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19 February 2015

The crack of the spine: why do we find wear and tear in books so comforting?

Objects that feel lived in give us a comforting feeling of having come a long way, of having been through the years and having done some hard work to get there.

By Oliver Farry

For about fifteen years now I have been keeping a notebook, or multiple notebooks actually, ostensibly with the intention of jotting down ideas or thoughts before they escape off into the ether. Occasionally these thoughts result in something concrete but more often than not the scribblings are promptly forgotten about, never to be reread or pored over for long-lost inspiration.

In reality, this incessant note-taking is just another form of procrastination, no different nor more tangibly constructive than the 47,000 or so tweets that I have managed to post over a much shorter period of time. Dozens of the notebooks are piled in a drawer at home, ranging from neat little Moleskines to cheap spiral-bound jotters that I can’t remember buying. There are even some loose pages that were posted  back to me by a conscientious thief who ripped them out and kept the rest of the book (upon later recovering the bag they were in and which had been left on the Metro, I found the same thief had ignored a number of valuable items but took a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and a Paris A-Z – it was as if I had been robbed by a latter-day Raymond Queneau). 

They bear the marks of occupational carelessness – crumpled or worn covers, smudged ink, coffee and wine stains – contain fragments of stories, lists, recipes, potted film reviews, heartfelt confessionals after bad break-ups, the occasional bad poem, ill-informed first impressions of whatever city or country I happened to be travelling in at the time. Everything is written in my cursive handwriting, which has got smaller and increasingly illegible as the years have progressed (some entries also bear the clear imprint of drunkenness). The writing is in a variety of coloured inks, of varying thickness, sometimes in pencil, of varying degrees of sharpness. A couple of the early ones even have an index system, dating from a time when I seriously thought these scribblings would constitute a corpus from which my future work might be drawn.

The notebooks are of little literary value and, even to myself, of limited interest. Yet I would be loth to ever lose them. Because they represent my most sustained bout of writing. However inconsequential this accrued graphomania might be, it is physical testimony to years of efforts to try and turn idle musings into something resembling literature.

This is one of the attractions of wear and tear. Objects that feel lived in give us a comforting feeling of having come a long way, of having been through the years (or months, as it might be). There is also the sense of having done some work. Even reading a book can be denoted by the physical mark you leave on it – the cracking of a spine, its progressive warping as you work your way to the end. Occasionally when reading a secondhand paperback, a bookmark or a dog-eared page shows you where the last owner gave up – you feel momentarily like Amundsen discovering Scott’s encampment.

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If you’re up for a proper mental workout, you can annotate it as you read, notes that, unless you are an academic or a professional critic, you are probably never going to return to. These annotations will however provide delight and amusement for future owners: the American writer David Markson famously bequeathed his library to the Strand bookstore in the East Village and his dyspeptic marginalia regularly surface online. Even if one is not a heavyweight annotator, like Joyce editor Danis Rose or art dealer Tony Shafrazi, a written comment in a book is always worth stopping to read. One of a number of copies of Moby Dick I own is an old Dover Thrift edition, in which some diligent student has scribbled in the margin of page 100: “Ahab is obsessed by the whale” (though, to be fair, my own college annotations of Paradise Lost are not any more sophisticated). I always wonder if the loving dedication written on the flyleaf of my secondhand copy of Goethe’s Italian Journey enchanted or scared off the Japanese man to whom it was addressed in July 1993. The book certainly wasn’t deemed to be of lasting sentimental importance.

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Physical deterioration though is more welcome in some contexts than in others. You might be perfectly happy to wear a frayed pair of jeans or a faded torn t-shirt but the tattered lining of an overcoat is likely to put you out a lot more. Similarly, people are less likely to annotate first editions or more expensive hardback books (though if you happen to have small children around the house, they will invariably take care of that for you).

The more valuable the artefact the less compelling the charm of wear and tear: restorers spend their entire careers trying to reverse the effects of time on antique artworks. It is no surprise that over the past 100 years, the word “pristine”, which for centuries meant “in its original condition” has taken on the additional meaning of “spotless”. And while we might have organic decomposition to thank for the joys of beer, wine and smelly cheeses, only a select few are able to stomach the extreme putridness of the Icelandic fermented shark, Hákarl, or the rotted Swedish herring, Surströmming. 

There are those who try to accelerate the process of deterioration, for aesthetic effect, most notably the forgers of the Hitler diaries, who doused the pages in tea to make them look decades old. Paul Thomas Anderson makes use of heat-damaged film in his Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice to get the requisite 70s look. Robert Wise and Mark Robson, editors of Citizen Kane, dragged film across the floor of the cutting room to make the newsreel sequences look credible. There are also people who buy “ready-worn” jeans brand new. It will surely be only a matter of time before someone actually markets Flann O’Brien’s Buchhandlung service, which offered to appropriately scuff the libraries of those who just don’t have the time to read.

But real wear and tear takes a long time, and patience too. You’re not going to make your brand new copy of The Magic Mountain look read without working your way steadily through it. The adjective “well-thumbed” tends to suggest a certain monomania regarding a text but in many cases it can be a virtuous one. And there is something thrilling in seeing great writers in manuscript form, the crabbed minuscule handwriting of Walter Benjamin or Robert Walser or Nabokov’s index cards. There you get both the human imprint of the writer, which is normally obscured by the uniformity of print, and the sense of their toil, the crossed out words, the revisions, the messiness of creation, something that even multiple drafts typed up on a computer can’t convey. 

James Joyce, almost blinded by glaucoma in later life, composed Finnegans Wake in thick blue crayon, some of it on sheets of wallpaper. That is probably the ultimate physical embodiment of a writer’s labour, the rudest totem of all that effort and all those years of work.