the Little Red Reviewer

When books stop loving you back

Posted on: June 2, 2011

Talk about a May December romance.  All of these printings are older than I am, and most of these titles are older than my parents.  To say they are less than shiny would be the understatement of the year. They are battered, they are beautiful, they are still eminently readable.

I’m only the most recent person to love these books, and from the looks of them, they haven’t got much love left in them to give back:

This poor copy of Brave New World is missing it’s back cover. But once upon a time someone thought it would make a great gift to their “Dear Peter”, and inscribed it appropriately.

My best guess for the damage to this copy of Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is coffee? Brackish water of some other sort, perhaps?  You can’t tell from the photo, but the edges of the covers have been reinforced with tape:

And let’s not forget my beloved copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  I’m pretty sure I swiped this  from  my parents bookshelves when I moved out of their house.  Despite the laws of physics and the free market, the covers are holding on for dear life.

I looked all morning, unsuccessfully, for my copy  of Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold. That baby is held together with rubberbands and luck.

It does the beg the question of why don’t I just throw these out and buy clean copies?  They are all available at local bookstores, typically for $10 or less.

when should a book that’s got little love left to give simply be thrown out?

on the other hand,  I kind of feel like these books are only on loan to me.  Who knows how many hands they passed through before they got to me, how many lives were influenced by the words on their vellum-like pages?  One day, if these books can survive another reading or two, I hope they will make their way to someone else’s hands,  someone who will wonder where the greasy fingerprints came from, the coffee stains, how the cover got that particular crease in it, why that page is dog ear’ed.  And no doubt that person too, with flirt with the idea of flinging them into the bin, knowing brand new copies are easily available.

In the digital age, I fear all this bibliophile romanticism will die a lonely death.

19 Responses to "When books stop loving you back"

Oh, I hear you. I’ve never had the heart to let my books go, which is why my wife and I are now having to either move or add a story to our house (it could go either way). If you get a chance, visit Hay-on-Wye. Trust me.


“In the digital age, I fear all this bibliophile romanticism will die a lonely death. ”

I am afraid it will die to. I’m not sure it will die a lonely death because I think there will be many of us lamenting its passing, but it is hard to see how it will last.

You’ve touched on an interesting topic which I’ve written about within specific book reviews before, and that is the joy of the well loved book. On of my eccentricities (nice way of saying it) is that I by mostly new hardback and trade paperback books and I keep them in pristine condition. I love them both for their stories and as physical objects. And yet I also collect old classic books and old, well loved science fiction and mystery paperbacks (the mystery for the cover artists). I love those books for their used condition and the idea of other people getting lost in their pages as much as I do the new ones for their shiny newness.

The first time I read I, Robot was from a very well loved copy that a friend gave me, not intending for it to be a reading copy. He just knew I’d love the cover. But it was such a special treasure that I read it anyway, carefully holding the pages as they came even more unbound in my hands. I felt the book deserved at least one last shot at giving someone a sense of wonder. And it did just that. I had a similar experience when I read Heinlein’s, The Green Hills of Earth. It fell apart in my hands while reading it but I kept it together as best I could and enjoyed reading it so very much.

I still have both of those books and many others in similar states of well worn use. I generally don’t keep the heavily stained or stinky copies…but I don’t usually pick those up in the first place. But I do have several that have that nice musty smell…not stinky, just old. And I love them.


this topic is near and dear to both of our hearts, I know.

the books that I purchase New I do my best to keep in as best condition as I can. but a growing quantity of my collection is from garage sales and Good Will type shops, where you can get paperbacks four for a dollar. it’s not my fault, when I see a Heinlein that I don’t own, I have a compulsion to buy it. and the new printings just don’t have any soul. Yet.

“It fell apart in my hands while reading it but I kept it together as best I could ”

Carl, read that sentence out loud. Sounds so tragically romantic, doesn’t it?


Yes it does. And I’m a 42 year old man who is still a boy at heart in so many ways. Although I don’t anthropomorphize objects with quite the same depth of feeling that I did when I was 10, I do still find myself having those kinds of thoughts/feelings towards physical objects. And it is an entirely automatic response. I genuinely felt like I was giving something back to both of those books by reading them in their condition rather than going out to buy newer, prettier versions. Silly, I know, but true.

So the next question is, do you find yourself buying multiple used copies of the same book? I have a few old favorites that I just cannot resist picking up if I see a used copy. And then I have other books, like Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, where every time I see a used copy with a different cover than the one I have I pick it up. I have 4 or 5 different copies right now with more that I’ve seen online that I am keeping an eye out for.


not silly at all! For all the wonderment a book gives me, I like the idea that by me reading an old battered copy maybe I am giving something back to the book. and anyone who says any of this is childish or silly is an idiot.

The multiple copies bug hasn’t bitten me much, yet. I know I have duplicates of some Herbert and probably some Asimov. My oddity is that certain authors, specifically Heinlein and Vonnegut, I will only buy used. And one day I will own everything they ever wrote. But i will have purchased none of it new. Now how silly is that?


Not silly at all. Almost all the Heinlein I own is used. For me there is something special about finding an earlier printing of his work (and other classic authors) in an older paperback format. And generally I like these because I like the older cover illustrations. In fact many of the Heinlein paperbacks I own I got off ebay because I went searching specifically for older copies with covers by older illustrators, many who are now no longer with us.

The book I have the most copies of is this very cheesy Alan Dean Foster book called Glory Lane. It is very dated. It was written in the late 80’s and is filled with 80’s vernacular. It is a special story to me because I first started reading it on a Christmas trip during my freshman year of college when I went with one high school friend to visit another. I read this from his brother’s bookshelf while we were visiting and quickly picked up a copy when I went back home. I lost touch with these guys after that. In fact it was the last time I saw Bob, the guy we went to visit. The first printing of that paperback, with its raised title lettering, is one I always pick up whenever I see a decent used copy of it. It always brings up good memories and I just have to bring it home. Weird, I know, but there it is.


I don’t think I could ever bear to throw out a book. If I didn’t want it anymore, it would go towards a donation somewhere, or maybe a used book store or other trade-in. Thanks!


I’m a definite keeper of heavily worn/loved books.

I’ve got several copies of the Lord of the Rings, Edgar Rice Burroughts, Gormenghast trilogy and others that basically have ALL of the pages falling out. And, I’ve purchased other copies in marginally better condition but kept the old familiar faces with their pulp covers.


The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one that I am slowly building up a collection of multiples copies. I almost went home from BN with a boxed set the other day but decided to wait until I got a good coupon as it is a $50 set.


Well put. I used to tell my students that the best books were the “well-loved” ones. For example, the Harry Potter books were always on their last leg at the elementary school library (I know that Harry Potter isn’t that old, but I couldn’t think of another example). That was because so many kids checked them out. So the shiny new book might be a bummer and the one that looks worn might be the gem.


I really do love old books. I love the bindings and the musty page smells. During our recent renovation I moved all the books from the upstairs and was amazed at some of the sun damage that many had taken. I don’t know if they’re readable anymore, but I couldn’t bear to toss them!


The bindings on older hardback books are amazing, aren’t they? Other than special small publishers it seems to be a lost art. The construction of a book was such an art form back then.


I love this post! I like my books to be in good condition, but those books that have arrived in my hands beaten and battered – such as the copies of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that used to belong to my mother when she was younger – I just can’t part with! When it comes to buying though, I go for the copies in better shape, if there is no emotional connection to the damaged book already formed, I likely won’t pay for it sadly.


Books passed on by parents are special! Regardless of what condition they are in. That is one of those kind of bonds that makes older books true gems.


Amy – I should really be more careful about the condition of books I buy. . . but if it’s a title I’ve been looking for, I’ll buy it no matter the condition. Trolling estate sales, library discard sales, Good Will, and garage sales, we’re not talking large amounts of money here.


Never. Surrendering. Printed. Books. Ever! I guess I was frightened by Fahrenheit 451 as a child. As long as there’s duct tape, I’ll keep printed pages together!


I LOVE the history in old books. It’s one of the things that I’d miss most if I ever switched to ebooks. Inscriptions on old books are the nicest thing–I feel connected to the people who owned the book before me. Love it.


I love my Kindle but I also love old books! I don’t have too many of my own anymore but I do collect old Oz books from the early 1900s. Even though they are collectors items I still feel I’m “saving them” from the harsh world out there. And of course as they get fewer and fewer they should be in the hands of someone who really loves them. Most of them have wonderful inscriptions, they were often Christmas gifts from favorite aunts, grandparents, etc.


“And of course as they get fewer and fewer they should be in the hands of someone who really loves them”

That couldn’t be a more perfect reason to collect books, especially older books.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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