I want to talk about something I don’t understand. Normally this blog is a place for me to expound on the topics I think I do understand, but on this occasion, I’m totally baffled.
I’m baffled by people who are too precious about their books even to write their names in them.
The other day I downloaded an app called Shelfie. The idea is that you take a picture of your bookshelves and it tells you which books are eligible for you to download a free or discounted ebook. As someone who lives part-time in another city and can’t take all my books with me every time, I thought this seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, I found the app glitchy and unreliable, so I went to the Play Store to see if anyone else was having the same issue.
And I came across some negative reviews that seriously surprised me.
In order to prove to Shelfie that you do own the books you’re claiming (because otherwise, you could just use it in a bookshop and get things for free), you have to take a picture of the copyright page with your name written in capitals at the top of it. I normally write my name on the title page, a little Ex Libris: Miriam Joy in the top right hand corner, but I figured I could be flexible.
But some reviewers took issue with this idea, likening it to ‘defacing’ a book. One said that the makers of the app clearly had no respect for books; someone else said that the only person who should write inside a book is the author.
So I guess they wouldn’t want to see my copy of Hamlet.
Okay, these are books that I studied. Something these people evidently haven’t done — it’s exceedingly hard to study a book without ever writing on it, and after you’ve lost a copy once or twice, you stop thinking of the pages as worth anything whatsoever because it’s just about the quotes that will get you through your exams.
But even so. I write in books. Fiction books — I’ll underline quotes I like, write jokes in the margins, point out errors. Poetry — usually noting down what I think something means, or just putting exclamation marks next to something that particularly stood out. Non-fiction — quite often insulting the authors if I don’t agree with them.
(Guy de la Bedoyere got it bad when I read Roman Britain and disagreed with his opinions on Boudicca. I was… not very polite in the margins.)
Because books in and of themselves aren’t anything special. It’s about what’s inside them.
Don’t get me wrong, I love having paper books and I’ll frequently choose them over the eBook editions, because I think my shelves say more about me to anyone visiting my room than any number of posters or pictures could. I love having books with pretty spines and nice covers. I like keeping new books neat, and I also like watching the books I love show the signs of that affection with creased spines that open to my favourite scenes without being asked.
But they’re just books.
They’re just books.
Books earn their meaning from the marks of owning them. A signature from the author, for example, with your name. Or, the name of your friend who dumped them in a charity shop two years later where you found them. Sometimes that happens. I write my name in my books so that the friends I lend them too, on finding them a couple of years later, remember to give them back. This has happened, you see.
Even so, some of them don’t find their way back to me. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, with all its A-Level English annotations, vanished entirely. A copy of Predator’s Gold disappeared without a trace, leaving me with a non-matching set. These things happen.
But I have absolutely no qualms about writing in books. It would be different if they were priceless manuscripts (though it’s important to remember that back in the day, people who had these manuscripts in their private libraries would often annotate them, sometimes in red ink — you can see examples of this in museums and libraries). These aren’t. The books on my shelves are, for the most part, paperbacks you can get anywhere.
Or, in the case of my particular edition of Predator’s Gold, apparently paperbacks you can’t get anywhere to replace a missing copy and it’s REALLY ANNOYING. But it isn’t valuable because its spine is a different cover to the most common edition. It’s just a book.
Working from 100+-year-old books in the libraries in Cambridge may have decreased any reverence I feel for books that are slightly old, because mostly I just prefer them not to fall apart in my hands. But I have books that were a hundred years old when I bought them, and I still write in the margins.
BECAUSE THEY’RE JUST BOOKS.
Books are, with a few exceptions, fundamentally unimportant. They take on meaning by what’s unique about them, which is usually handwritten — an inscription marking it as a gift, perhaps. Or maybe a flower pressed between the pages. But what’s really important is the stories.
And since writing your name on the copyright page doesn’t even come near to altering that… well, I just don’t understand it. Why do people care so much about the pages and the binding?
(Note: as a librarian I will say please do not scribble all over the margins of library books, but if you own the book? GO MAD. It’s literally one of the main reasons I buy books — particularly poetry — instead of borrowing them. So that I’ve got the freedom to write on them.)
And I’ll finish with this quote from Fahrenheit 451, which I’m sure I’ve shared before, because it’s something people seem to forget in their adoration of paper and glue over the words it contains:
Books were only one type or receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.