Illustration by Stephen Doyle
There has always been a lot of discussion about the effect that reading books has on us. Far less attention has been paid to the effect that we (the readers) have on them (the books). I don’t mean on the reputations or royalties of the authors who wrote the books but on the actual physical objects themselves.
As a kid I borrowed books from libraries. When I was a student I often bought used books, some with other people’s annotations in pencil. These could be erased, but I occasionally settled for a book with the previous owner’s name and notes in ink. Either way, such tags make us feel as if we are walking in someone else’s footsteps (if the notes have been made with a pen, the footprints are set in concrete). These days, unless I find myself in very unusual circumstances, I’m reluctant to read a book that shows any sign of prior occupancy. Mainly but not exclusively cosmetic, this aversion has proceeded in tandem with an increasing unwillingness to take other people’s readings — their opinions of what they have read — at face value. Back in the 1970s I submitted to the joyless experience of wading through my secondhand Penguin Modern Classics edition of Conrad’s “Nostromo” (the cover shows an image of Zapata by Alfredo Zalce) partly because Walter Allen, according to a quote on the back, considered it “the greatest novel in English of this century” — which makes me glad we’re no longer living in what must have been a truly wretched century for literature if that was as good as it got. Perhaps the desire to read books before they start trailing clouds of reputed glory is what leads people to become publishers or agents.
Personally, I’m content to wait until they have been published — and, ideally, remaindered. I don’t mind the ink blots or lines used to indicate a book’s status as commercial outcast — a widespread though not universal practice — but I always choose a copy with the mark on the bottom of the page rather than the top, so that once shelved the book effectively conceals its unwanted origins. That way I’m not reminded it’s a remainder.
Other than that mark the book should be in near-mint condition when I start reading it, but I am not obsessive about keeping it that way. On the contrary, I like the way it gradually and subtly shows signs of wear and tear, of having been lived in (by me), like a pair of favorite jeans.
It’s time to get specific. I bought a remaindered copy of the British edition of Richard Overy’s “Why the Allies Won” (Pimlico) for £4.95 at Judd Books in London on Dec. 11, 2010 — I always write the date and place of purchase on the flyleaf, in pencil. A large-format paperback, it has a color-manipulated photo of a bloated German corpse on the cover, thereby suggesting that the Allies won because the Axis powers lost. It’s a dense work of analysis, lacking the propulsion we associate with the narrative histories of Antony Beevor or John Keegan, so even when immersed in the book — after a purchase-to-start-it lag of several months — I was unable to concentrate on it for more than an hour at a time. As a result it was lugged around to many places, in various bags, on planes and trains. In the process the corners became curled and the spine wrinkled. Spreading in direct proportion to the amount of the book’s contents that were being loaded into my brain, those creases became the external embodiment of the furrow-browed effort that reading it required. After a while, as these grooves deepened, the book refused to close completely when I laid it down. I love this. In the biblio equivalent of the corner of a bed being turned down, inviting you to get in, it’s as if the book were encouraging you not to abandon it, to keep at it. Which I did. I made notes, put pencil marks by passages that strikingly revised my understanding of the war: “For most of the Second World War Britain and the United States fought a predominantly naval conflict. . . . ” Hmmm. In addition to these annotations a couple of pages are marked by blotches of brown dried blood. George Steiner wrote somewhere that an intellectual is someone who can’t read a book without a pencil in his or her hand. My version of this compulsion is that I can’t seem to read without picking my nose — hence the blood stains.
Eventually, I finished this impressive volume. It went from being a new and unread book to one that was very evidently used and read. I left it lying around for a few days, enjoyed looking at the transformation it had undergone, struck by the mysterious transfusion of knowledge in which this object had played such an important — and historically tried-and-tested — role. The changes wrought upon the book were fairly discreet but, at the risk of projecting my own feelings of satisfaction at having made it to the end, I am tempted to say that it looked fulfilled. Like the youth in “The Red Badge of Courage” (bought Dec. 28, 1987, Cheltenham), it had, after an ignominious beginning (cowardice/remaindering), accomplished its purpose. Together, it and I earned a Read Badge of Shared Achievement.
Finally, I crammed the book into the military history section of my shelves between two other books by Overy — jeez, the guy is prolific! — to flatten it out properly. If I take it down, now it lies quite flat, but unlike the dead German on the cover, it has plenty of life left in it. The creases, the annotations and the appropriate blood stains all imprint it with the fact of my having read it. The difference, of course, is that they are there for keeps whereas my understanding of the book’s contents began fading almost as soon as they were being (temporarily) installed in my head. In the short term this is quite normal. The long term is described by John Updike in his memoir, “Self-Consciousness” (Sept. 16, 1991, Paris): “I own many books full of my annotations, proving that once I read them, though I have no memory of it.” I’ll never be able to explain to you why the Allies won, but at some incommunicable level I promise I know (more than I did six months ago). And besides, the book is ready and able to try again — if you can live with the pencil marks, curled corners and blood spots.
from: NY Times