Every book fanatic falls within 1 of 2 groups. For your reading convenience I have named these 2 groups the Purists and the Naturalists. There are no in-betweeners. These two groups are in constant debate over the care and well-being of one’s books, much likes the different sectors of parenting techniques. It’s not so extreme as to whether or not breastfeed your book in public (not possible, but you get my point), but a heated debate all the same.
As a reader, you either are a Purist, or you know a Purist. If there is one word to describe the books of the Purists it is pristine. No page has been marked, no dust jacket is bent or missing. No pages are dog-earred. The mere thought of “defacing a book” is borderline blasphemy.
If you’re not a Purist, then you belong to my coven of the Naturalists. When you don’t have a bookmark you bend the page or use the dust jacket. Your pages are filled with different colors of highlighters and pen. Your remarks might range from, “Strong motif of depression in this chapter” to “Oh hell no he didn’t?!” You take your book with you wherever you go. You don’t simply experience the story, but the physical book itself.
Why I Chose the Way of the Naturalists
The beginnings of my Naturalist transition started senior year of high school in AP English. I had always underlined my favorite lines in books, but that was as far as my Naturalist dabbling went. In AP English however, we were taught about annotating books, and our notes and highlights were even graded. At first I thought it was a tedious task, not worthy of my time. Yet the more I annotated, the deeper I read the book. I recalled images and characters and plot points more easily. I realized I actually liked Frankenstein and The Scarlet Letter. My eyes weren’t merely glancing over words but absorbing them.
As my love of classic novels grew, so did my love of antique and unique finds. I visited antique shops, garage sales, and flea markets. I loved finding a piece that no one else I knew had. I soon became enthralled with antique books. I loved seeing the names of previous owners inside the cover, their favorite lines underlined, their notes scratched lightly in pencil in the margin. I imagined them reading it, their written reactions and observations painting me a small version of their life story.
There is a well-known quote amongst book lovers by Edmund Wilson that reads, “No two persons truly read the same book.” Each person is unique and, therefore, so is their experience with the book itself. While the words hold different weight for each individual person, there is something to be said about feeling and sharing the physical weight of the book with the previous owner. You’ve both held the book carefully in one hand, while you open it gingerly to read the first few sentences. You’ve both run your hands across its cover and smelled its pages. Your fingers turned the same pages, maybe even lingered over the same passages.
That’s what I relish about used and vintage books. The experience is simultaneously independent and collective. You experience your own individual story while gaining insight into another’s. The lines a person marks in a book and the notesnotesthey leave behind is a story of its own.
All book lovers are good book lovers, but you can keep your pristine pages. I’ll take mine muddled with smugs, notes, and dog-earred pages. I’ll read my own story while sharing with an anonymous other. Maybe one day, when someone has to claw my books from the hands of my cold and rotting corpse, they’ll end up at garage sales and used book stores and my experience with the stories will live on with someone else.