Monday, August 18, 2008

do you write in books?

Some recent browsing on bibliophagia led me to (among many other things) a curious and disturbing discussion about writing in books. A sub-forum in a forum devoted to ChickLit, it consisted primarily of entries on how horrified posters were about people writing in books. I'm not talking about rare books, or library books, or even books borrowed from friends. I'm talking about people who won't write in their own books. Here's the words of one poster:
I am totally manic. I don't lend out my books. I don't write my name in books, nor do I write little comments in the margins. I don't break the spines. Ever. I won't even buy a book in a bookstore if the binding is the least bit damaged. I don't even highlight my college textbooks. The worst thing though: I refuse to buy "used" college textbooks that are highlighted/dogeared because it irks me so much. I will just pay full price. Sad, isn't it?
That's not so disturbing to me--I'm sympathetic with not wanting to buy a new book with a damaged binding, and I've never been convinced about highlighting as a useful reading strategy. Although how do you know you own a book if you don't write your name in it? And a number of posts confessed to being unable to lend their books out to friends because they were so bothered that they might be returned slightly dinged up. Isn't one of the great functions of books the way that they circulate socially? We bond over shared books, recommend them to each other, give them to one another. One of the great things about social network sites is that they allow you to share your bookshelves with your friends, and to discover new friends through their reading habits. The insistence on pristine books takes them out of our social networks, leaving them uncirculated and lonely on their shelves.

But here's the post that really got me going:
Last night, I looked over and my husband was writing in a library book. An [i]old[/] library book, circa 1880 or so. In pen. He tried to deny it but then sort of copped to it. I was so mad that I actually just left the room and went to sleep on the couch (and cold bitchy silence is not my usual MO with anger, honestly) until he came and apologized. I said that I know it's not actually my business, but that to me it seems like, I don't know, torturing a small animal or something just to see what happens. It's so completely arrogant and self-centered. Grrrr.
Writing in a book is akin to torturing a small animal? Put alongside the other posts in this thread, what comes across is a fetishization of the clean book, an idealization of books that seems to prioritize book form over book content. I of course think there is a great deal to be learned from the material form of a book. But don't the two work hand in hand? What's the value of a pristine book that has never been read? Especially in light of my last post about how readers make sense of their passages through books and about how necessary marking your book is, these posts to the ChickLit forum struck me as describing an impoverished relationship to books--for both their owners and for scholars of book history.

If those posts describe a near-exclusive focus on the form of the book, my husband tells a story that is the opposite. In grad school, one of his professors told a story about reading a Stanley Cavell book. As he was reading, he was finding Cavell more and more infuriating. And as he read further and further, the spine of the book began to crack and the pages began to fall out. Such was his fury that he took to literally discarding the pages as he read them--read a leaf, tear it out, throw it away.

It's a scenario that would probably kill those poor posters. And if those pristine books leave no traces of their readers in them for future scholars, the thrown-away text leaves neither readerly trace nor book. But there's a book that really mattered to its reader!

And in case you're wondering what those posts had to do with bibliophagia, here's the connection:
You're all going to hate me, but I promise, I don't do this any more (much). When I was younger, I used to eat books.

Really. Literally.

My copy of A Little Princess is more than well-loved, it's practically gone. I used to gnaw bits off the corners. It's incredibly annoying to me now. I haven't met anyone else who does that, probably for good reason. Still, as nervous habits go, I guess it's better than smoking. At least I always got my recommended daily allowance of fiber.
Here's to loving books.

(You can read these posts, and others, at the ChickLit Forums. There's much to be said about the term "chick lit" and what exactly it encompasses and what exactly it dismisses, but that's a topic for another blog.)


Anonymous said...

Isn't one of the great functions of books the way that they circulate socially?

Absolutely - I would far rather lend or give books to friends so they can share a text, than have them sit on my shelf forever more.

Great blog by the way (found it via Sharon Howard's latest early modern edition of Carnivalesque).

Pamphilia said...

First off, I love this blog!

Second off, I love the bit about gnawing on "A Little Princess." I'll bite: As a young girl I always used to take books into the bath with me. My own copy of "The Secret Garden" dyed the bathwater green and permanently warped the spine. No bibliophagia, but definitely some water damage (to both bath and book).

Sorry I missed you at the Folger- we have many people & places in common.

Pamphilia said...

PS my favorite writing in books moment occurred when in grad school I checked out a library book that my adviser had written snooty little comments all over in light pencil (including "Achtung!" in the margin near a passage about Hegel). I recognized the handwriting immediately from the same faint scrawling all over on my papers.

Sarah Werner said...

That's an excellent story about your adviser's marginal notes. As an undergrad, I once had a professor lend me his copy of a Toril Moi book (so long ago!), and it was thrilling to see his notes. Now, when I teach "What is an author" I use copies run off from the version I read as an undergraduate, complete with my own scrawlings--I don't always 'fess up to the ownership of those notes at first, although I almost always encourage my students to ignore them. Oh to be confronted with your own undergrad ignorance! It does lead into a nice conversation about the relationships between texts and readers and authors and all the social networks that might be informing those relationships.

I'm glad to hear you like the blog--thanks for coming by!

DrRoy said...

I finally caught up here, once again via Sharon's link: and I find a blog that knows what it is doing (I cast aspersions at myself). If you have a moment, look out 'Early Modern Whale' and search it for Pierre de Loyer, and a post about an early annotator of 'A Treatise of Spectres', 1605, which might be your kind of thing. Do carry on as you have started, won't you.

Sarah Werner said...

I've only recently discovered Early Modern Whale and I've been very much enjoying it, so I'm flattered by your praise! I'll look for your Pierre de Loyer post--thanks for pointing it out.

strangeaslife said...

That bit about eating the books is literally one of *the* funniest things I've heard in my life (like top 20 status). I am a college student and I was in the quiet area of my university library when I was reading this. I had to get up and leave the quiet area in order to not disturb my studying colleagues around me with my out-loud-laughing.

Anyway, great post! I shall subscribe! :D

Andie & Molly said...

I've never understood the point of trying to keep a book like new. I like to read and re-read my books, and I usually eat while I read, so my favorite books are incredibly battered, and I remember most of the major "defacing" moments. For instance, I dropped a slice on pizza in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" just as Ron, Harry, and the twins get to the Burrow.

Hooray for loving books, each in our own personal way.