There are enough books in the world to keep my bibliophilia happy forever – and probably yours, too. Unfortunately, waaaay too many of those books are what the bookselling industry generously calls “reading copies” – because reading is all they are good for.
It doesn’t much matter what you do to your books if you only want to read them once, but if you want to re-read them, give them to friends, sell them at a garage sale, or ignore them while you become a superstar and then watch from Heaven as the unwashed masses fight over them along with your other now-famous possessions after you die, it’s a good idea to take care of them. Not doing any of the following is a great way to start.
How to Break Books At An Eighth-Grade Level
1. Cut, scratch, or ink out the price.
Yes, I know Mom says it’s rude to give presents with the price tag attached – but Mom isn’t a bookseller, and if she is she’ll make an exception for book prices. On modern first editions (aka “anything published after 1930ish”), the condition of the dust jacket amounts to a whopping 80 to 90 percent of the book’s value. Any alteration, including a discreet removal of the price, sends that value through the floor. Unfortunately, it’s so common that there’s even a name for it: it’s called “price clipping,” and it makes Bibliophile Jesus weep tears of kosher wine.
Besides, if you give me a book with the price clipped or inked out, I might think you did not pay full price for it at all but instead picked it up at a garage sale on your way to my meticulously-planned birthday party in a last desperate attempt to pretend that you did not, in fact, forget the anniversary of my portentious birth. And that would make ME weep tears of kosher wine.
2. Write your name in it.
Some people can’t seem to help but put their name on everything: written in books, inked on the soles of their sneakers, worked not-so-cleverly into their pop music lyrics, you name it. But unless you are a Really Big Shot Famous-Type Person(TM), nobody wants to see your name written inside their books. We can sometimes erase them off white pages if we do it gently, but no one ESPECIALLY wants to see your name written on a coloured flyleaf (that very first “page” that is the same color as the inside of the cover), because that will NEVER come off.
3. Write a cutesy inscription in it before you give it as a gift.
A Confession: One of my favorite books is my copy of Paul M. Barrett’s American Islam, because its flyleaf contains the inscription “OMG UR GOIN TO HELL! –Jesus”. It was a gift from my good friend and favorite Christian, Lillian. I know she put it there because it made her laugh, and because it would make me laugh, and I still laugh whenever I look at it and it’s a big part of the reason I still have that book. So, okay, sometimes inscriptions are pretty awesome.
Unless you are a Famous Person(TM) inscribing your book to a Famous Person(TM), however, an inscription decimates the value of a book. More importantly, most people don’t keep any book forever. Do you really want some nineteen-year-old in a used bookstore getting his kicks by reading your sappy declarations of love aloud to his howling coworkers when your Twu Wuv Who Turned Out to Be a Spoiled Jackass tosses that copy of New Moon you so dreamily gave him on your three-week anniversary? Not likely.
4. Let it get wet.
Back in the day, my cousins and I went backyard camping on our summer vacation, taking our entire combined collection of Babysitters Club books with us. As it always does when one has the audacity to pitch a tent in the face of the Weather Gods*, it rained. To my utter fascination, the dozen or so books we’d left at the edge of the (not closed) tent swelled up to twice their usual size, developed a crispiness not unlike dried onion skins, and sprouted a pervasive colony of mold.
In short, Wet T-shirt Contests: great for coeds, bad for books.
And by “get wet,” I don’t just mean letting it get soaked, though of course this a bad idea. Even too much humidity – anything over about 70 percent – can be bad for books, eventually causing them to swell up and grow their own mildew colonies. (In tropical regions, these books sometimes develop sentient mildew and eventually jump off shelves and desert their owners entirely. But I digress.)
Unfortunately, too little humidity can be just as bad, causing the glue to wear out and the bindings to crack – and the damage to books bound in leather is even worse. In most modern houses, this isn’t a huge problem, but it’s something to think about if you live in a very humid or very dry place.
5. Read them.
This one seems just plain unfair, which makes it a good thing I don’t really mean it, strictly speaking. Pristine, never-read books do fetch the best prices on the market, but the point of books is to read them, and if you don’t love them enough to do that, you probably don’t love them enough to seriously consider collecting them anyway.
That said, the way many people read books is bad for them. A quick guide to handling books without mangling them:
a. Don’t open them too far. Unless your book has a spiral binding, it’s probably not designed to lie flat. It will make an ominous popping noise if you try to open it that far – exactly like it’s been taken to a bad chiropractor (which you’ve become, having effectively broken your book’s spine). Both hardcovers and paperbacks should only be opened about 45 degrees, but most people open them too far, which weakens and eventually cracks the binding.
b. Don’t lay a book face-down on a table, for the same reasons as (a): it breaks the binding and weakens the hinges, where the covers attach to the book. The only difference is that laying a book face-down on a table damages it much more quickly than opening it a bit too far.
c. Don’t use a 3-D object, like a pen, as a bookmark. Like the above, this weakens the hinges and spine. It’s also a prime cause of a “rolled” spine, or a spine that’s off-center so that the two covers no longer line up. Rolled spines are difficult to impossible to fix; the only real cure is prevention.
d. Don’t take off the dust jacket. Sure, they’re only supposed to be there to protect the book, and damaging them decimates the value of your book, so it makes sense to take the dust jacket off and lay it somewhere safe, right? Aside from the fact that dust jackets are easy to lose this way, taking it off risks getting dirt, price tag goo, oil from your hands, food, and other things on the cover, which will damage it. Dust jackets are designed to take this kind of abuse; book covers, generally, aren’t.
Last but not least, if your book is showing signs of wear, and you want to salvage it, consult a book repair manual (Dartmouth has a good one online), ask the staff at your local library, or take it to a reputable book repair shop.
But never, ever, ever, for the love of all that is holy – never “repair” your books with tape. Tape is one of the worst possible things that can happen to a book or its dust jacket. Avoid it at all costs.
Take care of your books, and your friendly neighborhood book scout will love them – and you – as much as you did. (Maybe more. Have I mentioned my newly-discovered Fine signed first edition of Gloria Steinem’s Moving Beyond Words what cost me $0.50 last week? Whoa.)
*This post uses an awful lot of $DEITY references, especially for an atheist. I promise my next post will contain fewer than 20 parts per million (ppm) of God.