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.
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we would have lost Macbeth, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, and fourteen other plays previously unpublished?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.
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?)
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!