A Reader’s Confession: I Dog-Ear My Books.

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I dog-ear my books. I do. I underline and highlight passages, scribble in the margins. The first thing I do when I buy a paperback is to crease the spine for easier pocket-stuffing. I read my books in the bath, on the beach, in the rain, while camping. My library therefore looks a little worse for wear, but trust me that it’s better for love.

Please don’t let this confession deter you from loaning me your favorite book. I will never do this to your book. I also won’t do it to any of my fancy books. I do love a good first edition, a leather-bound compilation, a newly illustrated anniversary reprint. Those books remain pristine on the shelf while the rest of my library is beautifully and thoughtfully beat to shit.

I know: books are sacred. And I truly do believe that. If I have a new book in hand, I’m likely to spend several minutes caressing it, gazing lovingly upon it, and eventually hugging it to my chest in unabashed glee. But after I read a book, I want that book to look like it has been read. My books look used. They look loved. I have never believed that the hallowed nature of a book is in its immaculate condition. Paper, ink and cardboard are worth very little to me.

The intrinsic worth of a book belongs to its content. Most books aren’t sacred in and of themselves. A book is only sacred for what you get out of it. The language, the metaphors and imagery, the characters that remind you of someone else or yourself or no one you’ve ever met before. Insight and revelations and knowledge and inspiration—they make a book sacred. And I happen to garner that knowledge and inspiration most effectively by throwing myself messily into the process of reading.

I must flip back to dog-eared pages and underlined passages to remind myself of a particularly stirring observation. I must jot notes that are often later incomprehensible to me—what did I mean, “AK’s box = my cave!”? For books that I find particularly significant, I have a highlighter color coding system that means nothing to anyone but me.

That system may not work for you, but don’t be afraid to have your own method. Love your books. Allow them to look loved. Always cherish them not for what they are, but for what they say. And don’t be afraid to do a little dog-earing.

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Christine Hnath's picture
Christine Hnath December 15, 2011 - 9:12am

Thank you!  I have been chastized for this before by fellow book lovers.  I love the hell out of my books.  I carry them around like they're security blankets, dog-ear-ing (is that right? "to dog-ear?") and scribbling and making a mess of their covers.  

Once when I was 8 or 9 I left a book out on our swingset in the rain.  The pages got soaked and stuck together.  My mother suggested I throw it out, and I glared at her like she had suggested we behead a few puppies. I spent the next hour or two lovingly and carefully seperating the pages and putting leaves between them to keep them seperated as they dried.  The pages became brittle and the book smelled like mold but I still kept it.

I took my copy of World War Z to a book signing with the author.  Everyone else had fresh copies that looked like they had just been plucked from the shelves.  Mine had a worn-white binding and crinkly pages from bathwater splashed on them, with my favorite passages dog-eared.  The author noticed and so his inscription was: "Christine--you must really love zombies! Thank you.  Love, Max Brooks."  It confirmed everything I already knew--he, the author, actually appreciated that I had proven my love for the book by abusing it.

Edward W.'s picture
Edward W. from Michigan is reading For Whom the Bell Tolls December 15, 2011 - 9:32am

I agree. Thanks for this piece. For a long time I've secretly lived in shame, afraid to loan my books to other literary types for fear of ridicule. 

I love books. There is something to be said about their physical presence. This is probably why I will never be an eBook person. Though I suspect at some point the ever-changing nature of publishing will necessitate that I adopt them. 

I am constantly buying books and abuse the hell out of the ones I love. Maybe that says something about me as a person, I don't know. I'm not that kind of doctor. 

However, as much as I love them, I never confuse their content with their physical manifestation. As long as the text is still legible their essence is intact. My ex was one of those people who couldn't crack a book's spine and had a pristine collection of books alphabetized by author and title (within author). Perhaps this is some indication of why we are no longer an item.

People like my ex are well-intentioned but a little confused. To me they aren't so much a fan of books as they are people who like the idea of books. They like what they say about you as a person. They treat books as though they are sacred artifacts to be displayed, behavior more indicative of a historian than a bibliophile.

The historian types are more likely to keep their collections in a public room as a means of publically displaying some aspect of their character (e.g., taste, intelligence) whereas the true book lovers keep their collections hidden somewhere close to them (for me, it is in my bedroom). I could care less if people knew what books were on my shelf. In fact, until this article, I preferred that they didn't for fear they might think me a rube who can't take care of his stuff. Thanks for letting me know that I have company.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman December 15, 2011 - 9:38am

@Christine, what a wonderful inscription! Max Brooks just totally validated all of us.

@graywolf, my dearest books are hidden away in my bedroom as well, where I can, at any moment, wander over, pick one up and flip to a dog-eared or underlined page and revisit beloved passages.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine December 15, 2011 - 10:54am

I wouldn't condemn anybody for this behavior, but am way too OCD to take part myself. The only book I've ever highlighted/written in was House of Leaves (out of necessity), and I went out and bought a brand new copy for my shelf afterwards. I don't even crack the spine when I read a book. If anyone asks to borrow one, they get a whole speech on handling before I let them anywhere near it. And that's only if they pass a rigorous screening process first.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman December 15, 2011 - 11:15am

I take it I will not pass this rigorous screening process?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine December 15, 2011 - 11:18am

No need to even administer the test.

.'s picture
. December 15, 2011 - 11:43am

Tried to dog ear my Kindle. Hope my warranty covers it.

NotMarilyn's picture
NotMarilyn from Twin Cities, MN is reading Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn December 15, 2011 - 11:48am

No need to ask me which books I love and which I thought were "ok." Just look at my bookshelf! The ones I've read over and over are worn, cracked, some torn depending on the circumstances under which I was reading, dog-eared, and highlighted. The so-so books are pristine, standing sentry over the others.

Great article :)

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman December 15, 2011 - 11:52am

Thank you!

James Storie's picture
James Storie from Alabama is reading The Fireman December 15, 2011 - 12:07pm

I wish I was able to do that to my books, but I just can't. I would love to be the type of person that reads a book and carries around a notebook and just makes notes all day about what I read. I feel so bad for buying books, reading them and then putting them on the shelf and never looking at them again. I really do love my books but I neglect them at the same time, I am so ashamed.

Casey Dee's picture
Casey Dee from StoneyHell is reading The Brothers Karamazov December 15, 2011 - 2:20pm

I destroy softcovers with my love. I carry it around in my purse, full of pens etc for highlighting and notes til its finished. My hardcovers, on the other hand, are pristine.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 15, 2011 - 10:04pm

The very thought makes me a little sick, I could never teat books like this. I'm not saying your wrong per say, but it creeps me out.

I've even learned a little bit about book repair so ones I've found that have been "love too hard" can be put back together.

Hetch Litman's picture
Hetch Litman from Ojai, Ca. is reading Wise Blood by Flannery OConnor December 16, 2011 - 11:18am

FIRST EDITIONS?????????

 

OH, the horror!

Hetch Litman's picture
Hetch Litman from Ojai, Ca. is reading Wise Blood by Flannery OConnor December 19, 2011 - 10:50am

I bet you also read first editions with the dust jacket on, huh?

yesjessica's picture
yesjessica from Chicago December 31, 2011 - 10:10am

I dog ear all of my books, too.  I have a little system--I dog ear the top of the page to show what page I'm on, and dog ear the bottom of the page for pages I want to come back to.  From my perspective, the value of the book is the words, not the condition the book is in.  I'm far from wealthy, so many of the books I read are bought used from half.com or on loan from the library.

I also don't "get" the wanting-it-to-be-pristine mentality for books or anything, for that matter.  My apartment is not a museum!  I like everything to be clean and in order, but I don't need things to look like they have never been touched, or like no one is allowed to touch them.  That feels so stuffy and un-fun.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 28, 2012 - 6:21pm

Very few books do I keep in pristine condition - my few rare and first-edition books. The rest are frazzled, the more-so because they're the most-loved. These are the ones I carried with me everywhere because in my every spare moment I had to read (or reread) them. They are scuffed, coffee-spattered and coffee-cup-ringed. The worst damage I do to much-loved books: fall asleep reading them and then roll, toss and turn over them in my sleep...covers become dog-eared, pages are folded and/or accordioned, and in one unfortunate instance I fell asleep with an open book tented over my face. I woke up with my bottom lip saliva-welded to a page...