251 – The Condition

What manner of monster would would do such a thing? I feel quite faint.

This is not a gender division.

I want to make that clear from the off, even if it is a gender division. I don’t want to be one of those guys who says “Have you ever noticed? Women do this while men do this”. In a lot of cases it’s a bunch of arse: it’s self-perpetuating social conditioning, where anyone who eschews a set stereotype is ignored by the masses who’d rather make cheap jokes. I don’t have to be be a radical feminist to say women can do whatever men can and vice versa: in most stations of life (giving birth is kind of a sticking point but golly, we’re working on it) both genders are equally capable of rising to one another’s duties and falling to their foibles.

So this is not a gender division, okay?

Having said that, in a Google+ discussion about whether it was right to break a book’s spine while reading I couldn’t help noticing the women commenting were firmly in favour of spine breakage while the men were largely aghast at the very thought of it.

I’m one of the aghast: I am a ghastly. Books to me are at their best when in pristine condition, straight from the presses. In a perfect world they’d arrive so fresh from the factory it’d be evident they were cut by long knives from sheets of identical brethren; the edge of the book would still be slightly rough where it had been cut, with perhaps a fine layer of paper dust where the knife had been misaligned–not to cause any visible defects but just skewed enough to slice a few more molecules from the book than were strictly needed and produce that chalky new book feel. Pages should be the white of a crisply pressed funeral shirt; corners should present a hazard to unprotected corneae. If you’re not careful while turning pages the best books can and will paper cut your thumb so keenly you don’t notice until the appendage fountains blood minutes later; upon such fountaining you must further risk life and limb scrabbling backwards in an attempt to keep your blood from staining said book.

The book must remain in mint condition at all costs. I’d sooner break my own spine than that of a book.

Those are my beliefs. I doubt the other men in the thread believed in the sanctity of a pristine book with such fervour, but they all believed in it to some degree otherwise they’d have been spine-breakers to a man.

The women, on the other hand, saw books as a method of conveyance: a vehicle for the knowledge that resides within them. A book’s spine can be broken, its pages curled, its corners bent and–though the topic never came up–perhaps even torn without the words ever being damaged. Breaking a book is in the reader’s best interest, they said. Break a book and it becomes easier to lay flatly on your lap or pillow, or just to hold, so you needn’t angle your head like a bird grubbing bugs from tree bark to see the words in its crease.

This is an issue I’ve run into before. My wife enjoys reading books in the bath, which for me would be like assembling fireworks in an iron foundry: one stray spark–or in this case, water droplet–and everything goes up in, well, not flames, but some aspecific elementary disaster would definitely occur. In the fireworks’ case you’d have an impromptu display removing your eyebrows and boiling the eyes underneath them, while in the bath the book would become papier mache in your hands. Damp, warped paper is an abomination unto the book fan’s eyes. Wavering, sodden, corrugated, swollen–it brings to mind neglected Argos catalogues used by a tramp as his toilet. The simple act of reading a book in a damp and steamy atmosphere is akin to taking a foie gras duck to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

My wife doesn’t see the problem with it–perhaps she, too, sees books as conveyance and not VIP passenger–but she’ll humour me, avoiding taking my books into the bathroom entirely or wrapping them in a Ziploc baggy–which only prompts me to wonder just how acidic her shampoo is, and if bathwater bubbling with Burt’s Bees conditioner could theoretically eat through plastic.

“It’s just paper!” comes the counter-argument. “Words are what’s important.”

But that’s not the case, is it? Running loose around a bookstore, so many covers in so many colours. Short spines. Long spines. Books the size of of coffee tables with pop-up illustrations. Every one is special, unique. Why feel giddy around the mock-classic collected works of H.G. Wells,leather-bound and letter-gilted, produced yesterday but looking like antiques and smelling like history–if only the words were important than these stories, read a thousand times over wouldn’t be so exciting, so wonderful, so enticing, so precious.

Like Bane, I’ve broken spines before, but books are not Batmen: they don’t return to full health once the story arc’s complete but lose leaves in a Stephen J. Cannell paper storm of curling, fluttering pages. I’ve tried sticking them back in before but sellotape renders the book even more pitiful–irremovable irons for lame legs–so now I take care not to open the book too widely or suddenly lest more pages become unstuck and the stringy, ghastly inside of the spine is revealed. A book so shattered that once-hidden dark place, now bereft of glue, appears is heartbreaking: it’s a jack-o-lantern, its guts hanging out and reminder that we, too, have fibrous innards easily torn into and easily teased forth. A detached spine looking more like a bookmark than a book is the saddest of all phantoms: skeletal and useless, it’s fit only for the bin, and as it’s thrown away, so too go the words it once bound, the adventures, now ended.

“It’s just paper!” Televisions are just plastic and wires, but you wouldn’t scuff those into a dreadful state if you could help it.

So long as your favourite mug still holds water, you might say, what does it matter if it’s cracked and stained–but you wouldn’t want me juggling with it, would you? Or placing it close to the edge of the table where it might topple and shatter?

“You’ll break it!”

No, I won’t. Look, I’ll catch it long before it hits the ground. I’ll deliberately drop it and every time I do I’ll catch it before it strikes the floor–and though it soon becomes evident I have cat-like reflexes and the mug’s in no danger, still your stomach flip-flops, because you’ve shared some good times, you and that mug, and if anything were to happen to it . . .

“If anything happens to it, I’ll buy you a new one. It’s only a mug!”

It’s bad enough that books degrade over time as it is without you care-nots hastening the process. Crisp edges soften and darken through use. Covers become sun-faded. Even books neglected on the to-read pile metamorphose into shadows of their former selves, deteriorating as soon as they leave the book shop, the factory in which they were born. You need only look at library books to see the grim things that happen to old books. The books still in circulation haven’t been damaged too far, haven’t been used as coasters or for swatting moths, but still they’re changed as if part of their character was removed in some literary soul lobotomy. They smell wrong; they feel wrong. Library books yellow in a wholly unpleasant fashion and–and I’ve never found a reasonable explanation for why this is–they always end up reeking of celery. Even the most carefully looked after of library books has fine black threads nestled between its pages. Is that a spider-leg? A paintbrush bristle? A pubic hair? Unless you have access to a microscope and science lab you might never know what this detritus is, but you can imagine, can’t you? You’re reading a book once held on a pervert’s naked lap, and the reason why it smells like celery is–oh God, what’s he doing with the celery?!

Of course, similar things could be said of anything a fanatic could want kept in mint condition. Even vintage sports cars are meant to be driven, aren’t they? Toys are meant to be played with, not kept in plastic bubbles.

I don’t lend my stuff out to other people, and I’m reluctant to borrow from others in case I leave a stray fingerprint or add a slight wrinkle where previously there was none. I’m terribly careful with other people’s things and always have been–which makes it even more galling that in the past a simple accusation I’d broken something belonging to someone else brought my entire world crashing down. You might think I’m being dramatic, weaving a story, telling a tale.

You can think that, if you like.

I’m not quite a shrink-wrapping panic merchant but I do like to keep my stuff looking as nice as I can. Books don’t need broken spines or licked fingers to end up looking rough: sadly, they’ll become tatty in due course anyway.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could slow that weathering and hold onto the book in the same condition it came in? I know you like it when a book looks well-loved but to us that’s the kind of boisterous love with which clumsy children kill pets.

If you like the words, respect the vessel they come in. Devour the story by all means, but please, don’t chew the book.

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2 Responses to 251 – The Condition

  1. Lindsay says:

    If I think about it, it’s really not that I think books are or aren’t the important part, it’s rather that I’m unconcerned–perhaps even careless–with all of my possessions. I don’t go out of my way to break the spines of books. I actually avoid it. I can even be overprotective of new books that family want to borrow. However, when they eventually are destroyed (covers ripped off, pages torn) as is inevitable with three small terrors and my own exceptional clumsiness, I’m not so fussed. They’re just things. Replaceable. Unimportant. Maddie dumped a glass of water (by accident, it’s worth noting) on my ds, cellphone and laptop and I barely reacted. I do become upset when something is destroyed due to overt disregard, but that’s probably it.

  2. I don’t see them as replaceable. Certainly there are very few things I’ve had to replace when they’ve been lost or destroyed. I’m very careful about these things, and would rather not pay out for something more than once.

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