Enlightened State

A Guide to Caring for your Books

BooksMorgan VanekComment

When I worked at a bookstore, one of my responsibilities was to evaluate used merchandise that customers brought in to sell.  I have a lot of stories about things that came across the buy counter:  broken glass, live cockroaches, dog poop, half-eaten bags of potato chips, and more.  But even when the bags and boxes I went through were relatively normal, the majority of the books I saw were in pretty bad shape.  In fact, a set of books in great condition was a rare treat.  

The thing is, most people don't notice when their books become a little worse for the wear.  Cracked spines, crinkled covers, and slight discoloration are probably par for the course on your bookshelf.  And that's okay - books are meant to be read and loved, and they aren't going to stay in perfect condition if you're doing that.  But if you want your books to keep their monetary value, you need to keep them as close to new condition as possible. 

When people purchase used items, they don't want them to look used.  Dog-eared pages and someone else's name written in the front cover of a book render it almost worthless.  At a used bookstore, hundreds, if not thousands, of items come across the counter every day, and your copy of Fifty Shades of Grey is probably not the first one they've seen that afternoon.  If it's not in better condition than the other ten copies already on the shelf, it's probably going to be tossed in the recycling bin after you leave, or put on the shelf with a clearance sticker.  

It's also worth noting that supply and demand is the most important factor for book-buyers to consider when they're purchasing your books.  New books tend to sell more quickly and for higher prices than older ones, so even if you accidentally run over your new release with a semi-truck, you're likely going to get more for it than you would for a pristine copy of Twilight or the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey.  

Not everyone wants to sell their books.  Personally, I have a hard time letting go of my ink-and-paper friends until my shelves are overflowing onto every flat surface in my apartment, including the floor.  But even if you never take your collection to market, caring for your books is a great way to ensure that you can enjoy them for many years.  Follow the tips below and the stories on your pages will last for generations to come.  


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Water is the enemy of books everywhere.  While too little moisture in the environment will dry out your books and make the pages brittle, a more common problem is too much wetness, which causes the cover and pages to warp and produces mold.  If your books are wet or moldy, they're completely worthless, because mold is so contagious.  No bookseller wants to jeopardize every item in their store by placing them alongside a moldy item, so if your book shows any warning signs of moisture damage, you won't be able to sell it. 

To avoid water damage, always keep your books in a dry place.  The bathroom and kitchen are not good candidates for book storage.  Also, I know it's relaxing to read while you're taking a bubble bath, but keep your books out of the tub.  Consider an audio book instead.  And if you're storing books long-term, be sure the space you keep them in is climate-controlled.  


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Stains and Other Marks

There's nothing worse than turning a page and finding a tomato soup stain (or something worse) in the middle of the next paragraph.  Don't ruin your books by eating and drinking while you read them.  Books do not make good coasters, so you should never rest a cup of coffee or a glass of beer on top of one, because it will result in a telltale ring on the front or back cover.  Even dry foods aren't a good choice - crumbs will fall into the book and get trapped in the binding, only to be discovered years later by someone trying to read in bed.  Food and drinks are also bad for books because they attract pests - mouse droppings and dead bugs do not increase an item's value.  

You should also refrain from marking in a book.  Don't write your name or a message in the front cover; instead, slip a piece of paper with your (completely dried) note on it inside the first pages if you're giving a gift or want to remind yourself of something the next time you revisit the text.  And you should never highlight text or write notes in the margins of books.  Anyone who's tried to sell their college textbooks knows that this kind of marking reduces the value of the item considerably.  Here's a revolutionary idea:  use a notebook instead!  Draw a line down the center of the page, write the page number and a few words of the paragraph you're referencing on the left side, and then write your note on the right side.  You can even tear the page out of your notebook and use it as a bookmark to quickly find the original passage.  This is a great way to stay organized and keep your books looking sharp.  


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Spine Damage

There's a reason we call it "cracking open a book." The sound you hear when you open a new paperback is the sound of the spine giving way, which allows you to open the book and read it.  But leaving the book propped open like a tent, or opening the book too wide can cause major damage. If your book has cracks and lines running along the spine, you're abusing it, and you need to be more careful.  When it goes back on the shelf, you should still be able to read the title.

Paperbacks aren't the only books with this problem.  Hardcovers are also susceptible to spine damage, so you should be careful with them as well.  Severe stress on a book's spine will eventually cause the pages to fall out, and once this happens, your book belongs in the recycling bin, not on the shelf.  


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Rips, Tears, and Discoloration

Always be cautious when handling your books.  The pages are thin and easy to tear, so turn the pages slowly and carefully.  An added benefit of this technique is that it increases the suspense you'll feel as you read.  Don't use anything hard, sharp, or thick as a bookmark - paper clips, coins, credit cards, and cardboard should all stay away from the inside of your book.  Never fold the pages down to mark your place. Use a bookmark, ribbon, or piece of paper instead, and remove it carefully when you return to the story.  And remember that pages aren't the only thing that can tear.  Dust jackets are notoriously easy to damage, so consider removing them while you read, or at least while you're transporting a book. Tossing your book into a bag with other items is a surefire way to damage the dust jacket.  Just don't forget to replace it before you put it back on the shelf.  It does serve a purpose, and the value of the book plummets if the dust jacket is missing.  

Also, be careful about where you store your books.  Don't leave them on the dashboard of your car for a few hours, or keep your shelves in direct sunlight. And no matter how charming it looks, your windowsill is not a good makeshift bookshelf. The sun will bleach the pages and cover of your books until they're a completely different color.  Dust will also discolor your books, and it's extremely difficult to remove once it's been settled for awhile - you can't just spray some Pledge on the pages to clean them up.  Give your books and bookshelves a quick dusting every week or so, and you won't have to deal with dirty, grimy pages later on.  


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Proper Storage

Even your most well-loved book spends most of its time sitting on a shelf, waiting for you (or someone else) to pick it up again.  To keep all of your titles in tip-top shape, be sure you're storing them properly, whether they're on the shelf or in a box.  If your shelf isn't quite full, use a bookend to keep them standing upright so that the covers and pages don't warp from leaning or standing slightly open.  You should also keep books of similar sizes together so that they are supported on both sides.  If you prefer, you can also stack books flat on their sides - just be sure to keep your stacks short so you don't put too much weight on the books at the bottom of the pile.  

If you're boxing up your books for moving or storage, be sure you keep them in even piles, and don't stuff too many into a box at once.  Keep the box fairly loose and fill in any gaps with packing paper, which will keep them from shifting around a lot.  If your books are stored in the wrong position, they'll bend and you won't be able to shelve them again, so be sure you don't put too much stress on them or pack them in funny positions. 


By following these guidelines, your books will remain in good condition for a long time, and they'll retain more value as a result.  A book is more than the sum of its parts, and you should treat it that way.  But above all, never be afraid to take a book off the shelf, even if it means risking some damage.  The knowledge it imparts is its primary value, and you can't maximize that unless you take it down and open it.  

Do you like to sell your books? What tips do you have for maintaining a personal library?