We should never bisect the things we love. Friends, nations, puppies. I would argue an exception for pizza. But over the last 24 hours I have found that almost everyone on the internet agrees we should not chop books in half, even if they are very long.
It started when my colleague saw half a paperback on my desk and called me a “book murderer”. I had been enjoying it so much at home that I found the end of a 16-page section, chopped off the remaining pages, bound the unread half in some cardboard to prevent the pages getting too dog-eared, and brought them to work in my pocket. I thought my colleague was overreacting, but when I posted a picture of my latest victims on Twitter, it started trending next to Jess Phillips – who had real news to share. People were replying in other languages, copying in the International Criminal Court, the FBI and the Metropolitan police. Others suggested chopping me in half.
The thing is, I used to think I didn’t like long books. But then I realised that I just didn’t like carrying them around or holding them open with one tired thumb, squashed into someone’s armpit on the tube in rush hour. I did have a Kindle, and I sometimes listened to audiobooks, but whenever I had a big paperback I would leave it at home unread, or struggle through eight pages a night before falling asleep.
So a few years ago, I started seeking out beautiful old two-volume editions of books such as The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace, which fit neatly in my pocket. I found that I actually read the books that way. I started chopping big paperbacks by modern authors in half and shoddily patching them up. I assumed the authors wouldn’t mind selling a new paperback to someone else, and I really only wanted to get the words into my skull.
Although the majority of the responses were urging me to get in the bin or the sea, I was strangely heartened that people care so much. How amazing that we still value books when so much else is digital or disposable. People never really throw books away. Instead they hand them around, leave them in book exchanges, trade them secondhand, give them to charity, or lend them to friends and relatives. They are the lifeblood of society.
It’s tragic when books are used as trays for a restaurant bill, or bought in bulk to give a pop of colour to someone’s interior design. But the real tragedy is that those books aren’t being read. The codex is just a mortal husk – the soul of a book is the story, and the form of words used to tell it. Authors don’t generally dream of seeing their books cellophaned in mint condition, like Star Wars memorabilia. The biggest compliment you can pay an author is to read their book, let them tell you their story – take it to heart and tell others. So I don’t like to think of myself as a book murderer. More like a gung-ho reader. And if you find one of my (short) books in your possession, you have my permission to chop it in half.
First published in the Guardian.