On Treating Books Badly

July 20, 2011 | 20 3 min read

cover In the building where I live, in the crevices of upper Manhattan, there also lives an Easter Bunny. This Easter Bunny leaves, every week or two (or three), one, or two, or a half dozen books in the foyer. These books are almost always fantastic. Sometimes, there are piles of lush NYRB Classics, waiting patiently to be coddled. Other times, they’ll be unreleased novels, obtained who knows where (this is how I read Karen Russell’s fantastic Swamplandia months before it was published).

Sometimes the books will seem new, unread. More often then not, the mysterious fairy leaves more…used goods.

Lately, I’ve been into taking baths. Baths are pleasures that until recently I thought were reserved for the very young and the very old. After a semi-recent running injury, though, I found that a nice, long bath was just the thing to revitalize sore knees.

The problem I have with baths is similar to my problem with massages. That is, no matter how pleasant they may feel, they are almost inherently boring, in that they consist of long minutes of doing absolutely nothing. I know some, more meditative people than myself would say that this is, in fact, the point, and I do think that taking time out of one’s hectic schedules to do precisely nothing is one of the great joys of life, but I still could never help feeling that long baths are simply boring.

Compounded with this fact is the idea I’ve always had that reading in the bath would be a sort of primal pleasure. Sort of like in that episode of Seinfeld where George realizes that sex would never be perfect unless he was also concurrently watching t.v. and eating pastrami. When you’re bathing, you’re sitting, doing nothing, alone with your thoughts. It seems like the perfect place to read.

Except. Except I have this thing against getting books dirty. The books I buy – whether they are new or used – tend to be in relatively good condition, and I try to keep them that way. I believe it is important to treat books, like people, with respect. Which makes it hard for me to do things like, for example, bring a fine book near a full bathtub, where it will more likely than not get wet.

Enter the Easter Bunny.

cover Last night, I started an old, stained hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full left to me by the Easter Bunny a few months back. I started the book in the bathtub. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a first edition. The book got wet, yes, but the pages were already brittle, having been turned and spilled on by at least one and more like numerous hands before mine.

There is some pleasure in reading a book and not caring about the surface the book is on. An aversion to this pleasure is one reason I have been reluctant to embrace e-readers. Books as books – as tangible things you can hold in your hands and show off to curious onlookers on the subway and friends who visit your apartment – are something I hold in high esteem. But there is, as I say, some pleasure in letting go, in allowing a book to get wet, in treasuring a book not for what it looks like but for what it says.

As I began the novel of Atlanta society chronicled by the great Tom Wolfe, I felt free to lose myself in his well-wrought world, to ignore the splashes that were doubtlessly increasing the already significant wear the book had sustained.

Don’t get me wrong. I would still never take a book in good condition and do anything consciously to harm it. Books do have value, to me, as objects. There is something to be said for the cover, the pages, the (dare I say it) e-readers themselves.

But, that said, it is nice to let go, sometimes. Everyone deserves to read a good book in the bathtub once in a while.

(Image credit: accent on eclectic/Flickr.)

is a writer and lawyer who lives in New York City. Follow him @BezalelStern. Read more at bezalelstern.tumblr.com.


  1. When I travel, I attempt to pack as lightly as possible. One web site suggested, if you don’t want to take a Kindle, then buy old, used paperbacks, and as you finish the books, either leave them for others to find, OR (and this made me shiver) rip out the pages that you have read to make the book lighter and lighter as you continue.

  2. I used to put books in Ziploc bags so I could read them in the shower. That was before I paid my own water bill.

  3. How can I live where you live?

    I’ve always been terrible to my books. I feel like I ought to treat them with more respect, but I also like to take them with me everywhere and read them over and over and break the spines. Some of my faves are held together with tape.

    I love the way readers can have opposite ideas of what it means to respect the physical book.

  4. I take such good care of my books that people say the ones I have read still look brand new. It’s only lately that I have gotten used to reading used books. I treat books better than I do some people, and I know that’s not a virtue!

  5. I had an English professor in college who taught us to “mark up our books and make them our own”, and so I have been doing so ever since – highlighter, notes in margins. And I have cured myself of the habit of treating my books gingerly.

  6. My guilty pleasure is reading for an hour in a hot, sudsy bath. Yes, I stew in my own filth for 60 minutes each evening, transported to another place. Screw Calgon. I’ve got books.

    More often that not, they’re new releases. I have a bath towel ready , next to me. I dry my hands before touching the book. I’m very careful. Only once in all the years I’ve done this have I inadvertently dropped a book in the water and thus ruined it. It was a Tess Gerritsen novel, and there was no sentimental attachment, so I was relatively relieved.

  7. Why not take a crap on three books and juggle them. Seems like the author of this bit of banality is up for anything.

  8. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2007, I carried old paperbacks, as Jeff Carroll suggests, and I did indeed rip out the pages as I went and left them in shelters along the way so those hiking a day or so behind me could read the same book.

    I also read the ripped out pages of those in front of me in the same way – this worked very well until somewhere along the way you somehow missed a chunk of pages – very frustrating! But all in all, it was a great experience for all of us to be experiencing literally the same book at once!

  9. I agree with Jack M on being so ever kind to the books I read. I’ve inherited some books from friends that looked like they wrestled from their pets before they passed them on to me.

    I just can’t be rough with my books, I even hate it when people manhandle and break the spine of the books. Just drives me nuts when they do that to a perfectly innocent book. :-(

  10. I always wanted to read in a bubble bath with candles and wine. All the pictures you see in magazines and advertisements look so relaxing and surreal. However in real life I am nervous that the book will get wet or fall into the tub. I don’t know a way to read in the tub without the book getting ruined. If you put the book in a Ziploc bag how do you turn the pages? Unless you read only one page every time you take a bath?

  11. With regard to ripping out pages, once when I went on a six-week trip, I decided that I wanted to read War and Peace while I was away, but there was no way I could fit a bulky paperback in my suitcase! So I bought a cheap used copy, took a razor, and cut the book into ten pieces. It was much more convenient and less daunting to read ten small paperbacks! And yeah, I tossed the sections as I went.

    With regard to reading in the bath and keeping the book from falling into the water — it’s going to get damp no matter what you do, but here’s a great trick. Put a plank of wood across the width of the tub! It’s a convenient, stable place for your book, your notebook and pencil, your martini…

  12. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

    After testing the water with my hand, for temperature, I dry it off. Then I pick up the book. I get in the tub. I read. As I sweat, I use a hand towel, which I have conveniently taken off the rack near the sink and thrown on the floor near the tub, to dry my hands, head, neck, and so forth. I get maybe three to seven drops of sweat or water on the book while reading it in the tub, sometimes up to an hour and a half.

    I have yet to ruin a book. I have yet to see spots on my books and think, “Drat! I must’ve read this in the tub!”

    Most books I probably won’t read again anyway. It’s likely I unconsciously choose only those books I think I’ll never read again for bath-time material.

    I know a guy who doesn’t take care of his records. He fingers them, tosses them about. He says he can always buy another copy. Now THAT actually bothers me. Books in the bathtub? Never been a problem.

  13. I could never bring a book in the bath. Even one I hated, I couldn’t bear to damage it. Books may get their value from their content but the vessel should be respected. Except e-readers.

  14. I’m with you Meg. I’ve always pampered my books. I love the feel of a book and the crisp pages. I think that’s the reason I still can’t bring myself to buy an e-reader, they just seem so cold and foreign, unbook-like is the only way I can describe them. Yet, I can’t part with any of my books (with the exception of the crappy ones), so I’m in the catch 22 of no space and “jonesing” for more books. Go figure.

  15. Um, do you happen to live in Inwood, the crevices of upper Manhattan? Because someone leaves books in my foyer every now and then, too…

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