How To Deface Your Books (and make them worthless).

This article is part advice and part confession. I believe that at one time or another I have managed to perform at least several acts of desecration upon a book. Thankfully, they have not involved the use of human waste products. On the other hand, I am pretty sure that I have destroyed a book in a way that few others will have done.  More on that later.

Right at the top of my list of how to deface and devaluate a book is highlighting, underlining and annotation. Especially if done using a highlighter or pen. I used to do this as a student but found myself highlighting/underlining half the book. I eventually figured out that this was actually detrimental to my learning. You tend to ignore the parts that aren’t highlighted, which may actually turn out to be an important section you forgot to mark. Or, if you actually do the unthinkable and try to re-read the text again, you will miss new information because your eyes will be drawn to the highlighting instead of to something new. I feel that highlighting, underlining and annotation are signs of intellectual laziness. Don’t do it – don’t give in to lazy.

For myself, I eventually found that I learned better by writing notes in my own way in a separate notebook or on a separate sheet of paper stored in a loose-leaf binder. This technique requires you to actually think about the material and condense it into something that can be reviewed in much less time than it takes to re-read all of that highlighted text. This also works well in a lecture setting, and forces you to actually listen to and not just hear the lecture.

I put the title/author at the top of the page and when I find something interesting that I want to remember, I write the page number at the left, or use some other kind of outline scheme. Play around until you find the layout that works for you. Copy the section of interest, or even better, condense it into your own words. You will be amazed at how much more material you can retain in your brain. Plus, you get to have a nice clean book that you can read again, or you can pass it on to others for their enjoyment. Or, in the case of textbooks, sell them for cash. I always laughed at the kids who would buy a pre-highlighted textbook. How did they know whether the former owner aced the class? Maybe some dummy highlighted all the wrong stuff? It’s much safer and easier in the long run to just do your own work.

Another thing I used to do to my books was put my name in them or even worse, write it on the edge of the pages. I was more inclined to do this with textbooks than in my other books. I would like to say I stopped this practice long before I became a bookseller, but it would not be true.  In my earlier days as a bookseller, about ten years ago, I had an open shop for about three years. I had some old hardcover westerns that were ex-library and in pretty rough shape, so I decided that they should never be allowed to grace my shelves again. So, I marked really low prices in pen inside the covers, so no one could bring them in to sell to me again.  Not knowing that some of them, even in the rough condition they were in, still had some value. I believe I sold them by the box. Ten years later, I still come across some of those books that I had sold so cheap. Sometimes I buy them back. And mentally kick myself or cringe every time I see a book that I defaced like this.

Now, all my pricing gets written using a light touch on the pencil. I also use a softer lead; one with an ‘S’ after the number. I avoid the hard leads with an ‘H’ after the number; you will engrave the price permanently into the paper trying to make it legible.

Another way to mistreat a book is to fold down the corner of a page as a bookmark. Again, this is another bad habit I used to indulge in. Does wisdom really come with age?

Yet another mistreatment. When reading your paperback, fold it back so that the covers meet. that way you can read it and keep one hand free. On of my customers, God rest his soul, used to get mad at me when I would not take his destroyed books in trade. The books would be in nearly new condition when they went out the door, but looked like they had been through the washer and dryer – totally trashed.

Last but no least, that other story.

When I was in college I struggled my way through differential calculus and managed to slide by with a D-, not good enough to get credit for the course. Paid all that money just to fail the course. I kept that stupid textbook for years, even after I later re-took the course at another school and passed. I eventually gave the book away but came across it several years later at the local library book sale (it had my name written on the edge of the pages). I found that I still harbored resentment toward that book. So I bought it. I then took it out to a local gravel pit and shot big holes in it with a .357 Magnum. I felt good. And maybe just a tiny little bit guilty.

Taking Out The Trash

I recycle my un-saleable books at our local recycling center, still affectionately known to locals as The Dump. One time I was there throwing out boxes of old, ratty, mass market paperbacks, heaving them into the paper recycling bin. An older lady waited until I had finished my chore, then proceeded to climb right into the bin and start to heave most of them back out. I asked her what she thought she was doing. She said she was getting them for one of the local non-profits who had a free book-exchange shelf. I know darn well that I ended up rejecting those books all over again from hopeful sellers. At one point I even started tearing them up to discourage the dump-picking. Looking back, I don’t know who was crazier, her for picking books out of a dumpster, or me for being so anal about keeping those books from coming back to my store.

Another time I got a call from a guy who swore he had a van full of nothing but ‘primo’ books in great condition – very valuable. He said he needed money to pay his bills.

After an hour’s drive, this guy wheeled into the parking lot in a van so loaded the bumper scraped the road when he made the turn. He had over forty cartons of books, which he proceeded to unload onto the front porch. It took me over four hours to sort through the stuff, hoping in vain to find something decent, but most of the boxes were full of damp, mildewed books, mouse crap, mold and dirt. I bought about thirty books and that only because I felt sorry for him. He was trying to sell stuff out of those boxes to my customers for several hours before I made him load up and leave. Another lesson learned.

As an aside to this story, I have found through much experience that people who bring books in using big old trash bags are usually bringing just that – trash. I have found that the time and labor involved in going through the bags is usually not worth it. However, neatly packed and stacked books in shopping books are usually much better. But the best thing I love to see coming into my store are nice clean books in clean, neatly packed boxes.

REMOVING STICKERS & LABELS

 

 

To remove a sticker/label, some patience is required. I recommend that you first practice on some less valuable books such as common mass market paperbacks. I have tried several different commercial “label removers”, but have found that plain old cigarette-lighter fluid is by far the best. It is much faster and not as messy as the others. However, some of the older antiquarian ex-library books may have a spine label that is water-based and have to be steamed off. You can try lighter fluid on any label, but if it shows no sign of loosening it probably has a water-based glue.

Removing a sticker/label from plain paper or cloth requires even more patience and care. Take it from me; it is easy to get impatient and tear away the surface of the paper along with the label, or to slice a cloth-covered board.

Drip some lighter fluid around and on top of the label and let it soak in for a minute. You may have to do this several times in order to soften up the adhesive, as the lighter fluid evaporates rather quickly. I try to use a minimum of fluid, but don’t worry if the dust jacket or book starts looking damp from the lighter fluid. It evaporates quickly and leaves no stain. If you have any doubts, first try the fluid on a small corner on the inside back flap, but I have never had a problem with ink bleeding or running while using lighter fluid.

Scrape gently at the edge of the label using a pocketknife blade and start teasing the label up. A duller blade is actually better for control; a sharp blade tends to scrape the coating off the dust jacket or can even slice it. Hold the blade at a medium angle, neither too high or too low. Too high an angle can cause scrapes; too low can cause cuts to occur.

Once you have it started, gently and slowly slide the blade under the label. You may have to drip some more lighter fluid under the lifted area. This makes the process a lot faster.

Don’t worry about scraping the adhesive completely off along with the label. After the label is off, dampen the corner of a dry cloth and wipe off any sticky residue. You may have to wipe several times using a fresh spot on the cloth. Test by running a finger over the spot, feeling for any residual stickiness.

Stickers and labels taken from plain paper and cloth covers and dust jackets usually do not leave much residue. But if they do, be very careful with any additional cleaning. My experience has been that too much cleaning will cause more damage and will look worse than if it had been left alone.

CLEANING YOUR BOOKS

I have been a bookseller for over ten years, and buy a lot of books at tag sales and library book sales. Many of these books have have soiled dust jackets and/or covers. After much practice, I have my technique boiled down to the bare minimum of effort that gives the best result.

Dirty dust jackets. In my early days as a bookseller, I used to use a cleaner such as ’409′ or one of the other gentle cleaners. But even these ‘gentle’ cleaners have chemicals in them that may harm the book and its dust jacket over time.

I now have two things I use to clean books and dust jackets. Water and Ronsonol lighter fluid. BUT, I do not use water on any hardcover book with cloth-covered boards or on a plain paper dust jacket (more common in the early to mid-20th century) . They just absorb the water. Also, the cloth covering some books published in the early 1900′s have some kind of filler that turns to a sticky glue when dampened. Wipe these types of books off with a clean, dry soft cloth.

To be able to clean a dust jacket, it has to be the kind with a shiny coating. Hardcover books and paperbacks with shiny covers may be cleaned the same way as a shiny dust jacket.

I have found that it is easiest to clean the outside of a dust jacket when it is still on the book. When cleaning the inside, remove it and lay on a flat surface to help prevent wrinkles and tears.

Do not use water on a dull, plain paper dust jacket or on the inside of any dust jacket – the surfaces are not coated with any water-resistant finish. If it is dusty or soiled, it is better to clean it gently with a clean, dry soft cloth and leave it at that.

For the coated (shiny) dust jacket, just dampen a soft cloth with plain water and gently wipe off the soiling. Immediately, wipe dry with a different soft absorbent cloth.

If there is some soiling that will not come off with water, try dampening a corner of a different cloth with lighter fluid and rub gently.

If you still have a soiled book and/or dust jacket, and the book is valuable to you in some way, a professional bookbinder or paper conservator may be able to restore it. Be careful when making this decision. Depending upon the book in question, it’s market value can be affected for better or worse. Usually, such books are better off when left in their original condition.