I recently received an email from someone who asked, “Is there a correct, careful way to handle a book so as not to damage it? That is–is it possible to be both a book collector and a reader of the books or should those two hobbies be completely separate?”
The answer is that it’s very possible to read the same books one collects!
Since the difference between a book in fine condition & one that’s just very good is very small, it doesn’t take much to knock a book from one grade to another. But, if handled carefully, a new book can retain its condition & value.
How To Safely Read A Book
1. Always make sure your hands are clean before handling the book.
2. Don’t eat or drink while reading. In addition to the damage that can be caused by stains & spills, any small crumb or organic material left inside the book can attract insects, which may do even further damage to the book.
3. Keep the book away from direct light (especially sunlight) and dampness.
4. Don’t use bulky bookmarks, which can damage the book when it’s closed. And don’t dog-ear the page, or leave the book open & face down to save your place. Don’t use Post-It Notes, as they can leave an invisible residue on the page. Just use a slip of plain white paper to mark your place.
5. When you’ve finished the book, check to make sure any book marks have been removed. (Non-acid-free paper left in may cause damage to the pages.)
6. Avoid opening the book widely, as this can cause damage to the spine. Open the book only as wide as necessary to comfortably read the book.
7. Carefully turn the pages, avoiding crinkling or dimpling the paper when doing so.
8. Take care not to wrinkle or otherwise damage the dustjacket; it represents a large portion of the book’s value.
9. Consider putting the dustjacket into a Brodart (or similar) book jacket. They are made of a clear, archival material and slip right over the book’s dustjacket without attaching to it or damaging it. You can find these at most large bookstores, where they cost only a few dollars for a package of several. Or, order them online (see links below).
10. Hold the book by both hands, or cradle it in your lap while reading. If it’s a paperback, don’t fold the cover back upon itself.
11. Keep your first editions out of reach of children.
Storing Books Safely
1. Keep books away from direct light, heat & humidity.
2. Shelve books of the same approximate height together; putting a tall book next to a short book can cause uneven stress upon the spine. Keep the spines aligned so that one book isn’t pushed back farther than the next.
3. Shelve books upright on the shelf, neither too tightly packed nor too loose. Leaning can cause the spine to go out of alignment, as can stacking books on their sides.
4. Try not to store books horizontally. If it is absolutely necessary to store a book upon its side, put as little weight upon it as possible. If you must stack another book on top of it, be sure to rearrange the stack periodically to relieve the stresses upon the books.
5. When removing a book from the shelf, do not grasp it by the top of the spine or tilt it; this can cause damage to the book’s head and foot. Instead, pull it out by grasping it around the middle of the spine. You may need to push surrounding books slightly back, or reach above & behind the book to push it forward from its fore edge, to accomplish this. Then, realign the other books on the shelf.
6. Don’t keep books in plastic bags. They need to breathe, and plastic may trap moisture, encouraging mold, warping, and pests. The plastic may also react with the book. If you really want to store a book in a bag, there are better options – try a paper bag or wrap the book in paper, tissue, or plain cloth. Acid-free materials are always best. There are acid-free boxes, too. You can buy archival, acid-free materials for this purpose at these stores:
- Brodart On their site, under the “Supplies” menu, click “Archival Supplies” -there you will find “archival book jacket covers.” There are different kinds, but I think the “fold-on” type is easiest to work with.
- Bags Unlimited
Some bookstores sell pre-cut Brodart covers. Your local craft, art, or office supplies store may have such materials as well. Taking the care to store your books using archival materials will extend their lives.
7. Keep them clean! Even in a closed bookcase, books and bookshelves gather dust. Over time, they can get really dirty. Periodically, carefully remove the books from your shelves, and stack them somewhere out of the way. Clean the shelves and any bookcase doors. Then, as you put the books back in, dust them off with something soft, paying careful attention to the top edge.
There’s another solution: reading copies!
If you can’t manage all of this, don’t despair. Some folks just don’t have it in them to handle a book so carefully. One person I know just can’t seem to refrain from crinkling or creasing paper when he holds it. He doesn’t even seem to realize he’s doing it – but papers and books he has read all show some obvious handling.
If that sounds like you – and there’s no shame in that! – consider these alternatives:
- If it’s available, buy a cheap paperback reading copy & leave the first edition safely protected on your bookshelf.
- If no paperback is available, buy a second copy of the hardcover to use as a reading copy. Perhaps you can even find one at your local used book store.
If you are unsure of your ability to very carefully handle your first edition, using a reading copy will allow you to protect it from the hazards of reading.