Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 27 Jun 2018

Over precious about precious books?

I always feel cross when I see some of the damage inflicted on library books. It seems that there is an institutional requirement to ruin the title page, and sometimes other pages, with bold intrusive stamps claiming them as library property. This is particularly noticeable with some children’s books where beautiful illustrations are unnecessarily defaced. It is somehow different when books are spoiled by readers although I’m not sure why. I feel that it is perfectly alright when so many old books are mysteriously stained and even scribbled on. I suppose it’s because this ‘used’ quality can add to their distinctive character and shows that they have been loved and handled over and over again, perhaps by different readers. In fact, I always feel a bit sorry when we sometimes come across books that are pristine, because they have obviously never even been opened. They haven’t even been given a chance to enthral a reader but were just dismissed for some reason, probably as unwanted gifts.

But I am something of a hypocrite here because at the same time of valuing books that have been obviously loved, I can be extremely fussy about the condition of a book that I am intending to read. Some years ago a friend lent me her hardback copy of ’The Hare with the Amber Eyes ‘ by Edmund de Waal. I was very much looking forward to reading it because it had been given good reviews and she had also recommended it. But all that anticipation was soured when she laughingly explained that her dog had got hold of it and completely chewed off the corner. She went off to find it for me and I waited, aware that I felt a bit anxious. My fears were realised when she returned and I saw that the whole of the front corner of the cover was bitten away leaving an ugly ragged edge. But I decided to pull myself together and try my best to ignore this serious affront to my aesthetic sensibility - it was the story that I was looking forward to reading after all.

I admit that I avoided reading it for a while and buried it under a pile of far more beautiful, intact books on my bedside table. At last it was time to be brave and so I picked it up very cautiously ( I suspect accompanied with a facial grimace) and tried not to look at the cover. I quickly turned to the first page, hoping that I would soon forget about those teeth marks, but it was just impossible to focus, no matter how hard I tried. At the back of my mind was the ghastly thought that the dog had probably dribbled on the book as he chomped away. I couldn’t resist having a quick check and sure enough there was a bit of a dark stain if I peered very closely. Time for a cup of tea as a distraction and then off I went again, determined to become engrossed in the story. But then I hit another big problem because I soon realised that this is a tale about an object that is extraordinarily exquisite. So it surely needs to be beautifully packaged to do it justice? At this point I gave up and returned the book to my friend, too embarrassed to admit why I hadn’t managed to get beyond the second chapter.

The other day my brother showed me a paperback anthology of contemporary African poetry which he recommended. The corner was badly furled and all the pages were faded and well thumbed ( not by him I suspect). Goodness knows how it had got quite so battered but I knew right away that I couldn’t even begin to read it.

Am I being over fussy or just honest about my preferences? Am I forever spoilt and does it really matter? I daresay that , if I had nothing else available to read, I wouldn’t much care about the physical condition of a book. In the meantime, I am very lucky to have the luxury of plenty of beautiful books in the house to keep me happy, and zero likelihood of any dogs coming to devour them.



Karen Argent

June 2018