20 June 2012

The Unmaking of Books

by Robert Lopresti

Vandalized book by fifteeniguana
Vandalized book, a photo by fifteeniguana on Flickr.

"Are you reading a stolen book?"

That startling question came from my wife a few weeks ago.  The answer was no, but I understood why she was wondering.

I was reading a paperback with the cover torn off and I am sure many of you have seen the note that appears in many paperbacks that reads like this:

If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property.  It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

My wife is an accountant for a bookstore, so you can see how she would be particularly sensitve to this issue.  In this case, however, I was able to reassure her that the book had a cover when I bought it.  In fact, I had torn the front of it off myself for one very simple reason.

It was ugly as all hell. The book was THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR by Josephine Tey and the cover is supposed to show a young woman who has been badly beaten, but to me it looks like a severed head.   (You can judge for yourself... I will put it at the bottom of this page.  If you DON'T want to see it, jump past to the comments.)

So, that's why I was reading a book with no cover: not theft, but censorshiip. (Hey, if I can't  censor my own copy of a book, who can?)

But that got me thinking about a very strange habit of my father.  When Dad read a paperback he didn't bother with a bookmark.  When he finished a page he simply tore it off.  This used to drive me nuts, largely because I couldn't read the book , or even tell what the title was.

I have plenty of time to think about such things today because I am stuck at home - need I mention that the weather is beautiful? - waiting for delivery men.  After thirty-some years our platform bed is being demoted, or if you prefer, retired, to the guest room, and a couple of strong fellas will be showing up soon with a new one.  So I write this with one eye on the driveway.

Where was I?  Oh yes, I just finished another paperback and I suspect my father would approve of the way I shredded it.  But this was not done on purpose.  It was one of those oh-so-clever covers with a hole cut in it - in fact here it is.  The triangle on the left is a cut-out giving you a peek at the inside cover.  And, as I usually find to be the case, causing the book to shred as I read it.  I keep wanting to refer to the map at the beginning, but it has already fallen out.

It can be hard to keep track of books intellectually, as well as physically.  Walt Fraser, a professor I had in library school, said that a librarian was a person who could put something away and find it again.  Not always easy, alas.

For example, many years ago I got a paper ledger and started keeping track of every book I read, and even rated them.  Then one day, back in 2005, the ledger just disappeared.  I knew I never took it out of the house, so where did it go?  I suppose I should be glad they didn't ask for my librarian badge back.  (Okay, we don't get badges, but wouldn't it be cool if we did?)

Still no moving men.  Where was I? Oh yes.  Keeping track of books.

In Rex Stout's novels Nero Wolfe was a voracious reader.  When he started a book he marked his page with a bookmark of actual gold, a gift from a client.  If he decided he didn't like the book he would switch to a piece of paper.  If the book got worse he would start dog-earring the pages.  Only the books that kept the gold bookmark all the way through found a place on his shelves.

The moving men have been and gone, by the way.  The new bed looks lovely.  And guess what they found under the old platform bed?

Yup.  The ledger.  How it got there I will never know.

Do I have to start again reading all the books I haven't written down since 2005?

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. -Kohelet, alias Ecclesiastes.

And here is that awful cover...


  1. Rob, I have to agree with you on the cover you removed from your own copy of THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR.
    Actually, I expected the woman to look more badly beaten than she does, but it's still an ugly severed head cover. At times I've been accused of having a weird sense of humor, and I could picture this cover with the woman having a chocolate candy in her mouth.
    I save (or collect, if you prefer) very few books these days. Unless it's a book I feel I'll want to read again, I donate them to nursing homes. My favorites go into the "library" of my home, which is, and has been, full for a good while.
    Enjoyed the article.

  2. Oh yes, looks like Salome's been busy again.

  3. R.E. That cover: "Iiiiiiickkkkk!" (I've seen worse!)

  4. I've ripped off a few covers myself that I've found too gross, too offensive, too... nasty.


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