The New York Times: “What We Do To Books”

I have a hard time giving away or getting rid of books that I’ve read. I’m not even sure I can remember the last book I’ve read that I don’t still own. (My solution is usually to buy more bookshelves).

Maybe that’s why this article from The New York Times (“What We Do To Books”), which explores what happens to the physical book as it’s being handled and read, was so interesting to me —

“There has always been a lot of discussion about the effect that reading books has on us. Far less attention has been paid to the effect that we (the readers) have on them (the books).”

Maybe I’m weird (‘maybe,’ he says), but I do find something inherently rewarding about seeing signs of my using a book. Books are meant to be used and worked with, which is likely why writing in books is such a topic of interest to me.

“On the contrary, I like the way it gradually and subtly shows signs of wear and tear, of having been lived in (by me), like a pair of favorite jeans … George Steiner wrote somewhere that an intellectual is someone who can’t read a book without a pencil in his or her hand. My version of this compulsion is that I can’t seem to read without picking my nose — hence the blood stains.”

Yikes. Too much information. But, the Steiner quote does resonate with me. The notes I write in my books are traces of memory for what I’d read, my way of interacting with the text in some way that hopefully triggers memory cues a year or ten years from now.

I still have mixed feelings about the experience of reading ebooks when it comes to note-taking. It’s just not the same. Kindle does a pretty good job when it comes to highlighting and saving passages; most of the other ebook applications still need work in this regard.

In terms of physical book note-taking, Geoff Dyer shares a similar sentiment:

“The creases, the annotations and the appropriate blood stains all imprint it with the fact of my having read it. The difference, of course, is that they are there for keeps whereas my understanding of the book’s contents began fading almost as soon as they were being (temporarily) installed in my head. In the short term this is quite normal. The long term is described by John Updike in his memoir, “Self-Consciousness” (Sept. 16, 1991, Paris): “I own many books full of my annotations, proving that once I read them, though I have no memory of it.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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