To your left is Trotwood, who has no relevance to this post, aside from the fact that he is sitting on a pile of books (yes, next to a window that badly needs cleaning!) and this post is about books, reading, and the difference between the two.
I've been thinking about this subject on and off for about a week, and was talking to a mate about it: I started reading The Shadow of the Wind, and I have to say before I go on: I'm up to page 25, I haven't read any more for at least a week, and I have next to no interest in it, so what I'm about to say may well be way off mark. But, I'll go on despite this - it seemed to me that it almost fetishises books. This isn't unusual by any stretch of the imagination - a lot of people see books as sacred objects, as though the holder, that is the book, is just as important as the contents. That there is the difference - one reads the content, and the content is an idea or ideas. The author's thoughts, imagination, desires, ambitions, and experiences are contained or collected in a volume, the container if you will. And that container is wood pulp.
I love books, that much is true, and I have a lot of them. If anything was to happen to them, I'd be heart broken. But each book, each individual container in this room, is in dubious condition. I had a picture of Little G eating a page from my Complete Shakespeare which I can't find right now, but, to the right, here is a picture of him eating Notes on a Scandal. Every book I've read has at the very least a bent spine, some are broken. And, because books are part of my every day life, every day things happen to them: coffee cups get sat on top of them when I'm in bed, steam wrinkles the bottom of the pages from when I'm in the bath, dirt gets on them when they fall off my knee and on to the floor of the car, they get wet when I read outside and misjudge the drizzle. Some get left in the kitchen, so they smell of whatever was cooking next to them, others, having survived Trotwood and George, have not survived spilling glasses of water over them when I've knocked over glasses. I underline passages, and sometimes, with the really big chunksters, Big C writes in the front of them. It is unlikely that most of my books will see the next century.
I've already shared this quote from The Name of the Rose, but I'll share it again:
Learning is not like a coin, which remains physically whole even through the most infamous transactions; it is, rather, like a very handsome dress, which is worn out through use and ostentatious. Is not a book like that, in fact? Its pages crumble, its ink and gold turn dull, if too many hands touch it. I saw Pacifus of Tivoli, leafing through an ancient volume whose pages had become stuck together because of the humidity. He moistened his thumb and forefinger with his tongue to leaf through his book, and at every touch of his saliva those pages lost vigor; opening them meant folding them, exposing them to the harsh action of air and dust, which would erode the subtle wrinkles of the parchment, and would produce mildew where the saliva had softened but also weakened the corner of the page. As an excess of sweetness makes the warrior flacid and inept, this excess of possessiveness and curious love would make the book vulnerable to the disease destined to kill it.
What should be done? Stop reading and only preserve?
This is my approach. I must be, in fact I am, a messy person and a messy reader. My life, my way of living, my clumsiness, have all taken a toll on the wood pulp. Even though I love books, having my own books, and having an extensive library, I do not see them as sacred objects. Aside from my first editions of Flush and Orlando, the majority of mine were reprinted in the past two decades and keeping them pristine would only be advantageous to, well, me. And, clearly, I am in no mind to be precious with them. I cannot read carefully, nor do I wish to. I'm too clumsy, for a start, and have no wish to stop reading in the bath, or when I'm drinking coffee, or when G or Trotwood are sitting on my knee or hand. That, at the least, would involve a degree of organisation, and those skills I have not.
For me, in short, I read. I do not preserve wood pulp. But the content, that lives on, not just in but beyond the shell. This, for me, is the most important part of reading.