PSA for Book Lovers: There’s Nothing Wrong with Dog-Eared Books


PSA for Book Lovers: There’s Nothing Wrong with Dog-Eared Books

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

I’ve had many accusations levelled at me in my life, but “plotting against the library” easily ranks as the most bizarre. Not to mention, it was a filthy lie. I loved that library, and honestly, I have no idea what a “plot” against it would even entail. The library in question was my school library, an amazing, cavernous space with rows and rows of creaky wooden cabinets with glass panes, allowing a browsing schoolboy to catch a glimpse of dusty, sometimes termite-infested, but always engrossing books that covered everything from literary classics to historical biographies, science and geography and the humanities, and even a shelf of sports magazines that always seemed to have a crowd around it. My accuser was Mr Rebello, a pear-shaped, perennially sweaty man with wild hair and a beard, who also happened to be the school librarian.

Mr Rebello was what you would call eccentric, if you were being polite. The sight of a pen in a student’s pocket was enough to send him into fits, for fear that they might vandalise one of his precious books with a doodle, or a careless stroke. He’d eat lunch not in the staff room but at his desk, from where he could keep the entire library under surveillance. Perhaps his twitchy demeanour came from years spent protecting the books from the rowdy students of my all-boys school, who would tear pages, draw moustaches and beards (and worse) on the pictures, and sometimes check books out, never to return them. But I was one of the good ones, or so I thought. I even had a librarian badge, given to students for their commitment to reading, until one day I returned a book of Jim Corbett’s hunting stories to Mr Rebello, and he laid eyes on a dog-eared page, and just lost it.

“You’ve mutilated this book!”

“I’m sorry…?”

“Look at this! You’ve folded the page! You’ll ruin every book in this library! You’re plotting! Plotting against the library!”

I went home from school in the evening and had to explain to my mother why my librarian badge was no longer proudly pinned on my tie. I had to turn it in, like some disgraced cop in an action movie, all because of a stupid fold on the corner of a page in a book. That was my first experience with a certain sanctimonious type of book lover, who believe dog-earing the pages of a book is a one-way ticket to hell, and a sure sign of moral bankruptcy. Why else would I have gone from badge-bearing assistant librarian to a banished exile in Mr Rebello’s eyes in the space of a few minutes?

Since then, I’ve encountered countless other Mr Rebellos with the same burning hatred for dog-eared pages and the readers who make them. The act is one of the most common pet peeves among bibliophiles, and its practitioners must conduct their business in secret, in fear of the shame that would follow if their folded pages were made public. In pop culture, showing a character get annoyed over dog-eared pages has become a convenient shorthand to convey that they love books. But as I’ve discovered through my own experiences, it’s possible to love books as well as dog-ear the pages. So I have a message for all those who look down on the dog-earing readers: That thing you hate isn’t really a big deal at all; just chill out.

In pop culture, showing a character get annoyed over dog-eared pages has become a convenient shorthand to convey that they love books.

Exhibit A in my defence of dog-eared pages is a 16-year-old copy of The Lord of the Rings that I bought, shortly after Mr Rebello banned me from the school library. It’s one of those editions that features all three volumes as well the appendices, so it tips the scales at a pretty hefty 1,200 pages or so. In all the years I’ve owned it, dog-earing it every single time I picked it up, the book has stayed perfectly serviceable. The spine bends in on itself a little now, but that’s more due to bearing the prodigious burden of holding together over a 1,000 pages for so much time. Tolkien’s words remained legible, and the story didn’t end any differently because I dog-eared the pages. It’s been the same for every book I’ve read – dog-earing the pages leaves nothing but a gentle crease in the top corner, which seems like a pretty pedantic hill to die on. Just read the freaking book without lording your refined sensibilities over us page-folding savages.

Don’t take my word for it: An ABC News feature titled “Dog-Earing Books: The History of a Not-So-Bad Habit”, traces the practice of dog-earing books, and finds that it was once considered commonplace rather than frowned upon. Evidence of dog-eared pages goes back all the way to Shakespeare’s time, and even Isaac Newton was known to fold the pages of his journals and texts. If dog-earing pages is good enough for the man who discovered gravity, then it’s good enough for us all, dammit! The article features an interview with English professor Ian Gadd, who says that the way we interact with books enriches our experience of reading them. “I love those human moments in which the book as an object becomes part of our experience of reading the text within it… Books are useful objects, amongst the most useful object we have, and yet there seems to be a very strong cultural desire to make that use as invisible as possible.”

This quest to make our use of books invisible led to an invention that was the greatest waste of paper until Chetan Bhagat came along – the bookmark. Free bookmarks from Crossword, decorative bookmarks from the stationery store, throwaway bookmarks like airline boarding passes, bookmarks I’ve painstakingly made by hand; I’ve lost more bookmarks in my life than the Congress has lost MLAs in Karnataka. If there are people who manage to keep track of their bookmarks for longer than a month, I salute them, but I’ll take a simple dog-ear that doesn’t fall under the couch or go missing after two days any time.

Now that we’ve established that dog-earing books doesn’t do any real damage, and that they’re a convenient alternative to constantly losing bookmarks, can we please stop the ostracism of readers who dog-ear pages? There are far worse habits people have when it comes to books. There’s vandalism of the sort that kept Mr Rebello up at night; there are careless readers who leave coffee, tea, and grease stains on the pages, obscuring the words; and then there’s borrowing a book with no intention of reading it or returning it to its rightful owner, which should replace dog-earing as the number one undesirable trait in a reader.

Dog-eared pages are a sign of love, the physical manifestation of the connection between the reader and his book. Leaving a dog-ear on a book you’re reading is like kissing your partner goodbye. It’s a promise to return and continue the romance. And that’s not a shameful thing. So I’m going to continue dog-earing my books, regardless of what the pearl-clutching crowds think. You can say whatever you like about me. In fact, do your worst. I’ve already been accused of plotting against the library.