Well-Loved and Falling Apart

15 02 2010

books i've loved

Every once in a while, maybe a couple times a year, I get obsessed with organizing my books. Being a writer and a fairly avid reader, I of course have a lot of books, although I do a fair amount of purging when I organize them and, as I get older, find myself giving away or selling more books that I just know I’ll never read. Intellectual vanity becomes less and less important the older one gets, and there comes a point when one just has to admit to oneself that the fact that a book has sat on the shelf for a good five years without once being cracked open probably means it will never be read in that particular home, and should be passed on to someone else who might actually enjoy it. During today’s book-organizing round, the books I’ve decided to pass on include Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, two books on anarchism, and redundant copies of books by Audre Lorde and James Baldwin.

On the other hand, there are books that I’ve read so much, that are so well-loved that I kept them despite the fact that they were probably not in great shape when I first got them (or ‘liberated’ them from my school library, as it were), and that then deteriorated even more in the years since. I thought it would be interesting to pull these books out off of my shelves to see what they were, and also to remind me to replace them someday with more handle-able, less torn and thumbed-through versions. As I wrote about in an earlier, also provocatively-titled post, the condition of the books I read has been only a recent consideration for me. It’s partially because I’m getting older and having the means to consider buying newer, perhaps hardcover versions of books I love, and also that I have realized that I may actually want to leave these books for my future children or other loved ones (or just Posterity), but I’ve actually been wondering if I should replace these very well-loved, well-read and falling-apart books.

Now, there’s something to be said in my mind about keeping these books—torn and tattered and often coverless though they are—the way some people keep old teddy bears or other childhood toys even though they’re not so pretty anymore. The love shows on these shabby but sentimentally important objects, I guess you could say, and in a world where new seems to be better, this means something to me. So I haven’t decided whether to chuck / recycle these old books, or to keep them in some storage unit in my apartment, like a literary time capsule, so that I can pull them out someday and see just what were some of the books that had such a huge influence on me.

It’s interesting to see what these titles are, as well, for they do say something about my literary interests. The oldest raggedy book is a paperback copy of the first volume of the classic compendium The Greek Myths, by British poet, scholar and novelist Robert Graves. It was also likely the first book I ever stole from a library—specifically, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. Greek mythology, as anyone knows, is a veritable soap opera-like collection of stories filled with enough kinky sex, barbaric violence and political intrigue to make our modern-day television shows and so-called avant garde books look mild in comparison. I mean, the Greek goddess Athena was supposedly birthed, fully-armed, from her father Zeus’ head after he ATE her mother Metis because he wanted to literally swallow her intelligence! The little girl Rona thought this was all fascinating, and was thrilled to find that such scandalous literature was not only freely available but also encouraged. My grammar school teachers were equally thrilled that I was so interested in classical Greek mythology.

The second of my tattered texts is by another British writer, George Orwell, the dystopic classic 1984. This book blew my mind too, and I’m pretty sure I also stole this one from my school library, now that I look at it and see the ‘Good Shepherd School’ stamp on the inside cover. Orwell has influenced my writing in that I am often drawn to writing futuristic work that may not be dystopic all the time, but that definitely has dystopic elements.

Two of my other well-loved, well-worn books are by women, and will likely get replaced, although my current copy of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which is a revisioning of the King Arthur legend, has a lot of sentimental value to me as it was a gift. And The Heart is the Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, was another library liberation. What a bad girl I was—geeky, but bad.

Do you have any books that you’ve loved and read so much that they are falling apart? What are they, and where / when did you get them?

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Hard or Soft?

4 02 2010

I was tempted to give this post the title ‘Book Porn: Hard or Soft?’ but realized it might invite some search engine hits I didn’t want. But that’s what this post is about—book porn. Not pornographic, XXX adult material in book form, but the obsession, at turns vulgar or ecstatic, with books. In my case, used fiction and non-fiction books written by some of my favorite writers. I buy used because it’s cheaper, it’s eco-friendly, and because it allows me to get cool old versions of classic books that may no longer be in print or only available new in janky paperback format.

Which brings me to the hard and soft dilemma—until recently, I was not someone that could justify the cost of a new (or even used, for that matter) hardcover book. I think when I bought Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, last year that that was the first time I’d bought a new hardcover novel in years. My logic was that the words were the same, and I wasn’t starting a fancy temperature-controlled private library of rare first editions or anything, so what did it matter? Having access to as much literature as I could in and of itself was the reward.

So I find it ironic that lately as I’ve been combing used bookstore shelves for old (preferably early edition) printings of James Baldwin’s books, that I find myself only considering hardbacks. This is probably due to the fact that I had been reaading a very old, worn, handed-down-from-a-friend early printing of Baldwin’s Another Country, a paperback. And the thing was literally falling apart in my bag. It’s yellowed pages were breaking into tiny crumb-like pieces in my purse, littering the bottom of it like an ancient disintegrating document. So I decided to buy another copy. The only copies I could find at several bookstores, new or used, were paperbacks, with covers that weren’t that interesting (my husband being a graphic designer has definitely affected me), and I kept flashing back to the falling-apart old paperback. So I decided I’d only buy a copy if it was a hardcover. Unfortunately, the only hardcovers I can find are online, so have to wait awhile to get my copy.

But now I find that when I’m looking for other used books, I’ve been putting paperbacks back on the shelf, telling myself that I should wait for a hardcover version. What do you think? Does quality trump quantity when it comes to books? Is it worth it to shell out more for a used (and preferably early edition) hard cover? Or does it really matter? Hard or soft—what’s your call?