sensibility should grow you out of. A evolved mind shouldn’t feel that deep emotional pang over a book (IMO), so ultimately I see it as the product of immature thinking.

        I have a deep attachment to libraries (and a few librarians 😀 ). My first girlfriend in high school was studying to be a librarian, and I was a assistant school librarian in Jr. High. I’ve always loved libraries!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “and it’s been mentioned that referring to footnotes at the end of the book can also be a problem.”

        It’s much better today than it used to be, but it can still be awkward. They need to give us the equivalent of holding your place with your finger while you turn to the footnotes, index, or whatever. They do have some things to help with it, but it’s very easy to make the wrong moves and lose your place. (Of course, it’s also very easy to let your finger slip out and lose your place in a physical book too, so we have to compare apples to apples.)

        “of a book they don’t own.”

        That’s the thing. I might get upset if someone did that to one of my books, but one of theirs? At most I might have the slightest twinge of discomfort (maybe). People who get upset with the actions of other people that aren’t harming anyone else or anyone else’s property, really need to learn to let others be.

        I spent a lot of time in my school libraries growing up, but even back then the juiciest material came from book stores. Amazon has killed my book store habit, which I sometimes miss. (Although I don’t miss the limited options.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “They need to give us the equivalent of holding your place with your finger while you turn to the footnotes, index, or whatever.”

        I meant in a ripped book, if you’re reading the first part, you have no access to the end notes, unless you rip those out and bring them. And, ironically, I find that sometimes by the time I’ve read half the book, I either have gotten tired of turning to the end notes (despite having a bookmark, dogear, or tape flag to make it as easy as possible), and/or I’m familiar enough with the story I don’t seem to need the end notes as much, so even a mild PITA factor is enough that I don’t do it as much.

        (My canonical example of that was reading A Clockwork Orange. Burgess provided a dictionary explaining all the neo-terms, but constantly looking them up really broke the reading flow. At some point I gave it up and just tried to pick up meaning from context, which was generally possible and made reading much better. And, also, at some point, you’ve learned enough terms to get by.)

        The flip side of this would be not being able to access the map, usally at the front, when reading the second part. 😀

        I don’t have much experience with Kindle books, just Apple ebooks, and most of them have links for the footnotes and then either a “Resume” link or the footnote itself links back to its source. A few ebooks (I think Monroe’s What If? is like this) have pop-up windows of some kind when you click a footnote. Going back to the text is just dismissing the pop-up.

        I have to say, Apple ebooks make it fairly hard to lose your place, although it is possible if you jump around enough. There’s that “Resume” link that shows up once you leave your spot, and you really have to convince the underlying reading algorithm that you really have change to a new spot.

        I think what resets it is going back and reading more than one page. I think once you start turning pages it figures you’re reading there now. Comparing apples to apples,… I guess I’d say it’s still harder to lose my place in a physical book, but that’s from the perspective of a very experienced reader. Even if your finger slips, there’s often just enough lack of resistance to being opened at that spot left to find your place or close enough. Somehow scanning physical pages for the exact spot seems easier than with an ebook. But that might be all those years of experience, too.

        “Amazon has killed my book store habit, which I sometimes miss.”

        I was reflecting the other day how long it’s been since I’ve been in a bookstore. Used to be a weekly habit.

        I’m not sure I do miss it, though. As you said, limited options, and most stores increasingly oriented towards popular books people actually bought. That was always slim pickings for me.

        The sad one for me is Uncle Hugo’s, a local used SF bookstore. (The share space with Uncle Edgar’s, a used mystery bookstore.) Both Hugo’s and Edgar’s helped me complete series collections, and I sold them some of my books, too. (I’ll probably leave my library, what remains of it, to them in my will.) They are still around — at least their website is active — and I keep meaning to drop by for old-time’s sake, but it’s across town and not in a great section of town. So it goes.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “I don’t have much experience with Kindle books, just Apple ebooks, and most of them have links for the footnotes and then either a “Resume” link or the footnote itself links back to its source. ”

        It used to be a very annoying issue with Kindle books, but most of the functionality you describe is there now. There are still issues in some books, but it mostly comes from the way the publisher chooses to format and organize the citations rather than any limit of the technology.

        “The sad one for me is Uncle Hugo’s, a local used SF bookstore. ”

        You made me do a web search for the old used bookstore we used to frequent. It looks like it was still around in 2008, but appears to have disappeared since then. I’m sad about that, but given I hadn’t been in decades, I have no real right to be. (And that area of town has also deteriorated a lot over the years.)

        I’m nostalgic for the browsing and discovery that used to happen there. But it was in relation to the alternatives in those days. I’m pretty sure if I went to the equivalent today, I’d be pretty underwhelmed.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…rather than any limit of the technology.”

        The same is true in Apple ebooks. In fact, there seems a spectrum of quality. It’s especially noticeable with some free books versus ones with a price tag.

        The Dashiell Hammett collection I bought (but which wasn’t pricey) had no blank pages between stories, and no extra vertical whitespace between paragraphs (which you don’t notice that much until it’s not there).

        But still. A pocket library. Pretty amazing. 🙂

        “I’m nostalgic for the browsing and discovery…”

        That’s the thing about libraries and bookstores — that wandering around checking stuff out.

        Online searching is fine if you have a target, but it’s hard to replace that element of surprise without some sort of varied place you can wander around. Stuff no algorithm would come up with because it wouldn’t be something you’d ever expressed any interest in before.

        Hmmm. I wonder. Are there already places online that could simulate the experience of wandering through the stacks? Or would there be a market for it? VR would make it pretty cool, and I’ve seen VR libraries in movies.

        Both YouTube and Wikipedia, if you wander off your own beaten path, can introduce you to new things. The aviation things I’m exploring these days came from some incidental views of in-the-cockpit videos.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        A very long time ago (decades), Amazon sent me a survey. The only answer where I provided a written response was exactly what you said, that the experience of simply browsing was lacking on their site. I always wondered why they didn’t just create a bookstore-like browsing collection, but I suppose that would have stifled their primary advantage, particularly in the early days when they were trying to woo book customers frustrated with not finding what they wanted at the local store.

        I haven’t had great luck with Youtube’s recommendations. They do sometimes throw up something interesting, but most of what I get are the stupid, inane, or inflamed versions of whatever I’ve been watching lately. I watch an interview of Dan Dennett, and get a bunch of out of body or new age woo. I watch a talk on the civil war, and get videos about how the south will rise again someday. Watch a few minutes of Joe Roegan’s interview of a scientist, and for weeks I have unspeakably asinine Roegan episodes in my face.

        I usually find it best to just head directly to my subscriptions when I bring up Youtube, or search explicitly for what I’m looking for.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That’s pretty much how it is for me most of the time. What I meant about YT and Wiki is that you do have to go looking. With Wiki, it’s “Wiki Walking” — checking out the less relevant links and ending up some place with no connection to where you started.

        As you say, it’s harder with YT. Lots of BS, but every once in a while, they throw up something that’s worth seeing for a change. Most of those are brief sputters, but a rare few lead to something I find worth following. There’s a channel devoted to Japanese fireworks I follow because of that. Also one called Technology Connections that’s been really growing on me. Kind of a goof-ball guy, a serious geek, making videos about various technologies from car tail light, to LED stop lights, to audio recording, and a five-part series about RCA’s video vinyl record attempt. (Which they did pull off, but too late.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually had one of those RCA video vinyl players. They were nice, for the time, with superior picture, although the disks tended to get scratched and lead to skipping and jumping. The format definitely didn’t last long, crowded out between laserdisc and VHS. I threw away the player a few years ago.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Cool! It’s amazing they pulled it off. Part of why it was so long to market is the project was originally a labs and research project, and the researchers were way into future technologies. It was only years later when RCA finally took the project away from the lab and gave it to a more production-oriented group — who used tried and true technologies from the vinyl record industry — that the product finally worked.

        Given your interest in history, you might enjoy his five-part series (or just his channel in general). He really gets into the history of the product’s development. Here’s part one; the other four are on his channel. Depending on how much you’re into the hardware side of technology and its intersection with everyday life, it’s a really good channel. I’ve learned a lot.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Thanks for the link. The next time I have some time, I’ll check out the videos!

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