Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
“The club had a lending library. I was delighted by a poster that described in detailed words and in pretty colored pictures how many ways there were to avoid ruining a book.” – Walter Benjamin
1. Any attempt to consider books must confront the impressive variety of objects that justifiably fall under that descriptor “books.” Volumes ranging from pocket dictionaries to table-sized atlases and from paperback novels to illuminated manuscripts bound in leather can all make a fair claim on being books. While it can be tempting to defer to a simple definition that rambles on about pages between covers, such an attempt to elucidate only proves helpful in the most boring of ways. After all, most people know a book when they see one. Though books come in a seemingly unlimited variety of shapes and sizes they, nevertheless, remain material objects, and as such they are not spared from the degrading effects of time. True – people may claim that the works of a given author, or a particular story, will “last for all time” but the individual books? They will eventually turn to dust, in the cosmic scheme of things. Book lovers, librarians, archivists, collectors, historians, and so forth…may all work diligently to keep their beloved tomes from falling to pieces, but eventually, if we think of time as it might be measured by the celestial bodies, every book will fall to pieces.
Granted, most of us do not experience time in a cosmic sense – and thus, even as we are concerned with the question of how not to ruin a book, we recognize that the act of “not ruining” is temporally isolated. Long-term conservation is a problem that most of us happily entrust to the preservation professionals. For we remain confident that most of the books on our shelves are copies – few of us are in possession of a genuinely “unique” book. It is a terrible responsibility to possess the only remaining copy of a book – and it is a burden, which most of us do not bear. Indeed, for most of us the desire to not ruin a given book has less to do with the feeling of an ethical imperative than with a simple desire to not see something pleasant destroyed.
To not ruin a book, therefore, begins with the question: why shouldn’t I ruin this book?
2. In order to delve into the matter of how not to ruin a book, it is useful to first consider some of the ways in which books can be ruined. Here “ruined” shall be mainly considered in terms of physical destruction. A book can be ruined by:
Of the methods of ruining books in this list the primary threats are likely the first two and the last two.
3. We return to an earlier question: why should I refrain from ruining this book? Answering this question hinges upon an orientation towards the future – a positioning that recognizes that a book has the potential to last for quite awhile. This forward thinking may be linked to a somewhat self focused motivation: an individual has not had the chance to read a particular book yet, so they do not want to ruin it before they get to it, or they think they might want to read it again at some point and thus prefer that it not be ruined. There can also be a motivation linked to a more convivial motivation: an individual realizes that others (friends, family, acquaintances, etc…) might want to borrow a given book in the future and therefore it is best to keep it in “non-ruined” condition to facilitate this loan. Still others may know that at some point they will no longer want the book and will attempt to properly get rid of it – yet this person may realize that if the book is to be donated to a library or sold to a used bookstore that these new recipients will be unlikely to accept books that are clearly ruined. It is certainly true, and therefore worth noting, that some may feel that they need to take care of their books out of a sense of moral responsibility or in order to preserve them for a far off future – but for most people such a duty is one entrusted to the aforementioned proverbial professionals. Nevertheless, the reason not to ruin a book – on the most basic and utilitarian level – is out of an understanding that a book may continue to be useful in the future, and thus that it should be preserved for that future.
Whatever it may be.
4. “I haven’t finished reading it yet, don’t ruin it for me!” This is a statement that many individuals have heard. True, the exact wording may have been different, but the core sentiment is one that many of us have certainly experienced. In this encounter when somebody says, “don’t ruin it” the way in which they use the term “ruin” implies a different type of destruction than the physical annihilation of a given tome. While it may be that the person saying “don’t ruin it” would be thoroughly nonplussed if you were to throw the book in question into a lake, that is not the type of “ruin” with which they seem to mostly be concerned. Indeed, as is rather obvious, in this sense “ruin” is pretty much synonymous with “spoil the ending” or “reveal the twists.” Granted, this is a problem which predominantly comes up in regards to works of fiction that contain revelations and surprises – and surely not all books contain such shocking moments. And yet one can “ruin it for me” without genuinely ruining the book, as such, unless the unwanted revelation of the twists compels the now frustrated reader to chuck the unfinished book into a lake. True, the experience of reading a book may be ruined, but it is far simpler, even through carelessness, to ruin the ending of a book than to ruin the book itself. Spoiling the ending of a book is ruining a particular experience of that book, but not ruining the book as an object.
When somebody warns you “don’t run it for me” the best response is to nod politely and then say – “the book ends with a punctuation mark.” Though sometimes a book ends with an index or bibliography.
5. Books are fairly sturdy objects. Yes, this is a generalization, for some books are sturdier than others – particularly if we are approaching the category “books” with a suitably robust definition. While one might not want to recommend treating a book too roughly, the fact remains that many books can endure a level of adversity that would render some other objects destroyed. A book – to put it fairly simply – can successfully survive experiences that would bring an unfortunate end to many a smart phone, e-reader, tablet, or laptop. A book can weather the following woes without being totally ruined, and will still be able to function reasonably well (please note – this is not to recommend that you do any of the following). A book can survive:
And the list could certainly go on – while it is certainly true that the book would be damaged in the above situations, it is doubtful that it would be genuinely ruined.
6. Alas! We have reached the sixth point and have still avoided clearly considering what constitutes “ruining a book.” Shame! Let us remedy this without further delay. To “ruin” a book is to make it impossible for the book to fulfill the purpose for which it was created. In most cases this means that a book is ruined when it has been rendered wholly unreadable. The emphasis here rests heavily upon the term “wholly.” After all, a book with dog-eared pages can still be read, a book with a missing dust jacket can still be read, a book on which coffee has been spilled can still be read, a book with some notes in the margin can…at this point you have hopefully picked up on the trend. One of the wonderful things about books is that they can even be subject to seemingly “ruinous” incidents and still prove rather resilient. If several pages come loose from a book, for example, this need not mark the end of that book. Even without resorting to serious conservation efforts one can easily slip them back where they belong and keep track of them through the wonder of page numbers. Indeed, though books are undeniably technology, they are a fairly simple technology, and it is not too difficult to understand the basics of how a book functions.
7. To avoid “rune-ing” a book one should refrain from writing runes within or on it. That being noted – there are many books which are about runes, or about ruin or ruins, in these cases it is essential to bear in mind that a book may be about runes, ruin, or ruins without the book itself being ruined. It should be noted that this is a challenge that few people have to deal with, but is important to consider should you decide to engage in the study of archeology, anthropology, or mythology.
If a friend lends you a book and you write (in pencil) a small rune somewhere within it, before returning it to them with the comment “I’m sorry, the book has been rune-ed” there is a very good chance that your friend will not find this joke funny. Granted – this raises the much more difficult question (which will not be discussed here) as to why you are borrowing books from people who do not possess a sense of humor?
8. Amongst the varieties of books there are some that are easier to ruin than others. Consider a hardcover book, a trade paperback, and a mass market paper back – it is quite conceivable that all three of these could be versions of a single text reprinted in various formats. While the basic content of the book may, therefore, be the same across all three books the resilience of each of the three books may be quite different. A hardcover is sturdier than a trade paperback, which is in turn sturdier than a mass market paperback, which is in turn still sturdier than an e-reader (of all of these the e-reader would fare the worst if hit with a hammer). In other words – to avoid ruining a book one must be aware of the fact that different types of books have different thresholds for being ruined. While it can always be advisable to handle books with (at least some degree of) care, some books require much more care than others.
Is this an obvious point? Yes, but that does not mean that it is unimportant.
9. It may well be that in order not to ruin a book an individual (or institution such as a library) need only abide by a relatively simple maxim:
Try to ensure that your usage of a book does not preclude others (or yourself) from using it again in the future.
If the above suggestion reminds you slightly of Kant’s categorical imperative, well, kudos to you – it means you have read (and remembered) Kant. Indeed, there is something of an ethical imperative to this maxim, insofar as it stakes out a position that argues that burning books or throwing them into large bodies of water is unacceptable. And yet it recognizes that occasionally a book will have a beverage spilled on it, that it will be written in, that it will fall off a table, that its pages will be dog-eared – and none of these will wholly ruin the book. Books are enduring objects – both in terms of the “history of the book” and in terms of the longevity of individual books – and it takes only a modicum of care and attention to ensure that the book you are reading today can be reread by you (or somebody else) in five or fifty years time. Granted, in terms of thinking about the future it may be necessary to take preservation and conservation oriented action to ensure that a book will be able to be used “again in the [distant] future.”
A book is a sturdy object – and though the ideas contained within it may be ephemerally invincible the book itself can be easily ruined. Luckily, there are a whole host of ways to keep from ruining a book – and most of these tactics are practiced by us without our needing to dwell carefully on our behavior.
Nevertheless – and perhaps most importantly – the best way to avoid ruining a book is to read it.
Just make sure others will be able to do the same.
Benjamin, Walter. The Moscow Diary. “October” vol. 35 (Winter, 1985) pp. 4, 9-135. The MIT Press. (the quote that begins this piece comes from page 64 of The Moscow Diary)