Our Reading Lives

Books in Bathtubs: Why Ruining Books is Best

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

This is a guest post from Cindy Butor. Cindy is a pseudo-librarian living in Lexington, KY with her rad girlfriend, awesome sister, and ultra-chill cat. She’s a bleeding heart liberal that just wants to make the world a better place – that and read too much, sleep too late, write aggressively, and draw comics. She really wants you to take her seriously but she also really wants to make you laugh. Consequently, she’s pretty awkward. She rages against ideation and devaluation on her blog, The Adventures of a Pissed Off Millennial, and has no idea how to create a consistent brand. You can follow her @babble_drabble on Twitter or @clbutor87 on Instagram where you will see a lot of pictures of her face, cat, and food.

I am eleven years old, lounging in the bathtub, well into my second hour of reading. This is when, for the third or fourth time, I notice how cold the water’s grown. I split my book – In the Time of Dinosaurs, Animorphs Megamorphs 2 by K.A. Applegate – over the side of the tub to keep my place and lean forward to turn on the faucet.

Inevitably, my elbow hits the book. It slips into the tub, and I jump to my feet, flinging water everywhere, my wet hands scooping up the book and half the tub. No-no-no,” I moan, grabbing for towels and dabbing at it. In a moment, I’ll wrap a towel around myself and go for the hair dryer, somehow trying to get the book dry before the water seeps in all the way. But I know better. I know that, no matter how thoroughly I dry it, how flat I lay it, or how quickly I get it out of the water, it’s going to warp and wrinkle, puffing up to twice its size. This is not the first book I’ve dropped in the bathtub. It will not be the last.

At the time, I was horrified by what I’d done. Every little thing – crushing a book in my backpack, accidentally tearing a page as I turned it, getting peanut butter and jelly on a page – drove me to despondence. I would frantically dab and fan at the page, dropping everything to try to fix it. When I inevitably couldn’t (Has anyone ever reversed water damage to a book?), I would grow depressed. I’d lean back, convinced of my innate shittiness, staring at the book that I had just ruined. I was a monster.

My attitude towards books as a librarian at a public library is decidedly different. Public library books are not relicts meant to be handled with cotton gloves and tweezers. If they were, we couldn’t give them out to people who return them covered in jam and coffee rings, their slipcovers filled with bed bug corpses and their pages smelling strongly of cigarette smoke.

And yet, when you tell people of the secret ends of library books – burned after coming from a nursing home with a meningitis outbreak, tossed if the spine breaks, recycled if they’re missing a single page, pulled from the shelves if they smell of mold – they react as though you’ve just admitted to being a Fahrenheit 451-esque firefighter. Even fairly innocuous behavior like dropping a load of books on the floor will elicit scandalized gasps. 

When you work in a library, you come to understand that books are meant to be used, not stored. Books are these strange creatures – immortal stories wrapped in mortal covers. You can drop them, throw them across the room, and run over them with a heavy metal cart, and you will still not have damaged their true worth.

Before I started working at a library, I overestimated the importance of coddling books. I thought that protecting their spines or refusing to turn down their pages meant that I valued them more than others. I was wiser, more mature, more “worthy” of possessing them.

There is no value in refusing to use a book. Collecting them so you can lock them behind glass doors or fan them artfully across your coffee table enervates them. It censors them. It prevents someone else from discovering their real worth. Doing so just makes you a second-class collector, not a reader.

This does not mean that we librarians want you to destroy our books – or that we won’t charge you for dropping a book in the bathtub (We absolutely will, don’t test us.). We know that a book’s life cycle has to end one day, which, while harmful to our budgets, is still natural. So if you crinkle a page or your baby chomps off a corner, don’t worry – the story will live on. That’s what makes books so wonderful.