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A Stain do so tell a Story

October 14, 2009

a page's perfume

A used book is like an old friend: It comes with all its quirks and messes, beauty and wisdom, the smudges of humor and the driest of wit, and we are all better for knowing it.

A stain do so tell a story.

You know what is my favorite part of a tea mug? The rings of speckled, charcoal brown stain that quietly mark the inside of the mug. Like a vintage photograph, it speaks of the countless cups of reverence I’ve held in my palms in past hours, days, months, years. Countless moments of personal reflection, deep reverie, precocious daydreaming, and silly fantasies.

A well-read book does the same. You can feel the weight of its memories, test the weariness of its pages, and every flick of your fingers adds to its magic. I seriously feel that there are few things more beautiful than the gift of an old, used, personally meaningful book. You can write a message inside the front cover (hardcover, fountain pen, hopefully), foregoing the need of a card which will simply be lost through the passage of time. Thick, solid wrapping paper. No bow or ribbons. Maybe a cute sticker to keep it all together.

I actually don’t have as many books as I should. Because I move so much, it’s not practical to collect them now, both financially and spatially. I love libraries though. Sometimes you’ll find little writings people leave on the margins, or pages dog earred, and I move my finger past the creases, feeling its rises and falls, wondering if they were doing a school project, writing a memoir, or perhaps needed to get some inspiration for a good note to their significant other. Were they reclined in a wooden rocking chair by the window sill, or maybe curled up in a coffeeshop beside the frosted glass, or maybe sitting upright in front of their huge, messy desk, facing a night of stars, with the fireplace cackling softly behind them? Maybe, maybe, maybe. All those possibilities.

I know we are on route to electronic everything, and books will follow. There’s no doubt about it. It’s simply a torrent towards the future and you can’t take such a universal pasttime out of the equation. BUT, my problem with something like the Kindle (which I have not tested) is that it reduces the sensory experience of reading. With a printed book, you can touch, caress, feel the edges, carry its weight in your bag, admire the cover and spine, hear the rustle of pages as you flip them, etc. etc. With an OLD printed book…even more visceral the experience, there’s that haunting perfume of a page that all book lovers know dearly, it’s not just intangible sentimentality – you can feel them with your senses, it is absolutely tangible pleasure.

Reading on a screen? I do it all the time, all day long. I hate it. It’s distanced, cold. Just information passing by. I’m just a sorter. There’s no intimate connection.

It is the content that matters, but I challenge that it is our experience of that content that matters even more.

This past weekend, I found a Sentry Edition of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” in a used book store in the annex and am already mesmerized. Inside the front cover is this hand-wrote inscription in faint blue ink:


It’s a pleasure to introduce Antonia of whom I am very fond. I think, perhaps, you could be very much alike.

Bill Slouder (spl?)

R.R.#1, Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii

I wish there was a date. The cover is made of this cloth like paper of amazing texture…sturdy spine with one light brown streak – probably coffee or tea.

If only the pages could speak…

Kindle what?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2009 12:52 AM

    Kindle? Some kind of incinerator? Nice enough for bills, photocopies and secret stuff! But books? I do feel the need to reduce the burden at times due to lack of space ! But you can’t burn books like dead bodies. When my pile needs trimming I either sell it to the used book store, but he is usually selective; next choice is is our Waste Paper Man who plies his trade on a bicycle, announcing his presence in ear filling baritone several times a day-we don’t give too many damns to noise pollution. He’ll buy your paper stuff by weigh (maybe10 US cents per kilogram from where it is poured into the great ecosystem in ways that are not eco-unfriendly. I certainly don’t want to live in a used book store, which would be like the Arab and his candle. Books are mainly to be read. A few for sentimental reasons or as things-in-themselves. But not as a fetish. To kiss and stroke.

    Grace: One used book store I go to allow trades and credit – basically you bring back a book, could be used or new, and they gave you half the price you paid for it towards another book in the store. Is that common practice over there? Could be handy.

  2. October 15, 2009 8:44 AM

    Looks like someone was inspired by Ebert’s post (and the comments that followed). :-)

    When I studied abroad in England, I loved going in all the used bookstores and trying to find the oldest books there. I found one with an inscription on the the front for H.G. Wells’s The Passionate Friends, dated 1927. That book I bought. A book of Byron’s poetry was dated 1885. A copy of Vanity Fair had the author’s original illustrations. I did not buy those last two, though sometimes I think I should have bought the Vanity Fair.

    Then, a couple of Christmases back, my dad bought me some old poetry books of Byron and Tennyson. Like you say, Kindle cannot recreate the sensory experience that one gets from a book, especially an old, worn-out book, which documents its adventures as clearly as the story it tells within. And when the documentation is fuzzy, so much the better for the reader, who can use his or her imagination to guess at the adventures that particular book, that particular printing, has experienced through its lifetime.

    Grace: Yes….no time to write a full one…the comments link up not bad eh? I would’ve bought all three for sure.

  3. October 15, 2009 9:57 AM

    So kindle is this wonderful new book storing device. Kind of fantastic. But I guess a book is a book and old and musty is a matter of taste. One decision I regret is having gifted my own heavily self underlined USSR published beautifully red hardback wood smelling edition of Anna Karenina.

  4. October 15, 2009 10:01 AM

    And I guess you cant underline Kindle or can you which would take the whole personal element away. Books like the lead pencil will survive.

    • Grace permalink*
      October 15, 2009 10:36 AM

      I think you can make notes in margins and such on the kindle… But it is not with a lead pencil that’s for sure.

  5. Tom Dark permalink
    October 22, 2009 7:07 PM


    Grace: When are you going to hire me Tom?


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