Your reading should be messy

My family had a room that we called the Library, but even back then I knew it was really just our dining room with a few bookshelves around a small table. When I was a kid I would look up at this tower of books though and wonder at all those people and ideas and stories, it was simply overwhelming. I was told that all these books are precious things — they must never be folded, bent, or broken. Any smudges or notes on a book is heresy and our reading should always be a clean activity since it’s what separates us from the beasts.

Preservation of all sacred texts — from expensive fine print books, all the way down to pulp-paperback novels — was the most important thing in the world.

Years later, when I began reading everything I could in my early teens, I snuck into the Library one day and discovered, to my horror, that all the books were in pristine condition. It was row after row, shelf after shelf. Something clicked and I knew I had found a horrible secret about my family: they had bought these books to be displayed like jewelry, rather than to be read.

In that moment I knew that all those dumb rules around reading and books was dead wrong and that there was nothing sadder in this world than an unused book — clean, without notes or scribbles, without coffee or fingerprints, without any trace of the reader at all.

Now here’s the secret: good reading is messy reading.

If I want the kind of novel that gets deep into my bones, the sort of non-fiction mystery that stays with me years after the fact, then I must bring the sticky notes and pens and pencils and let my books get scuffed and scraped along the way. I should always walk away from a book with visible progress of my reading and if there’s no scribbles in the margins then the reading simply wasn’t good enough — a new book must be immediately prepared.

After years of treating my books as if they ought to be preserved in a museum, I now believe that you should honor the books by breaking them. Read them all so messily! Fold them, bend them, tear them! Throw them into your backpack or leave them open in Jenga-like towers by the side of your bed. Don’t fret about stains or torn edges or covers left dangling off the spine after years of reading.

That is what a book is. That is what a book is for.