Monday, June 16, 2008

Disposable books

In tension with the rather formal idea of burning books, which is often a very dread and serious business, there is the everyday disregard for the book as an object. Examples abound. Napoleon on campaign was rumoured to have thrown novels out the carriage window as he finished them, making, one biographer commented, his expeditions into a sort of impromptu paper-chase. Edward Fitzgerald would cut out sections of books which he disliked and bind up the remainder, while Charles Darwin was even more slipshod, and would routinely cut up books to make them more convenient, holding the battered fragments together with metal clips. A famous neurologist called Hughlings Jackson was known for sending relevant or interesting sections to friends, but also for cutting railway novels in half, so that he could be evenly weighted down, one half in the left pocket, the other in the right. Undoubtedly my favourite, the horror of all book-collectors, is the tale that Shelley would use the flyleaves of books, if nothing else was to hand, to make paper boats.
For many years I have been spreading the rumour that novelist Ford Madox Ford used bacon rashers as bookmarks while at the breakfast table, but I have conveniently forgotten the source of this no-doubt libelous story. It is true, however, that Wordsworth would open his books with a used bread-and-butter knife.

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