I begin to wonder whether all my care and attention when it comes to reading a book is really justifiable. Books are just objects after all, and (usually) easily replaceable. But still I can’t stop myself turning the pages with obsessive care, and I’d stop reading before I’d ever allow myself to fold the cover all the way back. Dog-earing be damned: book marks can be so interesting — I found a Complements slip from Bentley House in an old book just yesterday. (I left there in 1969.) My manic carefulness is probably in part a consequence of having been involved in the manufacture of these compulsively compelling things: you spend so much time trying to make them come out perfect that you cannot but treat them tenderly. I used to cringe at the way some editors would handle the advance copy I’d borne to them, intoning à la Buck Mulligan, “Introibo ad altare editorum” in anticipation of their worship. But that’s not a complete excuse: author John Scalzi is every bit as bad. He discusses the whole problem at his blog Whatever.

As a librarian rather sanely comments in reaction to the screams of protest at Alex Christoffi’s confessing to chopping thick books in half to make them easier to read, “Frankly, the weird coddling of paper books needs to stop. It’s pulp with ink on it. Do whatever to it to make it easier on you — this also goes for dogearing, note-making, etc.”. It’s hard though to think of these objects just as objects: they contain so much meaning. Habits of parsimony (we‘d say we were just being careful) are hard to overcome for us Scots, and if I’ve got a book I am extremely reluctant to buy a better copy, and will nurse the invalid through repeated readings with the most delicate and careful touch. In other words I’ll be damned if I’d force myself to buy a second copy just because of the convenience to be gained by cutting a paperback in half. (A proof is a horse of a different color though.) But hold on a minute. Come on man: compare and contrast your evident willingness to buy another bottle of wine — a comparable outlay!

I’m just re-reading Clayhanger in a Penguin paperback I got in the seventies. The price printed on the cover is 45p or 9/-, which is how in those quaint and ancient days we used to write nine shillings. Those were the early days of the decimalization of the British currency before publishers had realized that the switchover gave them a perfect opportunity to jack up prices before anyone knew enough to notice. Nine shillings, just less than 10 bob or 50p, was once upon a time exactly 45p. Decimalization happened in 1971, so Penguin were ahead of themselves here: the book, reprinted in 1970, would have cost 9/- for a few months, jumping over to 45p a few months after they took delivery of the reprint. I’d bet it cost 90p on the next reprinting. 9 shillings, 90 pence — who’s going to notice?

On a different tack, the imprints page tells a slightly odd tale:

I always imagined Clayhanger was an almost-classic book, maybe a classic if we can include Arnold Bennett in the pantheon. Was it really only first published as a paperback in 1954? And did it really take till 1961 to need reprinting? The paper, as you can see from my rather wobbly photo, is rather the worse for wear having yellowed quite dramatically, if surprisingly evenly (that’s a shadow at the lower right). You can see the bits of bark in this groundwood sheet, but the paper is still holding together better than you would have expected. So too is the binding: Bosch of Utrecht did a good job. Not a huge book, but no need for me to even think about ripping it in half, as I’m reading it partly from this copy and partly from an ebook edition offering not only this book but also Hilda Lessways, These Twain and The Roll Call — all for 99¢.

Do we live in a golden age for readers!