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The Pleasure of a Dirty Book

Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

A librarian withdrew a book for me once. I took it up to check out after storytime, but it was battered and smudged, and well past its library life. So she let me take it home to keep. I clasped it to my chest and felt like I’d been given the world.

Discarded books held a kind of magic for me after that. The library in my childhood hometown had a whole room of discarded and donated titles for sale, every day; I returned to it even after moving, on visits. Tattered copies of Garfield with a page or two hanging loose; ripped and bent covers; colors along spines that weren’t there originally. Those were the books that had been loved and enjoyed, and whose bindings held stories beyond the stories glued in. And now—for just a quarter—they were mine.

For a long time, my personal library was comprised of such volumes. Books with sticky spots and words scrawled in, marked with names and a concentrated old book smell; with strained glue along the binding and bits of the cover missing. Barcodes scratched out; catalogue cards long gone.

A well-loved book spending its last life with me never bothered me; it felt like an honor. It meant that I was part of a bigger experience, that I’d joined a small community of readers, all who’d held these singular books before, all who’d read them as I was reading them now. There’s a continuity there that’s worth reveling in.

Somewhere along the way, I lost that.

I noticed the absence this week, while perusing titles at a thrift shop. Books that I earnestly wanted to read were nixed from my pile over minor offenses: A spine too bent, marks along the top. Dog-eared pages; names on the cover. The stack that made it through my meticulous picking was sparse in a way that the pigtailed-and-pinafored version of me would not at all have understood. Is my collection less for this—for a used-book stinginess that only lets the ones that look unread pass?

Maybe it was working in a library that deromanticized well-read books for me. On the check-in side, you learn that stickiness is often from sneezes or icky drips, that smells are from tobacco-y houses or worse, and that people return items with inexplicable things pressed between covers, so a spot might be something less than enthralling. Perhaps that ruined it; that knowledge wedged a Lysol wipe between me and all books coming through my door.

Or perhaps I just got older and harder to enchant, and reading started to seem like more of a solo endeavor–which, considering that I work in books, would be a sad statement, indeed.

I’m not sure where I lost my hold on the magic of a truly dirty book; but if we’re passing out miracles this holiday season, I’d like that back.

On my next pass over a used book shelf, I’ll try: I’ll assume the best of the tattered copies. To be in such disrepair, for a book, means that you have been enjoyed, and the beauty of that is not something that I want to turn my nose up at any longer.