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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!