Give me your tired, your worn, your ugly books

The tweet appeared in my feed this morning, shared by a fellow book lover:

My first instinct was to agree. After all, beautifully designed and gorgeously bound books are a delight.

But I froze mid-nod. Am I, too, haunted by those pretty editions?

I appreciate beauty – I pull off the road to watch sunsets and stood in awe at art museums. But when it comes to surrounding myself with an aesthetic, I don’t want the adorned and well-kept.

Give me the ugly books. I’ll take the tattered, the dog-eared, the water-warped, the bent-covered, and the spine-broken.

Every year, I follow the used book sale circuit in my city and surrounding communities. I hunt for the books with ragged spines – the ones that have been read repeatedly and well-loved. I don’t mind the cheesy covers of outdated paperback editions, or the wrinkled pages of once a water-logged text, or the disintegrating binding of an aged hardcover.

As long as the ink is still readable, I’ll adopt the ragged editions.

A tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I adopted from a used book sale.

Not that I don’t have a reverence for brand new books. There’s a special kind of joy that comes from holding a freshly printed edition and cracking the spine for the first time, waiting for that satisfying pop of the binding’s glue, followed by that vicarious “ahhhh” as if you had cracked your own back.

But new editions don’t need nice covers for me to buy them and love them. (To be honest, the only editions I dodge are the movie tie-in covers. But if I really want the book and it’s the only edition at hand, I’ll even buy those ugly beasts and love them.)

Friends could always point to my bookshelves and say, “Look at all of the ornate 19th and early 20th century editions on the shelf. You love the pretty editions!”

It’s true. I have hardcovers with gilt edges and foil stamps and leather bindings. Not a single one is in pristine condition. They’ve all been read and slightly battered. Each is past its prime. But still wonderfully relevant, and carrying the character that only age and use can bestow.

They’re the silver foxes of the literary world. Growing more handsome as they age and show a few flaws.

Used books hold an especially dear place in my heart. Not only do they tell stories, but they also have stories.

I once bought a copy of The Little Prince, and tucked in the back was a sympathy card with a touching note for a family who lost a child. There ere no addresses or surnames on the card for me to return it, so after reading the book I tucked the card back inside. It’s part of the book’s personal story now.

I found a box of books in my attic several years after we bought the house, and a copy of Classics for Vocal Expression is stuffed full of loose papers – mostly shopping lists and what appears to be practice correspondence. I left all of those loose pages in place, keeping them tucked between the pages where I found them.

Collectors might cringe at the overstuffed, distorted spine of Classics for Vocal Expressions. The deformity makes it one of my favorites from that discovered box.

Then there was the tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I found at a used book sale, with its detached cover and deteriorated spine and loose leafs. When I reached the front of the line to pay for my stack of treasures, one of the volunteers working at the table lamented that the book shouldn’t have been put out for sale. Another volunteer offered to let me take it for free. But I paid the 50 cents expected for hardcovers, and it has a home now on my living room shelf.

I haven’t read that edition of Journeys Through Bookland, but it’s my favorite. (I have another edition that’s intact; it came from a box of books passed down through my dad’s side of the family.) Sometimes I pull the battered edition off the shelf to caress the cover or carefully turn its frayed pages.

My goal is to be a Statue of Liberty for worn books – let me stand as the symbol of their new home, offering them a place of permanence and acceptance. To paraphrase (and amend) Emma Lazarus’ iconic sonnet: Give me the tired, the poor, the wretched books. Send these, the homeless, to me. I lift my lamp to read them.