Monday, February 24, 2020

'The Topography of Its Blots and Dog’s-ears'

It has happened again. I loaned a book and it came back not destroyed but damaged. An old-fashioned word comes to mind: sullied. In this case, soiled, scuffed and with a page dog-eared. The reading quality is not impaired, though it’s not a book I’m likely to read again. I’m mildly neurotic about the treatment of books, even lousy or mediocre ones. I’m not likely to buy a book that has been underlined, highlighted, coffee-stained or annotated. Is this fetishism? More like sentimentality, I suppose.

Several walls in our university library are decorated with hangings made of stacks of books painted on the spines. I’ve checked: all the books so vandalized are Grishams, Haileys and the like – bestsellers of yesteryear. The loss to literature is negligible. Still, it rankles. Who would deface a book? We know Dr. Johnson did but he can be forgiven. I’m not yet prepared to say I won’t again loan books. Perhaps I should just make them gifts. Or demand collateral against possible damage: two Nabokovs for one Henry James. In 1802, Lamb sends Coleridge a Milton – a gift, not a loan -- and writes:

“[I]t is pleasanter to eat one’s own peas out of one’s own garden, than to buy by the peck at Covent Garden; and a book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots and dog’s-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at teas with buttered muffins, or over a pipe, which I think is the maximum.”

1 comment:

Andrew Rickard said...

A couplet composed by Charles Nodier (1780-1844) for his friend Guilbert de Pixérécourt ((1773-1844), presumably to use on a bookplate:

Tel est le triste sort de tout livre prêté;
Souvent il est perdu, toujours il est gâté.

Which I translate as:

Such is the sad fate of any book lent;
It is often lost, it is always bent.