leave your books alone

So you bought a book and you want to clean it up – first ask yourself: “why bother?”

I think 90% of the English speaking peoples know that I am the biggest freak ever for cleaning stuff off books that wasn’t original equipment. And there is an argument to be made that I have an obscenely large eraser collection. But for all this, it is not always something worth doing.

I am sure I have said before – once a book has become a library book (or a remainder) there is no going back to a previous state. As in life, there is no re-virginizing. Once an ex-library book always an ex-library book.

Though it is entirely possible to perform a biblio-facelift, removing stickers and stamps and marginalia, freeing up the cover and text from carrying this extra load. Making the book more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but hardly erasing its checkered past. Doing this one can make a nice ‘shelf’ or reading copy of a book that would normally be dumpster fodder. An ex-lib copy even cleaned up will usually only be worth a fraction of the value of a Near Fine copy. So, you hardly have much to lose by breaking out the electric eraser. But at what point are you removing a book’s character and history?

Luckily in the US we have no social distaste for used and pre-owned items: books, clothes, cars, dishes, etc…. in some countries, Japan for instance, the used book market suffers because folks aren’t comfortable with ‘used’ books. (This explains why they are the front runners in eraser technology.) Here buying old and used books is as common as buying new.

Every book carries its history on its back, and front and endpapers. Sometimes it’s boring and ugly, and inappropriate. Unless it was done by your own child, crayon decoration on a contemporary children’s book is distasteful and unnecessary, crayon on a children’s book 100 years old can be fascinating.

Marginalia in a book say, younger than 1950 is usually annoying and ugly, marginalia in a book from a book older than 1950 is a tiny time capsule. It can be a message from the past. Now I am not talking about general pencil markings, indistinct marks and doodles, I am talking about words , pictures, signatures, inscriptions – not everything should be removed all the time.

If you are lucky a book will have a little something from each of its previous owners – a lot of vintage college textbooks will be that way – usually in literature or languages. Back in an era when text books weren’t changed every semester, but can stay in circulation for a decades. Military training manuals nearly always have the name of the service person it was issued to. Using the net you can now pull up a fairly interesting amount of history. Inscriptions from teacher to pupil, parent to child, friend to friend – these can become as valid a part of the book as the title page, and all perhaps are best left in situ.

As you can see, this copy of Applied Mathematics for Printers was owned by a fella named Clifford “Smiley” Lavinge, a student at Worcester Boys Trade School, who loved a girl named Erma. typical teenager bored by school, and liked reading Sax Rhomer’s Fu Manchu novels and referred to himself as the ‘mad printer’. The school existed between 1990 and 1966. I think a lot of the mathematics notations occurred over time, but I think Clifford possessed it in the late 50s. Now who among us will be the first to erase all that?

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