Most of my books are in good condition because I am careful. I do not write in them (anymore). I do not break the spine (at least, not on purpose). I do not drop them into the tub or dog-ear the pages.
That said, I have a number of books that are falling apart, ripped and torn, drawn in and beat up. I could easily replace them, and yet I do not. They are among the books I love the most, perhaps because each rip and scribble tells a story.
Probably the shabbiest of all my books is “Beloved Tales,” an anthology of children’s stories and poems. The book, edited by Bryna and Louis Untermeyer, uses a different illustrator for each piece so young readers get a broad spectrum of both words and artwork. It’s a delight.
I’m not sure how old I was when I was given this book, but I was very small. It was new then, but now the covers are gone, the first few pages are ripped out, other pages are torn and crayon-scribbled. It’s a mess. Why do I keep it?
My copy of Dylan Thomas’ “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” is not in good shape. I read those short stories over and over when I was in high school – Thomas’ recollections of childhood are exactly right, and often very funny.
But the book is worn and stained. The spine is broken from lying for days opened face down.
I could replace it, but I do not. This is the copy I want.
I do not have a lot of books like this, but I have a few, books that are as valuable for their dishevelment as they are for their words.
My Dover edition of “The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear” still smells faintly of frangipani, the perfume I wore in high school and somehow spilled onto its pages. I used to read these brilliant and nonsensical poems out loud to my brother in the evenings when he baked cookies.
And Sinclair Lewis? I remember reading “Kingsblood Royal” when I was 15, lying on a blanketl at the beach in Duluth. A man, a stranger, stopped to chat me up and I, foolish girl, thought this was flattering. Thank goodness my mother was sitting nearby and spoke up.
I was furious with her at the time, of course. Only years later did I feel retroactively grateful that she had made herself annoying in that important way that attentive parents do.
I have not re-read “Kingsblood Royal” since that teenage summer, but when I see its torn dust jacket on my shelves, I think of my mother.
All of these books are part of me. They are a mess, but maybe I was a mess, too, when I read them. In a way, we match.
Not every book I own has a story behind it. But the damaged ones, the well-used ones, the ones missing covers and dust jackets – they do. And all I have to do is glance at the book to remember.
I’m guessing that you also have ratty books you can not part with. Write to me at [email protected] and tell me the stories. Feel free to send photos. Include your city and full name and we’ll share some of them here in a few weeks.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. @StribBooks.