Monday 10 October 2011

In Praise of Dirty Books – Michelle Lovric

Am I the only person who finds the trade in pristine first editions somewhat distasteful? Who thinks it a little degrading? That it manifests a necrophilic love of books rather than a living joy in reading?

For years, the cry has been ‘Forsooth, let us desist from treating women as objects! It’s not all about looks or age!’ I also have issues with valuing books according to meretricious criteria. The outward condition, the publication date, the edition number and print run are NOT the most interesting things about a book. Unless, of course, it is an extremely boring book. Surely, in all other cases, it’s what’s between the pages that should interest us, not the state of those pages or the untouched appearance of the cover.

No book should be untouched! What could be sadder than an aged but pristine children’s book? One of my main objections to any electronic reader is that I cannot make my mark on the pages!

I have sterner objections still to the concept that a book without a mark on it – and therefore likely unread – is more valuable than a volume with the patina of pleasure on it. That patina should consist of fingerprints, chocolate smudges and dried orange juice rivulets. A wine stain is always pleasant to behold. Blood is intriguing. Even a squashed mosquito with its meteor trail of rusty red is quite gratifying. The highest honour that can be awarded to a summer holiday read is to be brought home from the beach, even if blistered with sea-spray and anointed with suntan lotion.

The best kinds of ‘dirt’ that can befall a book, in my opinion, are interventions from other readers. One of the great joys of borrowing from the London Library is finding the emphatic annotations of previous readers – sometimes scholars from a century past. I love finding a thick wiggly line beside a paragraph and a large ‘NO!’ beside it. (Imagine the mutton chops quivering with indignation.) And I’ve been helped by a time-travelling comment from an antique reader: ‘Interesting. But see also …’

And what writer could fail to find more joy in the expression (and the manifestation) of ‘slightly foxed’ (dappled with brown age spots) than in ‘pristine’? To me, ‘pristine’ has redolences of the freshly mopped hospital corridor or the embalmer’s sponge. And so to me, the trade in first editions reduces books to carcasses.

When I look at my own face, I do not find it ‘in pristine condition’ and nor do I wish to do so. I’m quite fond of that Harry Potter-type scar above my left eye; my head wound was sewed up by a doctor-friend while my husband held my hand – in the end, that’s the memory that remains. There’s the little pit in my cheek in the place where a dodgy mole flowered and darkened and was then safely removed without pain. I’m also quite happy with my laughter lines – even though you might say my crow’s feet have the imprint of a larger and heavier bird – a pterodactyl, perhaps. Then there are the freckles and blemishes: dealer in the carcasses of writers would definitely have to advertise this one as ‘slightly foxed’.

If I were botoxed, dermo-peeled and surgically perfected, would I be more interesting?

Or, to put it another way, would I value the opinion of someone who thought me so?

So why this obsession with denatured books? Books that have for decades preserved their reading virginity like aged nuns? Are such books expecting their wedding night in heaven? Who is their intended bridegroom? Someone who will never open or read them but cloister them in a silent glassed bookshelf among other unread trophies?

I wrote an anthropodermic bibliophegist into my novel The Book of Human Skin. But even the sociopathic Minguillo Fasan enjoys handling his treasures. Sometimes he even reads them. At least he loves them for their intimate and pungent juxtaposition of subject and binding: he does actually care about what’s inside. His collection is personal to his interests, vile as they are. About the value, Minguillo cares nothing at all. I could write someone who loved books bound in human skin, but I could not quite bring myself to write a character who was interested purely in the value as objects.

Perhaps someone in the rare books trade can explain the first edition trade to me? Or a printer who sees it as the curating and exalting of the highest forms of printed art? Or a collector, even, who can love their books in ways not yet understood by me?

I may or may not be open to reasoned argument, but I am quite curious.

Michelle Lovric’s website
For info on the Slightly Foxed Quarterly and London Bookshop, see


Anonymous said...

Great post. I'd never thought of it like that. My daughter just had a new Charlie and Lola book signed by Lauren Child. I've been obsessed with keeping it pristine, though I have to ask myself now 'to what end?'

Christine Donovan said...

You've summed up a lot of the problems I have with Kindle but couldn't formulate. They have no ownership, that's what's wrong, so very wrong with them, and makes them heartless nothings.

I do have a first edition of The Bell Jar, which I found by accident on the extreme west coast of Ireland and bought for 2 euros. I'm a huge, long time Sylvia Plath fan, and honestly never thought I'd see a copy, let alone be near one. I was sitting in this weird shop drinking coffee in the village where my husband's family had lived forever and I was looking at the shelf of books in front of me. Gosh I thought, that's an early edition of The Bell Jar, as my eyes travelled up the spine to read 'Virginia Lucas'. I nearly fell off my chair.
Everyone wanted me to sell it, and I did make some enquiries. But in the end I couldn't sell it, the precious novel that for under a month existed at the same time as Sylvia. No other copy published since can say that, and for me that's my love of the first edition trade. And it's as far as it goes.

Joan Lennon said...

It's so strange for me to see the words Slightly Foxed - at the beginning of its life, that was the name of the heroine in the Slightly Jones Mysteries. In my case, the antiquarian magazine of that name had objections, but I'm still a little sorry about the change.
Great post - thanks!

Linda B-A said...

'Or, to put it another way, would I value the opinion of someone who thought me so? ' Well said, Michelle -speaking as someone who is not a pristine first edition! I suspect that books might go the way of the music industry (when, as my husband asked me the other day, was the last time I DIDN'T pick out a musical track via Itunes or my IPod?). And there is no point denying that there are advantages. (The weight of my daughter's college bag attests to that.) However, there will still be vast hordes of us addicted to scribbling in margins and underlining sentences that strike us, and who like to sniff old books and stroke good paper, and who appreciate the accumulated stains in terms of an aide-memoire to when we first read them. Doubtless some bright software developer out there will be writing a 'patina of age' programme to lure the luddites, but, in the meantime, long live the turned-over page corner and the smear of breakfast-in-bed jam or holiday mayonnaise...

Penny Dolan said...

Not to do with pristine book collecting, but I'm sure there were some early objections to the idea of public libraries because the books and their pages might spread diseases? (Now if only the Library Cuts brigade had thought to raise that spectre?)

I have seen librarians shudder at the memory of what they've found in books but I do agree that a well-loved and maybe annotated book brings its own history with it.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Sssh! Don't tell but I turn over the corners of my books. It's ever since I left school when it was FORBIDDEN to do such a dreadful thing (quite right). But now it gives me such a thrill. It says 'You're my book. Not the school's. Not the library's. MINE!'

Katherine Langrish said...

Great post, Michelle! I like looking at the line drawings which as a child I - or my mother as a little girl before me - coloured carefully in, in books such as Grimm's Fairytales, or The Story of the Amulet. You can't do that on a Kindle.

And yes, I enjoy the crackly patina of old sellotape holding the boards together, on 'The Box of Delights', or books of nursery rhymes. They speak of time and the passage of time - my time, family time - and that's precious to me.

Katie Grant said...

There's a fashion amongst historians now that if a book has uncut pages they must remain uncut, their 'uncutness', as it were, being part of the book's history. I think that's nonsense. An uncut book is like unused china - rather pointless. Still, I do hate finding student scribbles all of university library books, and why do they have to underline every second sentence? On the other hand, medieval marginalia are often much more amusing than the original text ...

Mary Hoffman said...

All this "you can't do that on a Kindle" just shows that it's not a straight either/or choice.

Kindle foe some things ( I love mine) dead tree books for others. (I buy loads new and secondhand).

Don't give a fig for a first Edition - a friend noticed I had hardbacks (reviewers copies) of Philip Pullman and Kevin Crossley-Holland and could make money selling them to Abebooks so I might!

But nor would I use a rasher of bacon as a book mark or turn down a corner on a published book or annotate except in pencil.

We all have our foibles and limits.

(Actually you can annotate on a Kindle).

michelle lovric said...

Thank you so much. The comments are turning out to be more interesting than the original blog this time!

It was good to be shown how a first edition might have a true value - the Sylvia Plath example is very touching. I am so glad that the novel fell into the hands of someone who appreciated it for good reasons - and so deserved it.

Speaking of marginalia - scribal curses can be wonderful.

Books can be used to transmit disease, Penny. Dried smallpox scabs have a very long shelf life. I used a powdering of them inside a book as a sneaky weapon in The Book of Human Skin. Don't try this at home. It may still work.

I admit that I also turn down corners. And ... even worse ... i do succumb to the temptation to fiddle with corners that were turned down so many decades before that they have become friable, and come away in your fingers. Like taking the wax out of the rim of paper cups ...

Sorry about Slightly - but Slightly Jones does have a lovely air about it and is more original.

PS I should have added a caption: "dirty book, from author's own collection."

none said...

They're not buying them as books, but as investments. It's the same reason why people buy works of art and then store them in bank vaults where nobody ever sees them. Money.

radix malorum est cupiditas

Dan Holloway said...

Mm, yes, what Buffy says. It's the same breed of person who cellars a 1982 Petrus with no intention of drinking it.

One of the rituals that marked the passing of my student days and the unavoidable fact of bankers' demands was having to sell many of my best-loved texts back to Blackwell's. Part of that process was going through the margins with a rubber blanking out precisely those wiggly lines and empahtic "NO"s, which always seemed such a shame. I'm sure reactying to other people's reactions was one of the things that used to get my brain into essay-writing gear

Pippa Goodhart said...

I have a book that cost almost nothing because it was so 'well scuffed', and that's exactly the glory of it because it is the Chicago Herald Guide for Gold Seekers, published in 1897, the very year of the Klondike Gold Rush, and clearly, I think, carried by one such gold seeker. I know his name; Harvey Freemantle. It's written inside the cover. The outside cover is so worn you can hardly read the title or see the picture. But inside it is almost pristine. I reckon he carried it in his pack all those thousands of miles through months of adventure, yet hardly bothered to read its lists of things to take or maps or timetables. Oh, I do love that book!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Delicious post Michelle... though smallpox scabs between the pages gives me a few shudders. Your post reminded me of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell who went to jail for 6 months in the 60's because they 'defaced' the covers of books from the Islington Library? Finding anonymous comments is marvellous but turning back to your own books and finding passages marked by a younger'unfoxed' self is even better in a 'Did I think that?'way.

Mark Burgess said...

Just a small voice in favour of the unread book - many of the most favourite books of the past were literally read to pieces, and we might not have a single copy now of some if they hadn't languished unread on somebody's shelf.
But in generally I agree that a read book is a loved book and I'd rather have one of those.

Caroline Lawrence said...

What a great thought- and discussion-provoking post, Michelle!

To me there is no higher praise than when a child brings one of my books to a signing and I can see that it has been read and re-read, sometimes the pages even swollen from having been dropped in the bath by sudsy fingers. Contrast that with the dealer who brings a pristine hardback first edition sans cover and asks me to sign and first line it. Don't get me wrong: I appreciate him, too, but the child's well-worn copy is the one that warms my soul!

Theresa Breslin said...

No book SHOULD be left untouched, not if it's bound in leather anyway - that's what my lecturer said when I was studying librarianship 100+ years ago! It's the sweat from readers' hands that keeps the cover and binding oiled and prevents them drying out and becoming cracked. I utterly adore old books, especially those written for children, not just for the content which can be unintentionally hilarious but for the plates and the bindings etc. And yes as a librarian I have also my collection of horror stories of "Unbelievable Bookmarks" including the dead fish which when it dropped out from between the pages as I picked it up the reader returning the book said, 'Oh, I wondered where I'd put that,' and popped it back in her bag, presumably to cook later. Re modern books for the very young, I always found the best way of choosing the most popular ones to read at Library Storytime was to search the picture book boxes for those with the most teeth marks along the top!

Unknown said...

I love the marks and scribblings in old books. But the library book which had a booger or three on approximately every fifth page was beyond the pale. There are some stains that are simply stains.

On the other hand, I never forgot that book.