This morning I’ve been thinking about books. Library books in particular. I like books, love them. I own many, some of which I’ve even read. But still I can’t resist a good bookstore or a nice library.

Despite the many books at home that I haven’t yet but am eternally keen to read, I find that I’m constantly borrowing books from the library. New York City, where I work, has a great library system: many titles, excellent on-line interface, and a superb inter-branch lending program. I exploit the latter extensively, reserving books, CDs, DVDs, etc. and having them sent to my local branch. Sometimes there’s a waiting list for popular titles and the wait may be months, but if there’s a copy not spoken for it usually arrives within a few days, a week at most.

There is, however, a price to paid: one is often reminded that this is a communal operation. These are not the lovingly-cared for, gently read volumes of my home library, where the paperbacks’ spines have no cracks and the hardcovers’ corners are not dented. Oh no. These are the books that are thrown into the seething masses of humanity, at best like stage divers at a rave, at worst like chum for great whites. Now, it’s true that not all of the library’s patrons are selfish and inconsiderate of the group enterprise aspect, but there are enough of that sort to make a significant impact, and the books bear the battle scars as proof. Here’s my list of the major types:

  • The Annotated, of which there are two subdivisions:
    • The Edited: these books have been “edited” by amateur copy-editors of varying skill and intelligence. Sometimes their handiwork is correct, amending typos and grammatical faux pas: this is mildly distracting because any good reader will recognize them anyway and move on apace, so the correction actually slows one down. But then there are the misguided corrections, the ones that are flat-out wrong, the ones that are laughable. “How could they possibly be so mistaken? Ha ha. I feel sorry for them, the fools.” These potholes are slightly more retarding to the reader’s progress. Worse still are the “Enigmatics,” the annotations that derail the reader’s literary locomotive to exclaim, “HUH? What could they mean?” and then perhaps doubt herself and wonder if the supposed Samaritan is pointing out what the book’s author intended to convey. Afterward, it’s difficult to relocate one’s place and get that train moving again.
    • The Editorialized: these volumes have unsolicited comments of highly omnigenous veracity and bias. Some examples are (and I’m inventing these spuriously): “Yes, but this contradicts Kant’s basic tenet of transcendentality vis à vis moral law and empiricism.” “Incorrect! Vampire bats only attack female babies during the full moon!!!” “Why doesn’t she just use a cell phone?” This sort of thing is bad enough, but when a subsequent reader or readers decide to start a dialogue (never mind that the original person is unlikely to reread the same book, the same copy), it begins to resemble the inside of a public restroom stall. Upon encountering one of these marginal squabbles, I resist the urge to write, in all caps of course, “CUT IT OUT!” After all, what good would it do?
  • The Mutilated: books suffering this fate are like wounded soldiers returning from war. Sometimes the injuries are minor: dog-eared corners (is there a different name for when one of the bottom corners has been turned over?), small tears, the odd crinkled-then-smoothed page, et al. Other injuries are more severe: “pagectomies,” or sometimes the absence of an entire bound subsection, which must have literally come unglued. I recently borrowed a book whose first 30 pages had been victimized by something. There were pages that were severely torn, others that had internal holes and flaps, all sorts of mysterious indignities. Whether the culprit was a dog who thought it was a chew toy, a schizophrenic reader in the midst of a psychotic episode, or one of the aforementioned great white sharks, I can’t say for certain. Saddest of all are the injuries that can’t be seen on the surface. The bibliographic statistics bureaus still have no way to accurately measure the incidence of Post-Dramatic Stress Syndrome, which obviously affects plays and novels more often than their non-fiction comrades.
  • The Violated: these poor victims have been invaded by foreign substances, ranging from the benign to the despicable. At the low end of the spectrum I’m talking about food: coffee stains, tomato sauce, chocolate smears. Next come body fluids: bloodstains and dried snot. (I suppose I should be upset by the dried snot, but I just can’t. If it’s a stucco-like smear, it’s easy enough to avoid touching and it’s gone when you turn the page. If it’s a hardened little spheroid, also not difficult to deal with: just flick it away if you’re outside, or dispose of it with a little shake or nudge. It’s most likely not infested with germs so you can even touch it with your finger if no implements are handy.) At the other extreme is my personal bête noire: the smoke inhalation victim. Such a book is suffused with, reeks of, the cigarette smoke of a previous reader. When I remove one from the shelf I usually detect a slight whiff of the stale yellow odor, which emerges full-blown if I open the cover. It is immediately returned it to the shelf, for my head becomes filled with images of that horribly inconsiderate earlier reader, face close to the text, callously exhaling noxious breath after noxious breath, page after page. It’s unreadable to me, as if it were radioactive. If a book I’ve requested through an interlibrary loan arrives in such condition, I decline it and will re-request at some later date, hoping to receive a different copy.

So that’s it. That’s my list of the primary iniquities visited upon library books. Fortunately, it’s a relatively small percentage that suffer so.

On the whole, and despite some of these physical hindrances, I remain a strong proponent of the library as wonderful social construct and beneficial to people from all walks of life, and will continue borrowing books as if there’s no tomorrow. Or at least as if there’s no three weeks from now.

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