Bad things happen to good books. See my post on Spine perished – a summer project, for example. Granted, “spine perished” is an extreme case. More commonly, a book will get dropped, or get wet, or the jacket will be torn by careless handling. All of those are unfortunate accidents.
What adds insult to injury is when the damage is deliberate. I hate opening a book and finding annotations (in ink) other than ones made by Abraham Lincoln or someone equally famous. Even worse than annotations are yellow highlights, and even worse than yellow highlights are deep pink or purple highlights. Even worse than all of that, however, is when I’ve made those marks myself.
Before I became a bookseller and adopted the mantra that books are for the ages, and the fewer traces left by previous owners the better, I had a somewhat different attitude. I felt that books were made to be used, and the more useful the book, the more likely it was to have gathered highlights and annotations from me.
That’s exactly what happened with Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide: An Ingenious New Key System for Quick, Positive Field Identification of the Wildflowers, Flowering Shrubs and Vines of Northeastern and North-central North America, by Lawrence Newcomb, Illustrated by Gordon Morrison. (Litttle, Brown and Company: Boston. 1977.)
One summer thirty years ago, I made it my project to identify every wildflower (weed) I came upon from the first white clovers of spring to the final asters and goldenrods of fall. I lived in the middle of the city then, but even so, I discovered that weeds came by their hardy reputation honestly, bursting through any available crack in the sidewalk, hugging the sides of buildings out of the lawnmower’s reach, and colonizing vacant lots in between mandated city mowings.
Every time I used my book to identify a new plant, I would highlight the name (in purple!) and notate the date and location in the margin (in black ink).
I recently decided to take up this fine hobby again, with a slightly different twist. I put my digital camera in a fanny pack, and tossed Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, which was too big to join the camera, into a plastic grocery bag to protect it from the drizzle, and went adventuring for new finds.
And I did find something new (to me). A cinquefoil. Apparently there are a number of types, and I couldn’t distinguish the common from the sulpher, so I plucked a stem and put it between the pages of the book for further research, thus adding to my sins against this fine little book. But I felt justified when it turned out that the color of the underside of the leaf was the determining factor between the two. I had found a sulpher cinquefoil (potentilla recta).
After this adventure, naturally, the book stayed out on my desk for a few days, and almost idly, I decided to look up its value. Imagine my heart attack when I saw paperbacks (mine is a hard cover) in three figures, and hardcover first editions in the $600 range. Granted, my book is a third printing, but it would probably fall somewhere between the two, except for the crimes against its condition committed in my profligate youth.
There isn’t really any moral to this story, unless it’s that we get smarter (or at least more knowledgeable) as we get older. On the other hand, I flip through the book and see a pink highlight on the words “Yellow Goatsbeard” and the annotation “Field 6-6-81″ in the margin. And I smile, remembering the tiny house I lived in, the neighborhood I walked in, the dog that ran ahead of me on our jaunts, the friends, the neighbors, the family that surrounded me in that different town in that earlier time.
And I realize that it doesn’t matter what the book would be worth if I hadn’t “ruined” it, because I wouldn’t sell it anyway.