How Dare You, Dr. Johnson?

Objects have power. Many collect rare books because they see their first editions as symbols: a symbol of the ideas held within the book; or a symbol of a turning point in their own life; or a symbol of the emotions that roiled within them while reading, changing their perspective forever. Coming to work every day in an environment that venerates objects for mostly symbolic reasons, I’ve started to develop strong opinions on the subject. And I’ve come to feel that one’s care for a symbolic object correspondingly symbolizes ones own reverence for the concept symbolized in that object.


What I’m trying to say is this. If you love your books, take care of them.


I’ve previously mentioned my affection for Samuel Johnson, the 18th century writer, critic, and lexicographer. But on this subject I have a bone to pick with Dr. Johnson. My dear harmless drudge Johnson notoriously mistreated his books. As the son of a bookseller, not the mention probably the most important literary critic of the 18th century, he should have known better.


Johnson's Dictionary, 1755. One of the great monuments of English.
Johnson’s Dictionary, 1755. One of the great monuments of English.


I first came across a reference to Johnson’s treatment of books in the delightful Book of William (subtitle: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World). Readers, are you sweating that I mentioned terrible treatment of books in the same paragraph as a First Folio? Your worries are well founded.


The author, Paul Collins, received the dubious privilege of handling Johnson’s copy of the First Folio. Collins asserts, without hesitation and with plenty of, er, evidence, that Johnson frequently ate while reading his First Folio. Evidence includes: greasy fingerprints, a dark ring made by a tea saucer, and an “unidentifiable smear across the second act of A Merchant of Venice.” He ends the description as follows…


(Wait…Give me a second while I dry heave thinking of what I’m about to write…)


“I’m pretty sure that Samuel had a taste for gravy.”




Did I mention this was a First Folio of Shakespeare? You know, the first edition of his collected works ever printed, without which we would have lost Macbeth, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, and fourteen other plays previously unpublished? For those unmoved by the idea of this unquantifiable loss, let me put it quantifiably: a First Folio will in many cases be worth millions of dollars.


Samuel Johnson, treating books badly even while sitting for a portrait.
Samuel Johnson, treating books badly even while sitting for a portrait.


Johnson’s friends were naturally rather disinclined to loan their books to him. The famous actor/playwright David Garrick relates how he hesitated a moment before handing over his copy of Petrarca to Johnson. Once the book was safely transferred to our harmless drudge’s hands, Johnson threw the book up and out behind him to fall forgotten onto the floor. Not even his own book! Who throws a book? (Except metaphorically?)


David Garrick as Richard III. Also, how I feel about Johnson throwing someone else's book across a room.
David Garrick as Richard III. Also, how I feel about Johnson throwing someone else’s book across a room.


Johnson saw this concept a bit differently from me, as you might have guessed. For him books were valuable for what was written in them. Not that I disagree with him there. The problem lies in his belief that such was the only reason books were valuable. He took on the aggressive (dare I say “Johnsonian?”) stance that a scholar should care nothing for the book as a physical object—that was for the book collectors. He once sent a beautiful volume to Mrs. Thrale with the note mentioning it was “too fine for a Scholar’s talons.”


But I think he’s wrong in not allowing any value to reside in the physical object of a book, from a collecting perspective or not. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that 250 years separates him from a rebuttal and stick with my answer: it is wrong to handle a book poorly if you value its contents. Because how you treat the vehicle communicating its contents (i.e. the book itself) is a reflection of how you respect the preservation of those contents.


In closing, for all two of you who read this and don’t actually like books, I feel obligated to add: even if you don’t love your books, you should take care of them anyway. It’s history, people! Not to mention if only your mother/grandmother had not scribbled all over her first edition of Curious George (1941), you’d be possibly $40,000 richer. Think of your children!



24 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    Just think of all the dust covers that were thrown away that are worth so much today. My Mom sent me a few that she had tucked away when she had taken them off of new books 40 years ago. They are now back on their books :-).

  2. Harry Breen says:

    I’m ashamed to say when I was a young boy and given a book, I used to throw away the dust jackets.

    1. Many people did, Harry. And still do. That’s one of my reasons for writing this blog–to get word out so that we can pass our history down less damaged.

  3. Harry Breen says:

    jacket (sigular)

  4. I find this fascinating… Over the years, both as a collector and a bookseller, I have noticed a tendency for more ‘literary’ authors to turn their noses up and sometimes actively disparage the collecting impulse. Genre authors, on the other hand, (Mystery, SciFi, Horror) seem to embrace the collecting impulse, taking delight as their books go up in value and even becoming active book collectors of other authors. I’ve often wondered if the more literary authors are betraying a level of insecurity about the importance of their written words in a ‘the author doth protest too much’ kind of way. Not enough data to reach any conclusions, but I’ve seen it enough to at least consider it plausible.

    1. It’s an interesting topic, for sure. I don’t know if the concept of disparaging the collecting impulse is driven by insecurity or perhaps an even less noble impulse such as snobbery, but it seems a little silly to me. Appreciating a book as an object does not automatically mean one appreciates it completely separate from its contents, as some non-collectors like to argue. Slippery slope fallacy, anyone?

  5. Michael says:

    I never lend out my books anymore. When I first started collecting a friend kept bugging me to lend him a book. I finally relented since it was a paperback. I told him please return it to me when you finish with it because I have not read it. For the next two years I repeatedly asked him for the book back. He finally said, “Oh I lost it.” I have never lent out another book (and people will ask me to all the time) especially now that my collection has become much more valuable. When people ask why I tell them that to me they are not simply books that contain words and ideas but “works of art”. They might not be hanging on a wall but they adorn the bookcases that decorate my apartment. As collectors it is now our responsibility (or burden) to teach others (especially the younger generation to treasure their books). I have the misfortune of having a mom that loved to read to her children but did not think it necessary to keep the books. She did the same with my baseball cards–but that’s a story for a different day. I just got the urge to go dust my books. Have a nice day!

  6. Mike Cox says:

    Ok, Ok, I don’t mean to play Devil’s Advocate, but don’t you sometimes yearn for a lay on the couch and eat Cheetos book that you can just love and abuse as you read. After all, don’t you always hurt the ones you love? Think of them as little orange badges of affection. Don’t ya think?

      1. Mike Cox says:

        Whatever! Everyone loves Cheetos. That is how they are engineered, cloned, or whatever voodoo they do to create them.

        On a more serious note:

        It seems that in most of the posts that I have been reading, you talk about old or rare books. Obviously the rarer the book, the more valuable (for the most part). What about more contemporary or regional fare? For example, I have an early addition “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone” (not Sorcerer’s Stone) that I picked up while traveling on the other side of the pond (England of course). Should I save the dust cover or break open the Cheetos? Thanks,
        Mike C.

  7. Flo me la says:

    I even have a hard time writing or underlining things in my course literature, because I feel instinctively it’s wrong to tamper with a book like that. So I’m totally with you on this one!

  8. William says:

    I’m afraid I must disagree with the spirit of your diatribe. I trust that I am improving library books when I add corrections (in ink!). I hope that future readers notice my name on an inside cover and pause a moment to imagine the conversation we could have about the book. Naturally I include a few brief remarks on the pages. The occasional coffee ring just tells me where some past sojourner paused to reconsider an important passage. I hope my children rub their grubby fingers all over their books. (But they had better not crack the spines — I hate that.)

    1. William, thank you for your comment.

      First, note that I said nothing about marginalia.

      I also find it sad sometimes to see an important children’s book that is completely pristine, because it’s strong evidence that the book may not have been enjoyed as it deserved to be.

      You appreciate provenance (thus indicators of provenance) and I don’t disagree with that. You also have a problem with treating books improperly, as evidenced by your parenthetical. I think our opinions are not as divergent as you suggest!

  9. I found your blog when I came across this post on Samuel Johnson. I love everything about him…except his tendency to mistreat books. I collect books so it kills me to visualize Johnson smacking on a slab of beef with gravy while he is reading the First Folio! I love how you wrote about my man Sam though; it’s sad when I meet people who have vaguely heard of him, if at all! I will be sure to read upcoming posts you write.

    P.S. – I love the show and the Bauman Rare Books you manage is very beautiful, I’m jealous!

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I’ve written about Johnson before (and will again), as he’s a favorite of mine. Did you see these?

      1. I just read them and they are very fascinating! Regarding “The Best Literary Joke I Know” post, I know from the first edition (1755) of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language Johnson defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people”, but I as well do not know the source for the joke. Can’t wait for more posts!

        1. I forgot to add I love James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson LLD!

        2. Yes, I am aware of the oats definition, and I have to wonder if the joke was made up from that. A little bit of literary better-joke-after-the-fact.

  10. Eli says:

    I found your very interesting blog while investigating whether the experts on Pawn Stars (which I’ve been watching a bit too much lately) are real. Reading this post answers my question. I like your comments about books as objects of power and the veneration of objects, including books. Indeed, writings and inscriptions on all sorts of media have been symbols of power since antiquity. For the past 20 years or so I have worked mostly with Chinese books, many of which are ancient and we access them mainly through later reproductions. There simply are no first editions, except those discovered in tombs (writing on silk, bamboo, wood, before there was paper), but even those are mostly copies of copies of copies, and there are also plenty of texts inscribed on stone and other surfaces. The earliest writing in China were divinations inscribed on turtle shells and animal scapula, and were not so much communications between humans and other humans, but between living humans (royal ones) and their ancestors (and other divine powers). The king and his clan (long before there was an emperor) had a monopoly on this communication, so these divine objects were clearly symbols of power on multiple levels. Of course, they would throw these bones and shells into the fire and would then interpret the cracks that appeared, so one might ask if they were really taking good care of the objects themselves, as an antique bookseller would. In somewhat later ages, there is writing about all sorts of revealed objects, including books and charts of mythical creatures and divine people, that manifested as evidence of the ruler truly recognized by Heaven (think: Mandate of Heaven), but could also be wielded by challengers to the throne, kind of like King Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. There’s a whole lore throughout Chinese history about this stuff. Pretty cool! I have also worked with handwritten liturgical Chinese manuscripts from minority villages in the mountains of South China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, the oldest of which are about a few hundred years old, but are still copied by hand to this day by practitioners of the ritual embodied in them, and are clearly copies of even older documents. There are even collections of these in some libraries in Europe and North America. All this is to say that the history of writing, books, and other symbolic objects, at least in China (but other places as well), had to do with power and prestige, but also with divine power, going way way back. Now, time to watch Pawn Starts.

    1. Eli, I have not worked too much with Chinese books though I do have some basic familiarity with them. Always appreciate input, so comment and add to my posts any time!

  11. Hester Sturrock says:

    Being the daughter and great-niece of the Librarians in my family, I do take care of my books. But I can understand Dr. Johnson’s trend to disregard books but my problem is slightly different. We all have our faults. My big problem with Libraries is that I either misplace the book or forget to return it on time and thus accrue fines. I view this aspect of my nature as a direct link to my relationship with my Mother, the Librarian. Hester from Atlanta

    1. Hester, I am kind of bad about getting books back in time to libraries, too. But I look at the fines kind of as donations to a system I want to support, so it doesn’t bother me much.

  12. isweeney says:

    While I love books, I also love reading them actively. I’m an English professor (Richard Bland College in Petersburg, Va.) and I encourage students to read actively, with notes in the margins and underlines and …. I do this too. Luckily, we’re mostly reading anthologized books, but still, can we read as actively without writing in the book? Probably, but it takes more organization than I have.

    1. Thanks for the input. Again, I said nothing in this post about marginalia! (Though I’d prefer you use pencil 🙂 )

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