How to Ruin Perfectly Good Books

If you keep mangling your book, it'll stick like that forever. (Via Wikimedia Commons; click to re-bigulate)

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.

Two copies of the dust jacket for Tales of the South Pacific. The prices on the left-hand one have been clipped - one of the few examples of a publisher hiding the price in advance. (Via FEdPo.com; click to visit)

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.

Ray Wood writes his name in a book on Raywood, Texas. Kooky. (Via Bibliophemera; click to visit.)


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.

Unless "Emily" and "Grandma" are code names for "Hillary Clinton" and "Barack Obama," this is exactly the kind of inscription you *don't* want to see in a book. (Via the Book Inscriptions blog; click to visit.)


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.

Jonny and Kate's books were victims of a sailboat leak en route to Australia - they'll never be the same. (Via Jonny and Kate's Sailing Adventures; click to visit.)

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.

The Venerable Bede could read books without breaking them, 'cause he was, like, totally venerable. (Via Wikimedia Commons; click to re-bigulate.)

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.

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
This entry was posted in book collecting, books for cheap, fiction, for love and money, humor, rare books, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How to Ruin Perfectly Good Books

  1. That was a great informative post. THANKS!

  2. Dani Alexis says:

    You’re welcome!

  3. Megan says:

    As someone who must have her books in pristine condition, I truly appreciate this post. 🙂 I’m very proud of the fact that even books I’ve read look like they’ve never been opened. My family tends to make fun of me because of how I barely open my books, but they certainly can’t say their collections look as pretty as mine! I physically wince when I see the wrong kind of bookmark in use, including having a book laid flat on a table to keep someone’s place, and especially dog-earing pages. Ugh!

  4. I was reading this list, all smug, and thinking “who the hell would be stupid enough to do most of these things?” and then I got to number five. Whoops. I think I do ALL of those things to my poor, poor books. In my defense, this arthritis/carpal tunnel combo of DOOM makes it really hard to hold books, which results in lot of laying-flat and opening the books too far. Sigh. I love my kindle, which always lays flat and turns pages with a click of a button, but I still read far more paper books than I do electronic ones.

    I still think cutting the price off the inside dust jacket of a book is pretty ridiculous, though. even my MOM didn’t do that, and she was otherwise meticulous about getting rid of price tags. She did go through one Nancy Drew book once and black out all the uses of racial slurs with a black marker, though (and then returned it to the library!)

  5. Nay says:

    No, no, no! We’re going to have to agree on a difference of opinion. I love nothing more than a name in a book. In a second-hand bookshop, I’d choose the one with a name on the flyleaf. I check to see if the spines are cracked – those lines give away more than the rings on a felled tree. They tell us if the previous reader finished the book, where they left off for a time, the big smooth gaps an indication of a gripping fit of page-turning when they couldn’t put it down. An inscription means it was a gift and often reveals something about the reason for sharing. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned dog-eared page markers and underlining particularly interesting passages.

    I’m all about the personal touches. I can formulate my own opinion of what I read but I’ll never know what the last owner thought if I receive a pristine copy. When I receive letters from authors I’ve contacted out of admiration for their work I tape the paper to the back cover. I write my name inside every book I want to keep forever. Like children, there’s no right way to treat a book except with love and we all have our own way of showing it.

  6. I’m a little late to this party, but I just discovered the backlink to my blog, which took me here. A few comments follow. First, I agree with Nay above about writing in books, albeit with a caveat. I prefer to find inscriptions and dates in older books, but not so much in more recent ones. Gifts I receive from friends or family is a different matter–the inscriptions are most welcome. As a bookseller, I find customers split on the issue, but I, as bookseller and book buyer, like the provenance a signature or inscription provides in a well-traveled book. Playing detective with that bit of information on Google can yield some interesting history at times. Such was the case with the Ray Wood signature in the book of mine you used as an example. That signature was especially welcome because it revealed the book to be an association copy (the recipient knew the author). The book (not about Raywood, Texas, rather American folk music) was also signed by the author, John Lomax, the famous musicologist and folklorist. As I investigated the connection between the two, I discovered a fascinating life for Mr. Wood, which I would not have known about had he not written his name in the book along with adding his bookplate. Call it added value or enrichment,but it has helped make the book a favorite in my collection. A final comment also refers to a comment from Nay above about how we love and treat our books. Another favorite in my collection speaks directly to that. Check out how one young man completely transformed a book on his hero into a shrine of sorts: http://writinginbooks.blogspot.com/2012/08/book-shrine-to-baseball-hero.html. Who couldn’t admire this piece of work?

    Enjoyed your post and thanks for the mention!
    Chuck @ Bibliophemera (among other blogs)

  7. moniquebos says:

    Just found this blog from the previous entry about Brodart book covers. (I’ve just started trying to use them and have managed to mangle several, albeit fortunately no dust jackets, despite following the written instructions. I appreciate your photos–looks like I was following the basic steps correctly and just need a heck of a lot more practice. :/ )

    Anyway, I wanted to share my favorite flyleaf inscription, from a thrift-store copy of Faulkner’s “New Orleans Sketches”: “Bubba, this for you. Not cause you smart, and not cause you handsome, but just because you Bubba.” I don’t know how it affects the value of the book, but it made me decide to keep it for my own collection rather than try to re-sell it! 🙂

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