Do Whatever You Want With Your Books

Last week, my physical therapist added new homework to my assortment of assigned exercises. “Do you have stairs in your house?” she asked. “Or if not, something you can stand on?”

“The complete works of Shakespeare?” I said, and she laughed. But yes: That would do for heel raises.

There was a point in my life where I would never have considered such a thing. But even the most strident among us can change our ways eventually. Sort of. Maybe. A little bit.

Once upon a time, it was rare that I’d so much as use a giant book to prop something up or open. My college roommate and I had a book we hated so much that, out of the kind of spite only a 21-year-old can muster, we used it as a bathroom doorstop. But I was always more courtly than carnal by Anne Fadiman’s sorting of book-lovers. I wanted my books to look beautiful, pristine, as if great care had been taken with them (as it had). I got upset with my middle school best friend when she cracked the spine on one book, when her little sister tore the cover off another. It was a Forgotten Realms novel and I really didn’t need to be so precious.

Back then, I did not have a lot of books, and my protectiveness was partly born of that limitation: If I was only going to have as many books as I could buy with a birthday gift card, I wanted them to be nice. But with age comes wisdom, or at least familiarity, or at very least a certain degree of practicality. Books are heavy. Moving them takes work. Not every book needs to stay on your shelf. And not every book needs to be given the white-glove treatment, either.

Anne Fadiman wrote,

The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.

When I first read this, in the late ’90s, I bristled. I still had a fairly small shelf of books. They were treasures. They were not exactly a collection—having been largely compiled from used bookstores in several states and fairly at random—but they were the only things I had that really mattered to me. The single-volume Lord of the Rings my grandfather had given me for Christmas. Fantasy paperbacks, some bought at the mall, some filched from my mom’s shelves. I felt like writing in those books would kill them, even though I also thought I would never get rid of them. (I still hate finding a used book that’s full of someone else’s notes. Leave me to my own thoughts, please!)

Now, though, I want to take Fadiman a step further. You can love a book forcefully, leaving imprints upon it as it leaves a mark on you—yours made in ink, its something less tangible. And you can also let a book be what it is, at its base level: a heavy stack of paper.

Books stack neatly when you need to prop up a computer monitor, or to put a laptop on the right level for a long Zoom meeting. Stacks of books become makeshift end tables, doorstops, bookends for other books. Cookbooks piled just so can keep the cat out of a corner at the end of the counter where no cats should go. Books become furniture, wall decorations you see so often you sort of forget they’re there.

People more creative than I transform books into art projects, into making stunning book art, or nifty boxes in which to hide secret items, or paper flowers, or any number of nifty things you can find on any number of websites. My partner and I had paper flowers at my wedding, partly because we both work in books, and partly because I didn’t want to deal with the expense and complications and decision-making aspects of having real flowers. They were both decorations and favors; people could take some home or not, as they chose.

Some people find all of these things a major affront to books. To them, books are sacred, inviolable objects, never to be sullied or used for anything other than reading and possibly worshiping. I suspect this is the same feeling that leads people to get so irate over rainbow bookshelves or books shelved page-side out or any other number of uses of books as decoration: It’s ignoring the content, the words, the part of the book that gives us such strong feelings about a given book.

It can be hard to separate those things: the shell and the heart. The pages and the language. But you keep one even if the other is long gone, sold to a used store or left in a Little Free Library or given to a friend. A book is so many things: an object and an idea; a work of art and a work of craft; the creation of a single mind and the creation of all the people who transformed that mind’s work into a stack of neatly bound paper.

And in the best cases, a book is all the people who’ve read it before or after you. For all my fussiness about books—the jackets I take off before I lend them out; the reluctance with which I dog-ear pages; the strange frisson of transgression I still get when I underline phrases—sometimes I want them to show their years and the evidence of all the hands who’ve held them. In an old, tattered copy of Sophie’s World, I wrote the names of all the friends who borrowed that book from me one summer. I have my grandmother’s Joy of Cookingwhich is dirty and stained and lucky to be in one piece, as there’s a very dramatic burner-mark on the back cover.

If you’re lucky, you lend someone a book and it comes back just a little bit different. A little bit marked with the evidence that the people you care about have now spent time in those pages, too.

I am trying to love my books a little more carnally (which sounds very funny; please remember that Fadiman came up with this term, not me). I was a few chapters into Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow when I came across a sentence I wanted to remember. There was nothing at hand, not post-it or bookmark, and so, with no small amount of trepidation, I folded the page over.

When I’m done with the book, the quote will go on my wall of writing brain-food, the quotes I read and reread when I’m stuck: “There is a time for any fledgling artist where one’s taste exceeds one’s abilities. The only way to get through this period is to make things anyway.”

“The unread story,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin, “is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.” A book is everything put into and taken out of it: story, concept, idea, inspiration, art, craft, love, and those inevitable blood, sweat, and tears. And it’s little black marks on wood pulp. Put a slice of bacon in it as a bookmark if you really want to. (Seems like a waste of good bacon to me.) Use it for physical therapy. Smash it face-down on the counter while you’re cooking. The story is still there—little black marks waiting for you to bring them to life.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books Twitter.

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