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Ruined Book
Credit: Spike Mafford/Photodisc/Getty Images

In his New York Times column, Geoff Dyer writes not about a book’s effect on the reader, but the reader’s effect on the book, the actual physical object. He recounts the experience of finishing a particularly challenging work, Why the Allies Won, and the toll his studious read had on the binding and pages of the book. In his assessment, a battered book is the sign of a worthwhile intellectual pursuit: “… those creases became the external embodiment of the furrow-browed effort that reading it required.” Dyer even admits that the experience of reading the book literally drew blood, but not from paper cuts: ” … I can’t seem to read without picking my nose — hence the blood stains.” Gross, Geoff! Seriously!

Dyer’s admissions led me to think of how I treat my books. Even though the rest of my apartment might be cluttered, I’m pretty anal when it comes to the care of my books. People talk about the satisfaction of breaking the binding of a paperback, but I take pains to avoid doing so, only opening my paperbacks 60 degrees even as I read them. Sometimes the upkeep of my books costs me quite a bit of money — when there’s a book I absolutely have to annotate, either for professional or personal purposes, I might go out and buy a pristine “display copy” to keep on my shelf while going to town on the messy copy. (I have three copies of A Visit From the Goon Squad: an early galley copy with my notes, the hardcover, and a clean paperback). A couple of years ago, when I went to collect some books my mother cleaned out of my childhood bedroom, I noticed my Harry Potter hardcovers were without book jackets. I always undress my hardcovers before reading them and keep the covers in a drawer, but my mother had thrown them away. This caused me disproportionate distress, even at the age of 22, and since I couldn’t find a way to buy just the jackets, I went out and bought an entirely new set of books.

The same level of care, however, doesn’t apply to books I don’t particularly care for. When I see a mosquito on the ceiling or a far wall, I’ll launch at it my copy of Geology Underfoot in Illinois, which Amazon Marketplace mistakenly sent me instead of Nervous Conditions. In sixth grade, I couldn’t stand The Hobbit (though I loved The Lord of the Rings) — half of that book consisted of listing the order in which all those dwarves did things, like getting on a raft or exiting a cave — so I doodled an epic flipbook along the bottom corners of the book that my Language Arts classmates begged me to show them several times a day.

More recently, I had trouble finishing The Brothers Karamozov (not because I didn’t love it, I just had a lot of distractions), and I ended up taking it with me everywhere. By the time I was done, that book was pretty abused: I’d dropped it in the bathtub, spilled salsa on it, and used it to scrub frost off a windshield. But like Mr. Dyer, I saw the beaten up copy as a badge of honor. It hasn’t found its way to my shelf of beautifully preserved tomes, but to a more special spot, my window sill devoted to the battered books I’d slogged my way through.

So Shelf Lifers, tell us: What do you do to take care of — or abuse — your books?

Follow Stephan on Twitter: @stepephan

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