I buy a lot of books second hand, on the Internet or at yard sales or library sales. I don’t worry about the condition as long as all the pages are there. I was about to add “and as long as they are clean,” but that’s not entirely true.
Recently I was riveted by the entries in The Best American Crime Reporting 2007, edited by Linda Fairstein. After the first entry, by Tom Junod, about the deaths in nursing homes and hospitals after flooding from Hurricane Katrina, I told everyone about the injustice being done to the only two people indicted in the deaths of the elderly or disabled during the flood. As I read on, my respect and admiration grew. That’s when I noted that the dirt on the front cover probably could be washed off. I applied a warm sponge, and washed the cover. I did this a couple of times.
I’m not a clean freak, but I do love books. Once upon a time writing and reading meant not only holding an object in your hands but also caring for it. We taped a small tear in a dust jacket, glued in pages that had fallen out from repeated use, washed covers of paperbacks or hard covers of dictionaries. Now we just read a forever perfect copy on the computer.
For those of a certain age, learning how to iron the pages of your manuscript so you could send it out repeatedly without retyping it was an important step in your career. If a mss was typed perfectly, without a single typo, misaligned page, or missing header, you wanted to keep it and use it as many times as possible. Ironing pages was a necessary skill.
I once received in the mail the return of a mss I was confident would be accepted for publication. All the pages curled up in the lower right-hand corner, a sure sign that several people had read it. But the thumb prints left on the paper meant I couldn’t reuse the front page. No amount of ironing could save the mss unless I could erase the prints.
Yes, those days are gone, and I’m just as glad as anyone else. But I wonder if we have lost something in not having to exercise special care with a book or manuscript.