Treasuring Books

Most of us love and respect books, don’t we? We take care of our literary treasures, and the more deeply we are attached to a particular volume, the better we treat it.

Many of us are reluctant to loan out the books which line our shelves like so many gems, resting in a jeweler’s pristine cases. When we do agree to share them, we’re afraid they may never find their way home. And, when they eventually return to our welcoming grasp, they sometimes bear the scars of their sojourn in the paws of others who do not esteem them as they ought to. Page corners may be scored. Coffee or tea stains may have “embellished” the text. Bindings may have been carelessly mistreated. And, unbelievably, the borrowers are likely to be unaware of how they have abused the tome’s dignity and disfigured its beauty.

Speaking honestly, my own bookshelves are in constant disarray, and too many of my books still remain unpacked after our move into our retirement home. But I am absolutely serious about how painful I find it to witness the mistreatment of books by those ignorant of their value.

C.S. Lewis loved books. He recognized their power. He embraced their wonder. And—most wonderfully for us—he penned a number of classics that will continue to inspire readers for generations.

Yet, as much as Lewis treasured books, he took his own creations for granted. This changed in December of 1954, when he received a precious package from his publisher. Among his Christmas gifts that year were specially bound copies of Surprised by Joy and Mere Christianity. Receipt of the thoughtful present opened his eyes to an interesting notion. On the twenty-second day of the month, he wrote:

I never had a handsomer present. . . . Perhaps these two charming volumes will teach me at last to have for the bodies of my own books the same reverence I have for the bodies of all other books. For it is a curious fact that I never can regard them as being really books; the boards and print, in however mint a condition, remain a mere pretense behind which one sees the scratchy, inky old manuscript.

I daresay that those writers among us can relate to Lewis’ mindset. Even with the pride that accompanies having books or articles in print, our work somehow seems “different” than the other published materials we invariably respect. This is due in large part, I believe, to their familiarity. Writers, better than most, understand what familiarity breeds. We know these works that flowed from our own consciousness and sweat . . . we know them intimately. And we are keenly aware that if given another opportunity, there are parts of them we would even now edit to be clearer, sharper, and more eloquent.

I never cease to be surprised by the humility of new writers who almost whisper their accomplishments to others. It’s as though they are embarrassed . . . that they assume their friends would consider them braggarts if they spoke with the pride they genuinely feel about their work. Some of us hold onto our rejection letters. (I do.) How much better though, to print out high quality copies of articles or devotions we’ve written and place them in a prominent binder or display located near our keyboard.

Who knows, I may actually follow my own advice and do something like that. Sadly, I don’t have a grateful publisher eager to prepare special editions for me. Nevertheless, I’m glad Lewis did. I learned from his insight that whenever we release our literary progeny to the world, they merit the same degree of respect and affection that we book-lovers bestow so generously on the works of others.


Postscript: The image above is an actual manuscript page from James Joyce’s Ulysses. (It makes me feel much more confident about my own initial scribblings.)

11 thoughts on “Treasuring Books

  1. Well said. Sometimes it’s so difficult to acknowledge the merits of our own work when we spend so much time reading and appreciating others’, and when we’ve seen our work on its worst days. Thanks for the eloquent reminder. :)

  2. Some books my husband and I guard so jealously we protect their loss and disfigurement by buying duplicate, loaner copies: some of those by Lewis, some by Neil Anderson, and most recently, The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn. (Be sure to read it if you need comfort and reassurance of God’s glorious sovereignty after the recent election.)

    I always mark up the books I like–they become worn “velveteen rabbits.” I’ve been read Jesus Calling this year and am tempted to read it through again next year and mark it up again, since I’ll be in a different space. My brother (I am speaking here not of a child but a 76-year old man) marks up the books he borrows from us as well as those he borrows from the library: little red check marks in the margin, names of other relevant authors or works (“Mencius,” “Aristophanes”) obscure one-word comments in English (“good,” “Catholic view,” “evidence of design,” or in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew. I treasure his markings. Even the critical ones are overlays of opinion that reflect who he is, where he is, like signing a common guestbook or leaving familiar initials in a bench at the top of a peak with a beautiful view: “I’ve been this way too and this is what I saw and experienced.”

    I’m looking forward to the book I understand is being written which extracts and comments on Lewis’ comments in the margins of the books he read!

    1. I love the suggestion about having loaner copies. I’ve lost a couple of irreplaceable volumes by loaning them out… .

      Your brother’s practice sounds very Lewisian… but your final comment shows you already knew that!

  3. I kind of know what you mean about not treasuring one’s own books. I don’t treat my books badly, or anything like that. I just never look at them. I’m afraid I had a bad experience with my first book, a translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. I was so excited when I received my copy. It was my first book and Oxford was the publisher. I was so proud–until I discovered that there were two errors on the first page. (They weren’t my errors either. The typesetter had failed to see some of the corrections I’d made to the proofs). That really took the joy out having produced a book! I hid the thing away and can barely bring myself to open it for fear of finding more horrible errors.

    Fortunately, my experience with Baylor was much better. They did a fabulous job with my second book. It’s just beautiful and appears error free. I’ll confess though that my experience with my first book has made me afraid to look too closely at the second. I now have a kind of selective (i.e., relative to my own books) bibliophobia. On the bright side, Baylor actually sent me a framed copy of the beautiful cover they did for my book. That, at least, I can appreciate with unadulterated pleasure.

    1. What a sad story about your first book. Glad your second experience was so much more pleasant. Likewise your subsequent publications. I understand completely your reticence after discovering the flaws. I’ve had the same experience with a couple of magazine articles in the past.

  4. Pingback: C.S. Lewis and Digital Books « Mere Inkling

  5. Pingback: Sharing the Blessings of Books « Mere Inkling Press

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