The art of reading with sticky fingers
Five hundred years ago your books would have been a manuscript, possibly on vellum, the fine skin of young animals like calves or kids, embossed perhaps and maybe even ‘illuminated’, decorated with rich colours like Lapis Lazuli and gold leaf. It would have been carefully transcribed by monks or nuns for the love of learning and also to earn funds for their monasteries or convents for staples like dried stockfish for fast days and winter meals.
Paper is not precious these days. While one could argue that it should be made more expensive in order to conserve trees, it’s cheap. And so, really, are paper books. If a book lasts a decade it can be read ten to a thousand times … even if you have sticky fingers.
When I was kid you had to have clean hands to read a book. No turning down corners, no scribbling in the margins. Defacing a book was… well, defacing it, a crime as great as talking in class. A book was sacrosanct and meant to stay pristine till it yellowed naturally and turned brittle.
True book lovers – unless they collect rare and first editions – rarely treat their books with awe. They eat when they read – or rather, most read when they eat. (All meals, even five star ones, are better with a book at hand). They read on the beach, while they are sticky with suntan lotion. They dribble watermelon and mango juice on the pages, or at least I do.
I re-read books often. The first time to see what happens, the second to enjoy the words and the third, fourth and fiftieth times because every time you read a good book you find something new, but also because books can become old friends, good to visit, the equivalent of a cuppa tea and a hug, which is why I always re-read loved favourites before I go to bed.
Reading those best-loved books is a forensic exercise. Is that brown stain chocolate, gravy or a squished mosquito? Where did the airline boarding-pass bookmark come from? the ferry ticket, the tissue that might have wiped hay fever-y eyes (but nothing that might be infectious).
I love far-from-pristine second-hand books, bought or passed down, one with comments in the margins or under-linings (Dad was good at that) or just an exclamation mark, the books of poetry that always open at the same beloved page.
Which – finally – brings me back to kids and reading. Encourage kids to read at any time, not just with a clean chin or fingers. A well-loved book can be a messy one and, anyway, papers soaks up stickiness quite well. Splodges show the new reader that someone has gone this way before, with happiness and adventure, signposts to what’s to come. Pass the scones please, darling, and the bowl of cherries … Its time for an RSI break – book in one hand, something fresh and good in the other. And, in an aside for those who read it later, those red stains will be strawberry jam, not blood.