Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ketchup Stains and Life Lessons

So I was wandering around our house, just browsing among my books. Feeling somewhat nostalgic, I pulled an old favorite from the shelf and flipped through the age-stiffened pages. Yup, it’s seen a few more years than I have. The smell has gone musty—not that fresh, vinegary scent you sometimes get with the stiffer stock. And the pages turn like bits of board, fragile and brittle.

That’s what I noticed, right before I saw the food stain.

Let me just say, I can’t stand book abuse. If you ask to borrow one of my darlings, I will invariably start to twitch; then I will reluctantly hand you the book and blurt something to the effect of, “Please be very careful with that and treat it as you would your first-born child.” Yeah, and I’m not ashamed, not even a little. (Okay, maybe a little—but that’s all you’ll get.) In my opinion, half the pleasure of a book is the newness, the feel of it, the glossy paperback all pristine and unwrinkled or the unmarred surface of the hardcover with that creakiness you hear when you open it the first few times. I like the straight cut of the pages, the way all those thin slivers of tree fit together so smoothly and neatly. You might say I’m obsessed. And the smell—oh the smell!—of paper. If you’ve read Fahrenheit 451, you’ll know what I’m talking about. (Think nutmeg.)

There are many horrors that bring a shudder to my spine:  those dreadful moments when my fingernail catches, the sight of ice cream spilt on pavement—and a well-loved book. You know what I’m talking about; it may not be old, but it sure looks that way with as many ripples in the cover as one of those Ruffles® potato chips and as many dog-ears in the pages as a pack of wolves. (Forgive me.) No, I want the smooth, unmarred spines on my many books to line the shelves in pristine splendor with no creases to mark out favorite spots or the places where the glue was at its weakest while the hand was at its strongest. And, if I lend you a book, and you hand it back to me with so much as ONE DIRT SMUDGE on the cover, so help me, I will probably…be very nice to you in person and think awful things about you behind your back as I lie curled on my bed, crying and rocking myself as I whisper comforting things to my poor, damaged volume. Yeah, no, I’m not ashamed about that either. (Okay, yes I am. Please go away now.) For some people, the dust jacket is worthless, just a papery bit that gets in the way. For me though, it is priceless. If I ruin the jacket on one of my hardcovers, even if I don’t particularly like the picture (or the book), I will suddenly suffer the urge to buy a new copy just for a fresh, unmarred dust jacket.

Yeah, Liz, I think we need to sit down…and have a long talk, with tissues and hot chocolate. As long as we don’t use those books over there as coasters. Or table wedges. Or…

Moving on now.

The truth is, that book you just bought—the one you’re holding in your hand and admiring…and smelling when you don’t think anyone’s looking (I totally saw that)—it’s only new once. The wonder you get from tracing the smooth cover and feeling the fresh turn of pages—it won’t return once it’s left. Even treated well, books age. Unfortunately. Those stiff pages will start feeling like cloth if you turn them often enough—and that’s what they were meant for, or so I’m told. Me, I wouldn’t mind having two copies of everything—one for looks and the other for reading. Like it or not, fingers get clumsy. Sometimes, you fall asleep reading in the bathtub and…bad stuff happens (why would you even do that anyway?). Sometimes you drop a book and you catch it with your ninja reflexes—by the flimsy glossy cover—and you leave a little curved crease that shows up on every angle because it’s so stinking shiny! (Which is why you loved it in the first place—and also why you hate it now.) Maybe I’m alone. Maybe I’m the only one who feels betrayed when others don’t value my books as highly as I do. Psychoanalyze me all you like, I have my reasons for this—and they are very good reasons.

But this everyday truth—sometimes it’s hard for me to accept that new stuff gets old. The seeming perfection of an unsullied book fades. We fade. Our lives are short and measured in the span of a breath compared with history. We begin young, and already we’re dying. So maybe it’s easier to fuss about my books and ignore the bigger, larger problem; we are all of us mortal.

Sorry—that got deep. And morbid.

Moving on.

Back to the book I was so obliviously flipping through (Watership Down by Richard Adams, in case you were wondering), I found something—gasp! I found a—it was a… Oh goodness, I can’t even say it. It was so awful. I—I think I may need to sit down.

I found a ketchup stain in my beautiful book. Excuse me, perhaps you didn’t hear me right—you over there, the one sitting at your computer NOT FREAKING OUT. See, with me, I don’t have an overabundance of time. What with classes and writing and that thing that interferes with those two tasks (I’ve heard it called life), I don’t get much chance for pleasure reading. So, during mealtimes, I used to sit and read while I ate. And I like egg sandwiches—thus the ketchup stains. (Yes, I am one of those people.) It bothers me, because sometimes I don’t see the stuff on my finger…until I’ve turned the page. And it’s not like you can put a book in the washer just to get the stain out. Doesn’t work like that…or so I’m told. When it comes down to the marred perfection, well, unless I want to be a total dweeb and buy a new copy for so small a reason, I have to suck it up and accept that pristine isn’t permanent.

Truth be told, as I look at this ketchup stain and remember a charming poem called “Marginalia”, I start to feel a little ashamed at my lack of focus. Because, let’s look at the facts. I was reading that book, loving the story and relishing my sandwich, and yeah, the two components of my enjoyment had an…encounter. But I was swept up in another world at the time; ketchup-stained fingers weren’t even on my radar at that point. Now that—that’s the real purpose of a book. You can bind anything and make it pretty—but pretty doesn’t always mean valuable. It’s what’s inside the book that makes it lasting and special. Watership Down wouldn’t be around anymore if it were just another pretty face. At some point, I’ll be able to grasp that and ignore the shiny cover completely (like that’s going to happen.)

Until then, I’ll be repeating “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love”* one hundred times.


Note:  I’m not even going to mention annotation. I’m just going to plug my ears and sing a little song and dance around, all the while pretending that such atrocities do not exist.


*Quote from “Marginalia” by Billy Collins. A must read.


  1. Marginalia is an awesome poem; we read it in my English class! I definitely understand the kinds of tics you have about reading—I get some too. Although I have to say, annotating turns into a recreational sport sometimes... Maybe you ought to give it a second chance. ;)

    1. Your English teacher is a genius! I actually do have multiple copies of some books for the purpose of annotating, but I find that I much prefer to annotate mentally. Every time I reread, I remember my thoughts from the previous time, and I add to them and alter them as I see fit. It is true, though, that actually writing stuff out is good. It's :)