On Dirty Books & Dog-Eared Pages

22 Mar On Dirty Books & Dog-Eared Pages

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 22.3.21


My mother had an older friend who shocked everybody once by stating firmly that she rarely used our town’s public library because she didn’t like “dirty books”.

What Mrs M. meant wasn’t clear at first – this was in 1972 when a fair bit of chatter over the teacups was about lewd publications. “The Little Red School Book” and “Down Under the Plum Trees” – two books controversial in their time for openly discussing sex, sexuality and drugs – were an especially hot topic in living rooms near us because both were published in New Zealand by Alister Taylor who had family in our neighbourhood and would occasionally drop by. Small towns can be both shocked and thrilled to be connected – however tenuously – with things a touch cosmopolitan and risqué.

So the idea that our library might actually be brimming with “dirty books” gave everyone pause. Was it? Had we simply not noticed? Were we looking in the wrong sections? Should my mother be cancelling Friday afternoon family trips to stock up on weekend novels for her and young adult books for us?

Turns out, Mrs M. wasn’t referring to literary content. She was talking about how grubby a book might get after being read by many members of the public, who may or may not have washed their hands first, or spilt their dinner on various pages, or dropped the thing in the bath. The thought of unknowingly touching a book previously dipped in human soup was too much for her. There was a shelf near the checkout counter of “new books”, just arrived, and these were the ones she would read.

As hilarious as my mother found this (not expressed at the time, manners please) we still had firm family rules about how a book should be treated. It was less about catching anything off previous readers, and more about treating things with care so you could pass them on to others unspoilt.

And also, I guess, because of reverence for books. I think of the books in our house as members of our family, impossible to give away if they have been loved. A thought like that has to come from somewhere, and I blame my mother. Scribbling on books, leaving them out in the garden, turning down corners instead of using a bookmark – these were all crimes. Babies round here get a free pass in terms of chewing board books essentially made for this purpose, but a toddler with a crayon? No chocolate pudding for you. 

There is no government edict on How To Treat A Book, so we write the rules ourselves. Part of growing up is learning that different families have different rules for this and other things. I was shocked when my mother informed me (and she knew I’d be shocked, this was her goal) that an otherwise respected member of our community quietly wrote her initials on the inside back cover of library books so she’d know if she’d read them before. Shocked that someone who would heartily disapprove of graffiti or any kind of civic defacement would do that to public property, and also a little shaken that you’d get to a point in life where you might read the same book twice accidentally. (I am older now, and – sigh – I get it.)

There was a wild time in my teens when I went to bible study (bless me) and we were instructed to use a fluorescent highlighter to mark quotes we wanted to return to which was, to me, a heady mix of piety and sacrilege. There was the second hand student text I bought, discovering too late that the previous owner had written copious notes in red ink in the margins, and I spent a semester bewildered by their analysis and second-guessing my own.

But suddenly, I am rewriting my rules. In an RNZ interview, Kim Hill (and you can’t doubt Kim’s love of books or respect for literature) talked to writer Douglas Stuart about his Booker prize-winning “Shuggie Bain”. About five minutes in, she says this: “There are many parts of the book that I’ve turned the page down on… One of them is a description of Shuggie’s mother who has passed out from the drink…”

She passed out? I fairly fell off my chair. Turned down the corners?! Can we do this? Has my assiduous use of the bookmark all these years been for nought? Making notes on a slip of paper tucked into the back been a wasted effort? Well, yes, now I think about it, it has – for the books I own, not the books I borrow, of course. Far be it from me to tell the next reader when to turn the light out, or which bit might be worth another look.

But in the privacy of my own home now, you will find me here, turning down corners, sans regrets, except that I didn’t do this sooner. And wondering what other rules I can toss aside.