Saturday, October 13, 2012

Stay Your Safety Scissors, Gentles!

It is not an uncommon occurrence here at the book store that, as a member of the staff, will be called upon to wrap a present for a customer. Different people feeling varying degrees of discomfort performing these feat, but for me it poses no threat, and since I started work here the quality of my wrapping has increased exponentially. Few are the moments of horror when I'm inspired to gape at a customer when they present me with something awkwardly shaped, all angles and sharp corners. When once I thought, "they expect me to wrap this? How does one even wrap a paralellogram? It defies all the qualities necessary for wrapping", I can now view these uncomfortable moments as a challenge, and have been working in retail long enough to accrue enough chutzpah to confidently hand someone a gift that looks like it has been bobbing in the surf of a fortnight and still bid them "have a great evening". I say it with a twinkle in my eye and a bright, strong smile because I'm just that good. 

There is, however, one last interaction that happens at the wrapping...cave (hidden off the right hand side of the UBC, shielded from the discriminating eye of the public) that gives me pause and inspires a cringe. It's when, having bought something as a gift, my charge decides (or has been instructed) to engage the age-old rule of removing the price tag before one delivers the present to its new owner, as a matter of polite modesty, and asks me to cut the price out of their brand new book. "Would you rather I cut it out, or just sharpie over it?" I usually offer immediately. Perhaps they haven't considered that some kind of mark or sticker could be applied, saving me from having to cut into the dust jacket that houses the hardcover book they just shelled out $30.00 to buy. Usually, however, the answer is no - please, they are saying. Please take a scissor to my new book.

It's such an odd request to me. People can obsess over the quality of their books - if a dust jacket is a little bent, or torn, or a page accidentally folded over, discerning customers will go to great lengths to secure another one. I once offered up a copy of a fairly expensive, fairly large art book to a man who rejected it, citing that he wanted to give it as a gift and found this copy too dinged up to be appropriate. I could see no immediate damage; the book had no dust jacket as part of its design, and the inside corners of the hardback cover where bent towards each other slightly. The man had special ordered the rejected book, and post-rejection, then proceeded to call all over town trying to track down another copy.

I'm not telling you this story to suggest he was wrong - just because I didn't see any damage doesn't mean a thing, I'm predominantly trash, I only own 2 bras and last night I drank Sam Adams out of a re-purposed glass sugar dispenser - but only to illustrate that, even in a tight spot, people feel very strongly about the quality of their books, and are unwilling to settle for less, and I can sympathize. Recently, a phenomena in TMZ-style celebrity reporting has occurred, and the interwebs is referring to it as "Imaginary Bruce Willis". Allegedly, Bruce Willis tried to sue Apple after becoming indignant that Apple's copyright laws prohibited him from leaving his music collection to his children when he dies. None of it was true, it turned out, and just some sensationalized hokum, but it was hokum that did prompt James Grimmelmann to publish this article about ownership on Publishers Weekly. In the article, Grimmelmann paraphrases Margaret Jane Radin:

"Radin’s point is that ownership matters. It matter for human reasons, for humane reasons. When your guests browse your bookshelves, that, too, is socializing, along with the cocktails and conversation. Making a mixtape is an intimate act. Having a thing sitting in your home, a heavy inconvenient thing made of dead trees or polymerized petrochemicals, is a kind of exclusion: it ensures that no one can take that piece of art away. But it is also offers a kind of inclusion: to lend a book is to invite a friend to the delights it contains."

So you can see why, in this vein, some of us might hesitate before accepting a volume battered and dog-eared into our collection (unless that quality will add to the overall aesthetic of the book). If ownership matters, if the books and movies and art I collect and display are an external representation of not only how I want to be interpreted, but simultaneously how I interpret the world, I don't want no scummy paperbacks jammin' up the works of my otherwise diverse and interesting bookshelves. But let me be the judge; when I receive a book that's had the price cut out of its dust jacket, I am immediately overcome by a feeling of having been had, somehow. The book in my hands feels used, but not in a friendly way - it has been defaced against its will, against my will, against our will, for no earthly purpose other than an arcane version of manners. I would rather thumb-bent pages, a broken spine, highlighting and notes in the margins; these are all the markings of progress, of proof of impassioned use.

But a missing square of dust jacket, less than an inch long? The volume and I, together, we mourn.

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