One day, when I was 13, I burst out of my bedroom like a boy possessed and made for my sister’s room like a whippet. A terrible, cataclysmic thing had happened: I’d just discovered, to my horror, that my copy of the book Alien, an object I cherished beyond words, was not where I had left it. Tears streamed down my face, voices were raised, the world teetered on the brink of collapse. After unleashing my wrath on my older sister I withdrew to my room, mopped up my tears and spent a distraught half hour beside the window closely examining the book for any signs of dirt, scuffs, scratches, incongruous smells, and most importantly trying to assess the angle at which the book had been opened and the extent to which the spine had been subjected to unnecessary and wanton stress or, disaster of disasters, any creasing of the book’s divinely smooth, innocent spine. And although no damage had been done I did feel that even this brief, unwelcome trip to the other side of the wall, to this strange zone outside my control, had somehow sullied its pristine condition. It was never quite the same book again.
I was just glad she hadn’t touched my Willard Price books, a source of even greater pride and joy. Nothing could match these stories, in which a blinkered old fool and his two kids travelled the world laying traps for beautiful wild animals, so they could ship them back to America where the animals could die frustrated and matted for the pleasure of simple-minded folk. Such great works of literature should be protected. And I protected them in the way I knew best – by always washing my hands before reading them.
My caring outlook, allied to brutal, uncompromising behaviour should things go awry, is, I’m sure you’ll agree, the only way we can ensure, to the best of our abilities, that all books, whatever their age, will remain as perfect today as they were the day they were printed. True, they are likely to yellow with age. And no longer will they emanate that indescribable new book aroma which arises like a puff of magic as one pokes a nose between the pages. And the price printed on the back will come to appear laughably cheap. But, like a curator charged with the care of a priceless artefact, any damage which could be inflicted by human hand, or by damp, storm or sunlight, will have been kept to an absolute minimum. The world turns, life goes on, things pass away. But through it all the book remains, smooth, square edged, clean – forever in its first flush of youth. You can’t take them with you? Well: I would like to be buried inside a pyramid, surrounded by my books. There must be moderate heating, dehumidifying equipment and a reliable power supply. To my left will be placed Kapuscinski and Chekhov, on the right Lermontov, Rilke and Musil. And all about an array of other authors revealing both in that dim tomb and here in this blog post, my eclectic, intelligent reading, proudly devoid of modern realist, socially aware, artistic pretence.
Salt in a wound
I am, in fact, no longer quite so precious about books. As a young adult, I survived, almost sane, the return of a book from a friend who had been caught in torrential rain all the way from London to Fishguard on a Vespa. I would never have thought it was possible for a copy of Beyond Good and Evil to become quite so warped… or for its page edges to fur up so much that it resembled a frightened cat. I could not have achieved this state of damage if I’d tried. It was beyond help. But I put it down to experience and moved on. The facial twitches went after two months and life-long IBS is a price worth paying so that others can – very occasionally – enjoy my books.
But am I the only one who winces when, perhaps on a train, or on a bus, you see someone take a brand new book from their bag and settle back in their seat and purposely open it far beyond what is necessary. They try to break its will, to loosen it up, so to speak, so that they do not have to subsequently apply quite as much pressure with their hands and fingers while reading it; or they fold back the front cover with gusto and run a thumb up the bend. To me this is little different to rubbing salt into a wound. And I say wince, but I mean a pronounced and prolonged clenching of the buttocks and teeth, which are only released when one looks away, out of the window, across the fields towards the sewage works.
I am well aware that this says far more about me than it does about those who, in my opinion, abuse books. And let us be clear, it is abuse. I do not think but know that I will never be free of the affliction. But things are better than they were. I no longer have to wash my hands before reading, as I did when a teenager. I open books a good deal wider than the 65 degrees I permitted myself in my youth. And I no longer cover any book in sticky-backed plastic, or consider buying those plastic covers they use on library books. But most of my books still look fairly new, through no conscious effort on my part. But it is something I cannot help. So be gentle with me as I am gentle with books.
I still have my copy of Alien. I came across it the other day. I weighed it up in my hands. And, as the memories returned, I saw that the edges of the pages were yellowed with age. I opened it with care and immediately heard a sharp crack. It now falls open flat, at a quite shocking 180 degrees. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that in a book I own. It’s a little unnerving.
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