Gather & Bind:
The Fundamentals of Book Collecting

Part Eleven: How to Read

Despite popular myths to the contrary, book collectors are readers. They value their books as beautiful objects, wrap them in dust jacket protectors, and take care to store them properly. As a result, collectors’ libraries are often quite beautiful. But having beautiful copies is only one aspect of book collecting. The other has to do with content. Books must be read in order to be fully enjoyed.

By following a few common sense rules, rare and collectable books can be read and reread without sustaining any damage. The first and most important set of rules has nothing to do with reading technique.

Rule One: Wash and thoroughly dry your hands. Even if you think your hands are clean, your skin emits natural oils and moisture that build up over time.

Rule Two: Do not eat while reading. Most foods contain fats, oils and liquids. Even small crumbs can permanently stain pages. Nothing is less attractive than the remnants of a 50-year-old doughnut crushed between two pages of text.

Rule Three: Do not drink while reading. Books are made from paper. Paper in all its forms is porous, and will absorb moisture as readily as a sponge. Water damage is irreversible.

Rule Four: Do not smoke. Leaving health considerations aside, the tar in tobacco smoke leaves behind a residual oily film that has an unmistakable and enduring odor. Ashes can stain both text papers and covers.

The second set of rules has to do with reading technique. Most of us adopt habits early on that stay with us forever, and we tend to repeat actions thoughtlessly, without any regard for their consequences. The “do nots” are first.

Rule Five: Do not remove the dust jacket before reading a book. Not only does the printed dust jacket repel soil and dust from the environment, it protects the book’s covers, which are particularly vulnerable to soiling.

Rule Six: Do not open a book and bend it back by the covers. This public librarian’s method of “breaking in a book” weakens the binding of even the finest hand sewn volume, and can destroy the weaker “perfect binding” in common use today. Nor should you press your finger along the center gutter so that the book will lie flat in your hands. This weakens any binding.

Rule Seven: Do not mark your place by laying the book text down on a table. Stacking several books in this way is worse.

Rule Eight: Do not run your fingertips repeatedly over the edges. Even worse is cleaning your fingernails by running them under the edges.

Finally, we come to the “do’s.” While the techniques will vary slightly from volume to volume and from reader to reader, these will help maintain condition for most books.

Rule Nine: Cradle the book’s spine. If you bring your thumb and little finger together slightly over your palm, you will see the natural cradle your hand forms. If you put the book into that cradle, you can then use your free hand to turn the pages. In this way, there is minimal stress placed on the binding.

Rule Ten: Open the book only to the point where all the text on a single page can easily be seen. Most books can be read half-opened to the horizontal. The pages will arch naturally when being held on the fore edges by your thumb. When you read the left page, keep the book in such a position that the left page is horizontal to your eye, and the right page is vertical. When moving on to the right page, rotate the book so that the right-hand page is horizontal. This may seem awkward at first, but after reading this way a few times, it will become second nature.

By taking a bit of care, you will not have to be concerned when you sit down to read any of your books.

A more detailed discussion of this topic can be found in the February 1996 issue of Firsts.

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