I try to teach my kids to be careful with books but it doesn’t work with two-year-old Sarah. She has a very physical relationship with books. The ones she loves best she bends their covers until they break (Favourite Fairy Tales), tears out the lift-the-flaps (Hop Little Bunnies), scribbles on the faces of the characters (That’s Not My Llama). ‘She’s getting the paperbacks!’ her brother called out urgently once.
Watching her stand on Favourite Fairy Tales this morning, I suddenly remembered a sermon from when I was thirteen. The preacher said that a worn-out, underlined Bible was the sign of a faithful Christian. Until then I’d been quite careful with my NIV Study Bible, the grown up Bible presented to me at age nine, but after that I took to it with pencils and highlighters and it bears my earnest, naive annotations of the next five years. The Gideons had also just come to my (public) school and the farmer from my church with pulled-up socks had presented my maths class with small red New Testaments. Taking the preacher even more literally, I was rough with that Bible, trying to bend and scuff it into premature worn-ness to demonstrate my piety.
As a young adult I was proudly impervious to the physicality of books. My tatty paperback copies of my favourite novels, JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Paul Auster’s Moon Palace, were a sign I only cared about what mattered. In my first job, I was Secret Santa to a woman I fancied and I thought it was appropriate to give her yellowed copies of John Fowles novels. I think she was at least in no doubt about her Secret Santa’s identity.
I’m the opposite today. I love beautiful books with elegant dust jackets, straight spines, well-designed covers. On my birthday back in March, just before the pandemic really hit, I browsed a secondhand bookshop and came out with a dust-jacketed first edition of Moon Palace to place alongside that tatty copy Paul Auster signed for me at the 2008 Adelaide Writers’ Festival.