Earlier this year, I wrote about how librarians hate throwing away the strange and useless things that people sometimes donate to us. By and large, it’s true that people send us things that we can’t use and sometimes have to dispose of using the same guidelines one would use for getting rid of hazmat. Sometimes we get something interesting (if only because of the law of large numbers). While I was on the reference desk yesterday, our collections librarian stopped by, handed me a book, and told me there was something weird about it. The book is a paperback copy of L’Île des Pengouins, by Anatole France, published in 1908. I’ve seen older books. It’s kind of cool that the book was written by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1921). I didn’t see anything particularly interesting about it until I started to flip through the pages. Well, I tried to flip through the pages.
This copy of L’Île des Pengouins had not been cut. This is the first book I’ve ever seen that was never cut.
I only know about needing to cut the pages of books the way I know about most things: via fiction. In this case, I remembered mentions of characters reading with knife in their hand to cut open the pages as they went. Not a sign page of this book has been cut. Based on this fact and the sun bleaching on the spine, this book has sat on a shelf for a long time.
Of course I showed the book to every coworker who came within hailing distance of the reference desk. I educated one of our student workers about galley proofs. (I’m fairly sure they were genuinely interested.)
Once the magic had worn off a bit, I started to think about this book as an object. I can’t read French. I’m not going to cut the pages (or let anyone else do so while the book is in my possession). What is a book when you can’t and won’t read the text? Right now, it’s not fulfilling its purpose. By my own internal logic*, I should be as annoyed by this as I am by the books people buy by the yard to match their decor. But I’m not. I suppose that the purpose of this book is no longer to be read, but to teach. It’s not a book as I define it; it’s a historical artifact.
* Go ahead and make your jokes.