The secret lives of books

My grandfather's book photo

My grandfather’s well-loved book that he read nearly every day

You trip over many listicles and other interesting things on the web while browsing – like the strictures at Mental Floss about how to keep your books looking good.

I stopped dead at #4: AVOID WRITING IN YOUR BOOKS : Don’t even think about writing your name on the first page. Modern ownership inscriptions are considered unsightly flaws in the current collectible market. But if you cannot resist the compulsion, use pencil. Even better: Keep a notebook … where you record quotes and thoughts from the books you’re reading.”

Yes. In theory, yes. But then I look up on the shelf above my desk where a bunch of my own books live – they, and one other – a very precious one.

It’s a tattered ancient dull gray old-fashioned hardcover, falling apart at the seams, stray threads poking out from the ageing spine. A workaday edition, nothing special, printed in 1940 (wartime Europe) and put out as a part of a series (#294, to be precise) by a literary endowment. It’s a book of personal essays and short prose pieces by one of my grandfather’s favorite poets.

It is in fact my grandfather’s book, perhaps his favorite. It used to live on the cabinet next to the couch where he took his daily afternoon naps, and usually before or after the nap he’d pick up the book – which he had read many times – and peruse its familiar pages again.

Inside, the book has many passages underlined in pencil by his hand, with particular bits annotated (in handwriting I can no longer read) in the margins.

It may be a sin to write in a book. But oh, am I glad he did so here.

Framed photo of my grandfatherBecause his spirit lives in this book, in his notes, in his faded chickenscratch handwriting, in the carefully cut out and pasted in (another no-no from the original list) newspaper cuttings about the poet who wrote the book, in the ratty pair of bookmarks (ANOTHER no-no from the list!) which have now lived in the places where he last left them for decades – one of them is a really worn old leather one which I gave him once a long time ago and the other is an incomplete bus punch ticket – incomplete, because the last date on it is shortly before he died.

Every time I pick up the book I see his gnarled brown hands folded around it. Every time I bring it to my face I catch a whiff of his pencils. Every time I look at it I see him, I remember him, and every underline, every scribble, every annotation reminds me of the man who woke my own love for poetry and for language, who made me what I am today.

I treasure that ratty old written-all-over book. No, it isn’t in “great shape”. But what it is – all of it, every sacred page, every blessed line of it – is a beloved reminder of somebody I loved, a memory I would HATE not to have.

So write in your books. Someday your grandchildren may remember and love you by those penciled thoughts you left behind.

Books don’t have to be pristine. They just have to be loved.

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Mental Floss tips to keep your books looking great HERE

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories – e.g.

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time – Alan Moore

More from Wired HERE

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