Which books have you destroyed? Which books have you written in, doodled on, dog-eared, stained and flipped-through while backpacking? These copies, though their treatment would repulse most collectors and librarians, are usually the ones that we know most intimately. As a scholar, I spend a lot of time reading pristine editions of rare books. I’ve worn gloves and sat in climate controlled rooms with delicate manuscripts from the 1800s (and much earlier) resting on pillows to protect their spines. I leave those books and the ones I borrow immaculate. Today, however, I’d like to celebrate messy reading.
My most memorable and intimate reading experiences have been with those texts that live with me for a while. I recently visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, and decided to read my fresh new copy of Bruce MacNab’s The Metamorphosis wherever and however I pleased. Did the condition of the book plummet from mint to fair while I read it on the open deck of the Dartmouth ferry? Yes.
This was a small price to pay, however, for the experience of reading about Harry Houdini and his wife’s crossing of those same waters in 1896. I scrawled a note in the margins to mark the occasion. Mist from the harbour splashed and warped the pages. For me, these drops were a magic potion. As they hit the paper, the present and past folded impossibly inward. I leaned back to see Harry and Bess sitting on the same bench as me. Time travel, as Dr. Who might say, is messy.
Don’t get me wrong. Immaculate reading can also be magical. For this reason, I have two copies (at least one clean and one not-so-clean) of special books.
I’m curious about your experiences with messy reading. Do you have a photo of your best/worst loved book that you’d be willing to share?