05 March 2006

Value of a book

March 3, 2006
Editorial Observer
Yellowing Paper, Stiffening Glue and the Sudden Demise of a Library
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Some days I suspect that the objects around me are aging faster than I am. I put on a jacket to do chores and realize that I bought it in 1987. Here is a fly rod I made in 1981. In the stairwell hangs a mounted deer head — a mule deer my dad shot a couple of years before I was born. The ears are coming apart at the edges, though the glass eyes are as bright as ever. They have been looking at me since I was an infant. How did these things get to be so old?
But nothing meters the passing of time like paperback books. I began buying them when I was in high school. I kept a small stack of them — Twain, Faulkner, way too much Aldous Huxley — beside the clock radio on my bedside table. Each one felt like another stone in the raising of a free-form house. I had grown up on public libraries, but cheap paperbacks made it possible to have a library of my own.
Now that paperback library is coming apart.
The pages have yellowed. The glue in the bindings has turned brittle. The edges are crumbling. I reread a Dorothy Sayers mystery a couple of weeks ago and found myself using a page from the middle of the book as a bookmark. Nearly all of my old Penguin classics — the ones with the black spines — are dis-binding themselves. St. Augustine fell into my lap not long ago. As for Defoe, he was one of the first to go to pieces. You would not believe how sallow Samuel Butler looks, how debilitated Flaubert has become. Even poor Kierkegaard, published by Princeton, snapped in two the other day.
The books themselves are not really worth restoring, of course. Their texts may be of permanent value, but the physical objects are not. There are only two solutions. One is to go on handling the paperbacks ever more carefully until the time, which doesn't really seem that far away, when all that remains is neatly organized piles of yellow dust on the bookshelves. The other solution is to honor the ephemeral nature of paperbacks and replace them, as if they were vinyl LP's waiting to be replaced by CD's.
My Penguin copy of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" is identical to the thousands — if not tens of thousands — of other copies that were printed when that edition first appeared. But replacing it means abandoning all the marks I made in it when I read it in graduate school. The marks have almost everything to do with who I was as a reader in the late 1970's and almost nothing to do with Jane Austen. They are probably worth abandoning for that reason alone.
But to me, "Mansfield Park" is that one edition. Like many readers, I have a visual memory for books. It is easier to remember just where a passage appears, spatially, than exactly what it says. Replacing that old familiar edition means learning a new map of the text. That is the peculiar thing about living with so many books. I can often picture just where I need to look inside a book, though I can't remember for the life of me where the book is actually shelved. The thought of remapping my literary memory is simply too much to stand.
In the late 1970's, I worked as a curatorial assistant at the Pierpont Morgan Library, and on the shelves behind my desk stood books that were hundreds of years old — their paper crisp and white, the ink still precise. Jane Austen's autograph letters to her sister, Cassandra, were not quite as fresh as the day they were written, perhaps, but even they were fresh enough to last another few centuries. The point of publishing was more than simply to emit a book; it was to give a text a kind of permanence.
I suppose that for paperback prices, I should have expected a short shelf life. But I did not expect such a synchronized collapse. This may not be the burning of the library at Alexandria, but it is, in fact, a slow, steady combustion.
And as for you who will write in and say, "Aha! This only proves the value of digitizing books," let me simply say that it is not possible to digitize a book. You can digitize its contents, photograph its binding, record every last scrap of penciled annotation it contains. And yet the book cannot be digitized any more than one could digitize the vague, inarticulate sense I have that I know where that quotation is, if only I could find the book it's in.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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