The Ethics of Book Abuse

"Every reader has a personal ethic for how to treat a book, a morality for what can and can’t be done to the physical object."  Is dog-earing a page a violation of the sanctity of the volume, or an easy way to hold your place?  What about highlighting key passages, or writing notes in the margins?  Or even (gasp!) throwing out an old book you don’t want anymore?

Here is the link.  I do not believe that books have rights, Nozickian or otherwise.  I am most likely to rip up travel books if only to minimize my carry burden.  But I don’t write in books because I wish to discover new ideas — and not just my old ideas — each time I open them up.  Dog-earing pages is useful because you can go back to old books and see how far in them you read and then decide you really shouldn’t give it another chance after all.

Here is a story about book left behind in hotel rooms, including a list of the top 10 most abandoned titles (UK).


All of the above, with one's own books: perfectly ok, however uncomfortable at first. Students who pencil their pathetic opinions in the margins of library books, however, should die.

we rip our travel books to shreds. we dog ear pages in all our books like there's no tomorrow. we leave books we have both finished behind for whoever finds them and wants them. we have had hotel employees running after our cab as we head to the airport trying to give us back the books we "forgot" in Morocco, South Africa, Italy, and Thailand. I have taken to leaving them in the fridge if there is one in the room in order to make a clean break.

I'm against mutilating books, and will never write or highlight or dog-ear books I'm reading. I realise this is pretty irrational, it's a superstition I absorbed as a child along with valuing knowledge, a hold-over from a few generations ago when the problem was scarcity of information, not surplus.

I find it hard to break this rule even for travel books, bought for one trip. Free guides & maps, and newspapers, and things printed out from the computer all get scribbles on and torn up with glee.

I blogged about dog earing books not too long ago:

I do think there is a relationship between writer and reader, but the physical condition of the book is not part of that relationship. The work existed in other forms besides bound book, after all.

I used to care about the state of books until my stint as a librarian, at which point I adopted a philosophy more along the lines that the contents of the book were what mattered, and as long as the book remained in a state fit to be read, perfect uncreased pages didn't really matter. I still hate people who damage spines when they're reading, mostly because that tends to reduce the life of the book.

You mean you don't keep books around just to impress people?

My small used bookstore buys and sells 90,000 or so books each year. I wish we had kept track through the years of the items people use to mark their books. I'm not sure if the books we've been offered are representative of those owned by the population, but here's a few observations:

- less than 5% of books have dog-eared corners, and most of those are mass-market paperbacks;

- airline ticket stubs were once the most common form of bookmark;

- items with personal information, such as credit card receipts, are left in books way more often than I would have guessed;

- about every other year we find a photo of an unbeautiful woman, partially clothed and perched atop a Harley-Davidson (not the same woman each time, of course).

It might be fun for my employees to record the types of bookmarks they find over the next few months. My customers would find that interesting.

I was listening to the radio and heard that in prison libraries it is common for people to underline the murderer's name in mysteries in the beginning pages, effectively ruining the book.

Above all else, I find myself wondering how I can avoid the sorts of books that would house the kind of photo described by John Dewey.

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