Today’s discussion post was brought to you by this tweet which I saw whilst scrolling aimlessly through Twitter. Yes, this is a discussion all about marking your books, specifically by dog-earring the pages. Please do not shrink away in fear or brandish the sign of the cross at me, I assure you I am not evil. The vehemence with which some people on Twitter were categorising readers who does this as HEATHENS really got my back up… until I remembered, I used to be one of those people. However, nowadays, oh boy… *deep breath* my name is Emma and I dog ear the pages of my books. No, please don’t back away, please I’m not a terrible person, I swear!
Don’t get me wrong, I used to be just like those people on that tweet who are jokingly (or not so jokingly) calling people who mark their books as EVIL. I used to think that anyone who would dare to despoil a book in such a cruel and callous way deserved the fieriest of deaths. Alongside those who purposely crack the spine of paperbacks and take some joy in the sound of the binding crying out in pain. And those people at the back? Those readers who not only annotate in the margins in pencil but in pen too – evuuuuul!
Yes, I am being dramatic. And I am being dramatic in order to present my change in thinking.
One day I found myself reading a really great book and I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to take note of a really nice bit of dialogue. You know, for posterity’s sake. I happened to be on public transport, and I did not have a pen, pencil, or handy sticky tab to hand. Even if I had had such wonderful stationery with me, I was stood up reading on a busy commuter train; there was no way in hell I was going to rummage in my bag to find some sticky tabs and incite the wrath of all the tired people around me. It just wouldn’t be very neighbourly. But I was in a pickle because I knew that I would never be able to re-find this golden bit of dialogue amongst the 500-page book without somehow marking the place in the text now. So I, instinctively, dog-earred the page… and let me tell you, folks, I have never felt freer. (Still too dramatic?)
You see, I’ve always been someone who takes pride in her book collection. I like to see it lined up neatly on my shelves, spines all lovely and aesthetically pleasing, organised mainly by genre, then alphabetical, with hardbacks and paperbacks segregated for aesthetic reasons, naturally. I have those pristine white IKEA bookshelves you will see in every Booktube filming background – no, not the box Kallax ones, the Billy bookcases, they come in white or black depending on your style. I know that you know the ones I mean. Do you have a mental image of my book collection now? Here, have a photograph too so you can really understand that I love my books dearly.
[The “he” in this case is “my book”, in case there’s any doubt here.]
I love books, I love collecting books, but not nearly as much as I love reading those books. When I’m reading a book, I want to enjoy the experience, I don’t want to be so afraid of marking it accidentally that I keep all food and liquids away from it at all times and/or barely open the pages fully because I don’t want to crack the spine. I want my books to be read and if they happen to look read too? Well then that’s more than fine by me!
When I was at school and university, I always bought a copy of the text I was studying – it would usually be a used copy because I had a couple of books a week to get through and that would have gotten expensive pretty fast if I’d bought new, pristine copies. That meant there’s already a certain level of wear and tear to the book. Maybe that’s why I never felt bad about then despoiling the book by writing in its margins with pencil, taking notes as I read so that I had thoughts to discuss in lectures and seminars. (FYI, finding unexpected marginalia is my single biggest joy in used or library books – I’ll tell you about it sometime.) But I couldn’t quite bring myself to write in it in pen – that felt a little too permanent. One day maybe I’ll be brave enough, or think my thoughts on the text are worthy of a biro. Stranger things have happened, after all.
This mindset of scribbling in books in order to really unpack a text has always stood at odds with my desire to collect nice books. Because how can you do both? For years I did do both simply because if I wrote in a book, it was probably a required reading, but I didn’t write in any of the books I read “for fun”, as it were. When I graduated university, I said bye-bye to required reading, and since then I have never picked up a pencil in order to make margin notes in something I’m reading. That’s because I read books “for fun” now, I don’t necessarily do all my critical reading in the margins of a book. I’d say that’s still mostly true today, but I do wonder if I’ll ever revert back to the ways of pencilled-in marginalia.
But, mostly, I like my books to be nice. And if I want to keep a book really pristine, I buy a hardback, or a special edition of it, and I store it on my shelves. Does that edition ever get read? Honestly? Probably not. But I never intended it to – I bought an extra, for the aesthetic and collection purposes. Because it’s nice to have nice things and to treat yourself to a lovely edition of a much-loved book. Recently I stumbled across a new 25th anniversary paperback edition of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – I love this book but my paperback copy was bought already used and I’ve read it a few times since so it’s looking more than a little bit worse for wear. It has maybe one read left in it before the spine starts to give in. But that’s ok, because I treated myself to the shiny anniversary paperback and it now sits proudly in my book collection. And as for the battered old paperback? I like that it looks so used – it looks well-read, it looks enjoyed.
In fact, the more dog-ears, the more fanatical I was about the book. My copies of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom attest to this fact. So that’s why I’ve made my peace with dog-earring pages – because every dog-ear in one of my books is a very quick overview of how much I enjoyed the story inside. Because books aren’t just the paper they’re written on (even the really nice paper with the sprayed edges), they’re also the experience of you reading the words on these flimsy objects, of you reading, breathing, living the story you’re being told by the words the author has chosen to put down onto the page. That story will always be there, even if that particular book might not be – hey, who knows, it might get lost during a house move, it could be chewed up by a beloved family pet, you could lend it out to a friend who never returns it. But, hey, at least you’d kept it painstakingly pristine, right? I’m not precious about most of the books anymore. If I feel like I need to mark the book, I will, and I’ll do so without hesitation. I’m reading and enjoying myself – is that a crime now? If it involves dog-ears, apparently so. But you know what? I’ll fess to that crime, I’ll continue to commit it, because so long as I’m reading, what does that even matter? (As far as crimes and/or sinning goes, it’s a pretty harmless one after all.)
Necessary disclaimer: I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to read your own books. Read them, love them, mark them, don’t mark them, spill coffee over them, throw them across the room when they end, drop them in a pool, or be a careful reader and a responsible book owner and treat them real nice like they deserve… you’re absolutely free to do whatever you want with your own books – they’re yours! I promise you, a dog-ear in someone else’s book is not a personal affront to you, or to the book, or to the reading community.
Now, I am super curious about how everyone else feels about marking books – which camp do you fall into, do you like to keep your books really tidy and clean or do you prefer to read the hell out of them and it really shows? Let’s chat in the comments, I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this one!