The Unimportance Of Books

The Unimportance Of Books

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.

12047432_10206945036297350_1420203271_nAnd my copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, annotated by my sister when she studied it and then by me a few years later (with creepily similar handwriting), would no doubt send them into fits of misery.

12026396_10206945037297375_2091616032_nLet’s not mention my less-than-scholarly notes in the margins of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

12053223_10206945037457379_429027611_nAnd I suppose the fact that my Aeneid was held together by duct tape with the title written on with Tippex doesn’t bear thinking about.

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.)

Occasionally I was nicer, usually about his verb choices.
Occasionally I was nicer, usually about his verb choices.

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.


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.

19 thoughts on “The Unimportance Of Books

  1. I try to remind myself of this all the time. The other day I realised that I was contemplating going to the library to get a book I own because I didn’t want to break the spine. I do tend to be precious about books, but hey! They are there to be read not to wither on my shelves and feature in occasional blog photography. Thanks for this post. I love books and i love owning books, but reading is better than having, you know. I should love my books. I know exactly what you mean (but that app sounds terrible, by the way)

    1. Does it sound terrible? I dunno. It’s all legit and publishers have signed up to it (hence many books are ineligible because those publishers haven’t signed up) so it’s not like it’s losing the authors any money or anything.

      If a book is new and shiny when I get it, I try and keep it that way as long as possible. Since I buy most of my books secondhand, this is rarely an issue.

  2. If you treat the vessel as trivial, it tends to make the contents seem less worthy of value. For example, people are easy enough to make more or, and most of them will have much the same thoughts as the people around them.

    1. People are pretty different to books, though. Like, take computers. If my computer broke right now I’d be upset, because I can’t really afford to replace it, but it wouldn’t matter too much in the long run. If my harddrive was wiped and all my photos, videos, and writing were gone… that’d be entirely different. The computer shell itself doesn’t mean much; it’s the information it stores that does.

      Anyway, people might have the same thoughts as others but no two people have the same memories and experiences and the factors that go into making us who we are don’t necessarily relate to our bodies at all (though that can contribute).

      1. So, we should only care about things where they impact on memories and experiences?

        For example, is taking photographs of people with a long lens on daily basis fine as long as no one else finds out? If they don’t know, it doesn’t affect their experience or memory.

        My response would be it isn’t fine as it affects how the viewer perceives the person.

        My argument isn’t that people aren’t special; my argument is that the containers of information are. Just as objectifying a person can change the observer’s opinion of their value, even if the observed never knows it happened, so viewing the container as trivial risks devaluing the contents.

        And, while I try to see people for their uniqueness, history is full of ignoring the perspectives humans can provide on the basis of their appearance. If humans can devalue their own kind, the set for which we are most programmed to have empathy, then how much more likely are we to undergo a negative shift for books, a set greatly dissimilar to our own.

        1. I dunno, I think you’re reading a lot more into this than I intended. I think people focus too much on the paper of books and not on the content. I’m not suggesting wilful destruction of them just for the hell of it, I’m just saying people need to lighten up and recognise what’s really important. You seem to be making this into something deep and philosophical when it really isn’t.

          1. Ah, but – like almost everything – it is deep philosophy.

            It is a version of the fundamental question, should our rules start from the question ‘why do it?’ or the question ‘why not do it?’

            Asking the question why damage a book? produces a different set of answers from why not damage a book?

            Both allow necessary damage or damage that produces more benefit than loss, and restrict wilful damage for no reason; however, they have very different perspectives on casual endangerment.

            And training ourselves to be more aware of the negative impact of our actions is one of the paths to better citizenship.

          2. There’s the key word, though — damage. Is it damage? My duct-taped Aeneid is damaged. My annotated Hamlet isn’t it. It’s just annotated. Everything that makes it Hamlet and that particular edition of Hamlet is still there. And in the scenario I was referencing in the post, I’d hardly say writing one’s name on the copyright page is “defacing a book”.

            Yeah, it’s a personal thing. But I guess what I was trying to say is that just because someone doesn’t like writing in their own books, it doesn’t mean somebody else who does so doesn’t respect books or wants to ‘deface’ them. It just means they have a different approach to what defines the book’s value. Totally cool if people don’t want to write in their books but also totally cool for people to do it as well.

  3. This is true. Still, sometimes when I get new books, I get fussy about breaking their spines or something. So for that reason I generally prefer second hand books, because I have less qualms about actually using them. (I’m the same way with notebooks and sketchbooks, too–for some reason I seem to write/draw better in them if they’re “cheap” or once I actually take a deep breath and just start using them. Who knows.)

    But it’s true. Books matter because of what’s in them, not because of what they look like. A book can have the ugliest cover in the world and still be a treasure. It can be an ebook and still be a treasure (although I will say I do like holding an actual book in my hands). So, thanks for the reminder.

    1. Yeah, no, I totally understand why someone would be reluctant to deliberately mess up a nice book. If a book is nice and clean and new, I do my best to keep it that way, but that wouldn’t stop me writing my name in them. And I agree, it’s easier to write in cheap notebooks than fancy ones. I’ve loosened up a lot, though. Studying English at GCSE and A-Level helped me get past any qualms about annotating.

  4. Ah, I think this is totally preference though, and has a different side for ANY sort of collection. Like I would be totally “it’s just a car” and I barely ever wash the car and pretty much don’t care except to use it for usefulness. And some people have like car collections and they totally polish them all the time and wouldn’t let a scratch happen to them. I feel that’s the same with any collection ever. It depends on YOU and what you’re doing with your collection. Like I really really like my books as BOOKS. Maybe they’re just books, but gawsh, sometimes I like looking at the book more than reading it. >_< I REALLY LIKE BOOKS AS OBJECTS AS WELL AS STORIES. *nods* I want mine to look nice. And I never write in them. So yeah, I absolutely know what you mean…because they are JUST BOOKS. But it depends on what they mean to you as a whole. *nods*
    Either way we shouldn’t be scoffed at for writing in them or for not ever writing in them, right?!? Personal preference FTW. XD

    1. I guess if you want your books as a collection… But I don’t know?? It’s still about the contents, and it’s not like anyone would notice if you wrote your name on the copyright page. It wouldn’t mar the book at all. How often do you even look at that page?

      I have books that I keep neat and I like how they look on the shelves but I also buy 90% of my books secondhand so there’s little point treating them like glass when they’re already battered.

  5. Seeing your comment reminded me that I’d written up a thought on this post of your ages ago (I save them as email drafts when I’m not on my home computer). Anyway, here are my longer-than-remembered thoughts on writing in books.

    My dad was a librarian. So while I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of your argument, I was definitely taught that writing in books is a great big no, no. I have an aversion to it to this day.

    We grew up on library books, so I imagine that was the main reason we were taught this, but in my home, all books were sacred. You do not dog-ear pages. You do not write on books. You do not mistreat books or put large things into books that might hurt the spine. You respect books so you and others can enjoy them over and over again.

    When I had to start writing in my books for college, it was actually really hard for me to do. I still cringe when I see where the corner of a book’s been bent down. All told, I like it when people can write in books, but as a buyer of used books and an avid library user, I think I can see at least a little bit of the argument from the other end. I think it comes from the idea that the book isn’t just for you, it’s for everyone – that’s a more charitable view of it anyway.

    That said, if you want to lay claim to your books and that helps you enjoy them more (and you’re adult enough to know which books it’s okay to write in – something my parents probably were worried about when we were little) then I do like your argument. I just . . . I can’t bring myself to write in my books. I shudder at the very thought.

    1. After a summer working at the library, and having read huge numbers of library books throughout my life, you’d think that would make me feel the same way. But nah. I guess I distinguish clearly between books-I-can-destroy and books-I-must-keep-nice. Library books and nice editions of books are the latter; scrappy paperbacks and books I’m studying are the former. Often the reason I buy things I loved when I read them from the library is so I can annotate them.

  6. Actually, I was just revising to see if you’d replied to my comment (as you sometimes do) and I noticed that two of the books you’d studied are American books. That actually surprises me a bit (in an it-made-me-smile sort of way).

    Now, I went to a very rural and not terribly sophisticated high school, so the only reason I’ve read the two American books you named above is b/c my mom highly encouraged me to read and gave me lists of books she’d like me to read. But our school was actually super focused on the really old English classics, so it makes me happy that we do have some American culture making its way out of the States that isn’t just in movie form – not that either of these books paints our culture in the best of lights … but, hell, I’ll take it.

    1. We studied a fair amount of American literature throughout my time at school. The Crucible, To Kill A Mockingbird, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, The Great Gatsby. They’ve changed the syllabus now, though (it’s caused plenty of outrage), so most of those books probably aren’t on their anymore. Several of those I studied while I had a teacher who was sort of American (dual citizenship) and she was very keen to teach them.

      Also, meant to reply to your other comment sooner, but have been sort of disorganised lately.

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