The marks we leave on borrowed things
I used to have a real problem with people who messed up their library books. This is to say that I had a problem with myself. Even when I worked at a library, shelving books some thirty hours a week, I never got over the habit of eating while I read, and I never stopped eating the worst possible foods, the ones most dangerous to books — green curry, pasta with tomato sauce, soup, coffee, etc. I made stains. I shed hairs and skin into the books. I dog-eared pages that I wanted to look at again, sometimes. I left the books face-down, open on the arm of the couch, so that the covers warped. Still, it made me angry to see that others did the same things I did (and probably less often). One time I was reading (I forget the book) and my nose started bleeding. I didn’t know why. One fat drop landed on the page. I don’t remember what color it turned.
Several months ago I moved with my wife to Iowa City. We checked out the public library. The one I worked at several years before, in Indianapolis, is I guess considered one of the best in the country. The fiction collection at a given branch was usually pretty thin, and they were a little slow to pick up on the trend among libraries toward stocking graphic novels, but you could get what you wanted if you were patient. In Las Cruces, where Tracy and I got our MFAs, the library situation wasn’t good. The university library had a lot of things, but then it didn’t have others. (The comics collection was crap, for instance, not that I blamed them.) Iowa City’s public library is solid. The fiction collection is broad and deep: if they don’t always have the book I want on the shelves, they usually have something else by the same author.
I guess I’ve changed. These days I feel like the gunk between the pages — the pubic hairs, the tomato sauce, the coffee stains and pages malformed by water, dried into interlocking waves of sticky paper — is special. I can get a clean book no one else has really handled from the bookstore, from Amazon. I like the weird smell of library books, and the way the smell differs. I like seeing how people ruin what they borrow. I like knowing what I’m reading, this object, has been read some dozen times before. I like imagining how these other people (hands, mouths) felt when they saw what I’m seeing.
I wanted to do a whole series reviewing the stuff I found in the spines and stuck between the pages of the books I borrowed. At first the plan was going well. People really messed up a copy of Dennis Cooper’s God Jr., for instance. But ever since then it’s been slow going. Dull stuff. A couple hairs here and there. That’s all, though. The books are clean. The Iowa City public library is maybe weirdly vigilant about the appearance of its books. Their patrons are some of the worst I’ve ever seen — loud, inconsiderate, entitled — but the books are usually in good shape. It feels perverse to wish they weren’t. Still, though, I do. I miss the human residue.
What’s the best or worst thing you ever did to a book that wasn’t yours? Library or otherwise. What’s the best or worst thing you ever found inside a book that someone else had handled?