When is a book not a book?
When it’s been read and loved so often that its pages become softer than skin, when its spine is battered and broken and the only thing holding it together is old tape and memories.
Then it’s no longer a book: it’s a treasure.
Working in a library I often hear people say that they only ever read a book once. “Why buy books,” they say, “when you never read them again?”
I genuinely get confused by this. If you love something- surely you want to experience it again and again.
“Oh this is the best song in the world; I’ve heard it once.”
“This is an amazing restaurant; I’ve only ever eaten there one time.”
As far as I’m concerned, reading a book only once, especially a book that you have enjoyed, is the same as never watching your favourite film again.
Every time you read a book you are reading it for the first time all over again. Yes, you might know the ending and the plot and the twists and turns, but each time you read it you are in a different frame of mind. You notice different things, you have a different experience. Characters that you never really bothered with suddenly have different importance, words mean more, your favourite character is suddenly a jerk or you see their behaviour in a different light.
One example of this, for me, is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
I literally cannot count the amount of times I have read this book but I’m sure it must be in the hundreds.
As a young child I loved the romance between Lizzy and Darcy, I never fully understood his change of heart but love conquers all. Lizzy stuck to her guns and married for love not duty and eight-year-old me cheered her on.
As a teen with depression I understood the pain of Jane’s trying to hide her feelings and forever be the upbeat daughter, even though her heart was breaking. I could feel the angst of Lizzy trying to heal her sister whilst hiding her own pain and I cried for them.
Later I read a few fanfictions where Mr Darcy suffered from crippling shyness and, re-reading the book this coloured all his actions for me until it became canon and the reason he was so aloof to Lizzy.
In my twenties I came to have sympathy for Mrs Bennett as I better understood the history and culture of the time and knew that her incessant matchmaking was so that her daughters wouldn’t end up in the poorhouse or working as prostitutes. I genuinely agreed with Charlotte Lucas’ choice and suddenly Lizzy’s actions were dangerous and selfish.
Later still, with the BBC adaptation, Keira Knightly version and the myriads of prequels, sequels, adaptations and re-imaginings, I learn new things which colour my reading or change my opinion.
And that is just one book.
I have many Pride and Prejudice books, many various editions and the aforementioned prequels, sequels and adaptations. Several times I have had to throw copies away because they have become so battered and impossible to read.
Of course I’m talking to the book community here so I’m sure we’ve all got books that we have read so many times that they are falling to pieces.
As I was going through my shelves I found several that have meant so much to me that I’m only my second, third, even fourth copy and I thought I’d share a few of those with you.
1) The Complete Illustrated works of Lewis Carroll
This was bought for me when I was five years old by my nana. Even at that point I’d become a voracious reader and loved to show off how many big words I knew.
She presented it to me like the Holy Grail and I poured over every inch of the book. As you can it has been broken and taped up many times. The section most abused is the Jabberwocky poem which, by age eight, I had memorised.
We had a poetry day at school where all the kids were expected to recite a poem in class. I stood up and recited the Jabberwocky to thunderous applause from my nana.
My best friend had forgotten that it was poetry day and she grabbed the nearest book and looked for the shortest poem. So after I expounded the wonders of brillig and the slithy toves she stood up and said clearly.
“This is a poem by Giles Brandreth and is called Ode to a Goldfish. “Oh, wet pet.”
She got detention.
2) The Borrowers Omnibus by Mary Norton.
Another gift from my Nana. I had read the first borrowers book so many times it fell to pieces. The antics of Arrietty, Pod and Homily were so engaging that I would read it over and over and daydream of Arrietty and Spiller eventually getting together.
If you’ve never heard of the Borrowers, they are tiny little beings who live under your floorboards or in the walls and are the reason things go missing. The BBC did the very best adaptation of the book in 1992 (not the 2011 version or the travesty that is the Movie). The series starred Ian Holm, Penelope Wilton and Rebecca Callard and was, to my young head, exactly what went on in my head when I read the book.
My sister and I watched the series every week for months and I still have the VHS set (yes, I am that old). Whenever I read the book I’m back laying on the floor watching Daniel Newman smirk at a soaking wet Rebecca Callard while I throw carrot sticks at my sister.
3) Devils Cub by Georgette Heyer.
This one was battered before I even got to it. This was a hand-me-down from my mum who had the entire Georgette Heyer collection. I got into Mills and Boon books quite young (about age 9) and my mum was worried that there might be some sex scenes and other content which wasn’t suitable. (This was the late eighties and Mills and Boon books tended towards the fade to black option for sex scenes so I have no idea what she was worried about.) But Heyer was all about the Regency life and no sex before marriage so they were fine.
Ma allowed me to read her special Heyer books but only in her room. So I spent hours laying on mums’ bed while she sat reading something else next to me. With 5 brothers and sisters in a three bedroom house it was really rare that I ever got time alone with mum so Georgette Heyer books always remind me of spending afternoons reading regency romance books with my mum.
Devil’s cub was my favourite as she turns him down and he ends up chasing her all over the country. When I moved out ma passed me all of her Heyer books and I’ve read them all so often but I am very careful not to damage them beyond this.
4) Guards! Guards! By Terry Pratchett
But king_lyd, this copy doesn’t look battered at all. That’s because this is copy number 3. The last two copies of this book ended up in pieces all over England. The last one had missing pages, no spine, no cover and was more a selection of chapters stapled together than an actual book.
When you physically can’t hold the book in your hands anymore then it is time to buy a new copy.
This is another book, like Pride and Prejudice that I have read so many times that I could probably recite it to you and yet, each time I read it, there is something new to discover.
Terry Pratchett has this amazingly sarcastic and witty sense of humour that I find fantastic. It’s a ‘roll your eyes at the human race because they are so ridiculous’ type of humour. The sort that laughs at humanity and asks you to join in the joke.
This turns the whole idea of the ‘Chosen one who slays the dragon’ on its head. For a start Carrott is a 6”plus tall dwarf who is so delightfully naive that you want to cuddle him. The damsel is definitely not in distress and the City of Ankh-Morpork is all the better for having been singed a few times.
I can’t say how much I love this book because I do not have words. I have sounds and they are along the lines of “Ahhhhhhrrrrgggggghhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmm.”
5) Hawk Of May By Gillian Bradshaw.
I can’t remember where I got his book from but it was during my early fantasy years that I first read it. I was heavily into Tamora Pierce and Anne McCaffrey. Al I wanted to read about was knights, dragons and evil wizards.
The Hawk of May is about the Grandson of Uther Pendragon who becomes a warlock in order to join Arthu. But Arthur mistrusts him.
What I loved most about it was the very strong female characters, especially for those times. Morgawse and Morgana Le Fey were some of my favourite badass female role models during that time period. It was just wonderfully written and full of adventure. Now it’s full of tears and is probably too delicate to handle.
6) The Fall of Shane Mackade by Nora Roberts
To be fair I could have chosen any of my Nora Roberts of J.D Robb books as they are all pretty tatty. I adore her and have read as much as I possibly can. Some of her stuff is out of print and some are just impossible to find but she does release old books in new omnibuses a few times a year so it’s possible to read most of her back catalogue.
There was a recent kerfuffle with Tomi Adeyemi, who wrote Children of Blood and Bone, accusing Nora Roberts of stealing her title. Considering N.R is a multi-million dollar best-seller who has been writing since before Tomi was born I found this hilarious. I genuinely think anyone who writes should know who Nora Roberts is. The fact that Adeyemi doesn’t know has made me not want to read her book.
Anyway, I digress. Roberts tends to write in trilogies or Quadrilogies and usually centres on members of a family all finding love one after the other. They have a theme and the characters intertwine between the books.
This is the fourth in the Mackade brother series about a cowboy called Shane who is the final brother to fall in love with a girl he had no intention of liking. Rebecca is a lovely likable character with genuine flaws but the ability to stand up to the overwhelming masculinity of the playboy cowboy. It’s silly, it’s sweet and its sexy and it take me less than an hour to re-read.
I actually have this in two different versions as I saw it in a charity shop just as my copy was falling into disrepair.
7) Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.
My husband is endearingly optimistic. As a life-long pessimist and cynic I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Our relationship is a little like Chris Pratt and Audrey Plaza from Parks and Rec. He is the Andy Dwyer and I am the April Ludgate.
I didn’t think we’d have much in common until I saw his copy of Jurassic Park. It was even more beat up and battered than mine and he even had favourite paragraphs and chapters.
Our mutual love for Jurassic park aside, when we got married our shelves doubled and now his weird taste in books rests alongside mine. I can put up with the Bill Bryson’s and the detailed books about the London Underground and railway systems because he puts up with my paranormal romances and multiple copies of the same book- even though he says that makes me a serial killer.
So those are my broken and battered books. I hope you enjoyed my meanderings.
Hahahaha your best friend is amazing 😂 Have you watched the Ghibli version of the borrowers?
Your books are all so lovely! I used to read my grandmother’s books when I was young until my mom took them away since they had explicit sex scenes hahaha but my favourite and one I own til today is The Illusions of Love by Kasey Michaels. Every time I read it I’m reminded of home.
My Dragonlance Chronicles have fallen apart. I bought new copies to read, but kept the originals that I’ve loved into the ground.
As someone with a constantly growing TBR pile, I was thinking about how I don’t usually reread books. But then I realized I reread my favorite short stories a lot. And Pride & Prejudice, so your example really resonated with me.