I have only two categories of books. Regardless of the genre, or even whether it is fiction or non-fiction, a book with be either one that I respect the future owner of, or one that I love for myself.
I treat them very differently.
If I love a book, it will be (to others’ minds) abused. It will be dog-eared, spine-bent, littered with sticky tabs, and perhaps even written in. With pen. (I can almost hear some Gasps.)
The more I love a book, and the more I engage with it as a source of something to learn, or something to remember, the more I will bond with it, and the more I will mess with it. I stamp myself on it; within it. My name appears inside the front cover, and if I love it very much, my phone number does too. Books with my phone number are ever lent to anyone. No, no, no. They are the best of all, and the number is included only in case it gets lost. In a tornado, for example. (There are no tornadoes where I live, but one can’t be too careful about much loved books.) These are my forever-books.
Some people feel that such marks are a low form of sacrilege. I feel quite the opposite. I would be so honored if anyone ever finds anything I write to be worthy of note or of remembrance by underline or dog-ear. Unlike a textbook that is highlighted to the eyeballs by a student trying to identify what they must remember, as an obligation, the marks I’m writing of come from the heart.
If I do not love a book (even if I really can’t stand it), I try to leave it exactly as I found it. Pristine. It is not my book. It goes in the charity shop box in the hope that someone else will find it and thoroughly enjoy it.
So how do I decide which is which? How do I decide whether I should make that first mark or not? I don’t know. Perhaps the book tells me. I don’t consciously decide, but at some point I find myself folding the corner of a page because it’s too important to trust to a bookmark. Or sometimes I get the first clue when I reach for that first sticky tab. That moment of catching myself in a behavior always brings a smile to my face because that’s when I know I’ve found something special.
Several decades ago, before moving in with my to-be-fiance-and-ex-husband, about 300 of my books went to the local second hand store because there would be no room for them in his flat. (That should have been a sign, right?) Most of those books were bought because I thought them necessary for my development and identity as a literature-savvy creature: The Iliad & the Odyssey, War and Peace, Catch 22… they were all read, but not obviously so. Others were loved and a little bent, such as The Handmaid’s Tale. But the most loved of all, and by far the most battered, was a huge edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
If you ever find a book that is beaten and bent, scribbled on and underlined, and maybe even with little drawings or diagrams in the margins, coffee stained and crumpled from having been stuffed in a bag over and over … someone loved it. Perhaps I am the one who loved it. And I hope you love it too.