7 Weird Things I Do With Books

Bet you do them, too.

“Piscine Molitor Patel.”

I’m on the train, reading Life of Pi, repeating the protagonist’s name in my head.

“Pi. Pi. Could be a great name for a plant. Or a pet. Or a son,” I say to myself. “Or a daughter.”

A few pages later, the wheels are still turning.

“Richard Parker,” I think, invoking the Bengal tiger that’s stranded with Pi on a boat in the Pacific. “That’s what I’ll name my cat. I’ll have a son named Pi and a cat named Richard Parker. I’ll dress them up and put them in a bathtub together and recreate the entire novel.”

Maybe I’m the only one who’d consider exploiting my child and my pet for the sake of some literary cosplay. But I think that all bibliophiles go to great lengths incorporating books into our lives. That’s because books are central to our identities and to our relationships. Books help make us who we are—which, at times, is idiosyncratic, obsessive, or just plain weird. I’ll prove it to you: Here are seven strange things only a lit-lover would do, you and I likely included.

1. Fantasize about a bookstore meet-cute.

Does the fact that it’s such a cliché notion and such a common trope in rom-coms (Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, etc.) make the fantasy cheesier…or likelier to actually happen? I’ll admit to sampling titles in The Strand, peering intently, almost seductively, above the pages, hoping to lock eyes with another browser. I’ve spent a little extra time lingering in the essays section, in the off-chance a star-crossed David Foster Wallace fan meanders through. I’ve even sent a longing gaze—like Cupid’s arrow—towards a salesperson as she files books on a high shelf, her step-ladder a convenient metaphor for the figurative pedestal on which I’ve placed her.

2. Use a book to stifle a yawn, cough, or sneeze.

That unmistakable tickle creeps into your nose. It’s partially out of courtesy, partially in the name of hygiene and, let’s be honest, mostly an act of pure reflex that you lift your book to mask your face, one involuntary reaction responding to another. Good news is, a novel is more effective than a hand or a sleeve, and its pages won’t mind a light mist of saliva or even a torrent of snot—at least not as much as your fellow commuters will. By reading on the train or the plane, whether in cold season or allergy season (which I think cover all the seasons?), you’re serving as a responsible citizen. Of Mice and Men might be tiny, but it’s the first line of defense in the battle for public health.

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3. Use strange items as a bookmark.

I’m a purist in this regard, which means each book is paired with a bookmark displaying the name of the bookstore from which it was purchased. I collect these bookmarks like passport stamps or ski lift tickets; you know just how many times I’ve patronized McNally Jackson or Book Book or Spoonbill & Sugartown. Other readers, meanwhile, scavenge and repurpose random items as bookmarks, either out of resourcefulness or deference. In one reddit thread on the subject, users mention everything from receipts to playing cards to airline tickets to junk mail. One user admits, “I once put my dogs foot [sic] on my page because he was sitting next to me.” An entirely separate reddit thread contained this gem of an exchange:

vintagedgirl: “One time my sister asked our mother and I to grab something in her nightstand drawer for her, I lifted a magazine and saw a copy of 50 shades of grey [sic] with a Vibrator as a bookmark.”

harleyroyaltea: “Oh, how emotionally scarring that must have been!”

vintagedgirl: “I know, I would hate to think my sister was reading such shoddy literature.”

4. Attend a literary speed-dating event.

For those looking to manufacture the aforementioned bookstore meet-cute, this is the event for you. The invitation described “A night of speed dating for those who’d rather be judged by their book cover” and asked us to “bring a book to break the ice and meet other readers.” I arrived at Housing Works bookstore feeling hopeful and toting Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I had a pleasant time but didn’t make any serious connections, which was kind of disappointing. Then again, if I were a woman, maybe I would’ve been a little disappointed, too. I mean, I’m reasonably attractive, but not if they were expecting some real-life version of Hot Dudes Reading.

5. Arrange books using an oddly specific system.

Forget Dewey Decimal or genre or author names; these organization criteria are for public use. What you do in the privacy of your home is your business, and that extends to the arranging of your books. Seeing as you’re the curator and consumer of your personal library, maybe you shelve them in chronological order, starting with what you read first. Or maybe you, as one of my friends does, order your books from favorites to “meh.” I was inspired by another friend to stack mine by the color of their binding. My collection sits in monochrome columns that create a lovely aesthetic and serves as a substitute for, you know, actual décor. Even books I regret buying do their part by actively contributing to the tableau. Thanks, M Train!

6. Associate books with specific memories and/or strong emotions.

I imagine most people experience this sensation with songs: the one that reminds you of your first love or of camp or of college. For me, it also happens with books: I spot Stephen King’s On Writing on the shelf, and I’m transported back to summertime. Bronx Zoo. On a bench. Outside the reptile house. I’m reading about King’s near-fatal car accident, and thinking of his survival and recovery, and of mine, emotionally speaking, in the wake of a friend’s death. It’s similarly vivid with Lolita: I’m in Paris, having just fled London; I’d traveled 4,200 miles only to immediately break up with my then-girlfriend and find myself on the street. There are happier associations, too, like the joyous nostalgia surrounding a read-aloud of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel at my hometown’s local public library. I recently happened upon my two favorite books from elementary school, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Westing Game. I bought them both. I can’t hang on to the innocence and discovery and exhilaration of those formative years, but those two titles bring me a tiny bit closer.

7. Wonder what others would think of you, solely based on your book collection.

I often envision some literary version of Room Raiders, where a nosy stranger trespasses into my empty apartment and sizes me up by snooping around my little home library. First she’d see The Most of Nora Ephron and think I’m a 48-year-old Meg Ryan junkie. Then she would spy Screening Sex, an exploration of erotic film, and imagine I’m an X-rated cinefile. After that, she’d discover 10 copies of my own co-authored series of books (No Way!, written with Michael J. Rosen), which would prove me both a hoarder and a narcissist. Put them all together, and this woman would assume I’m a soccer mom by day and a porn-aficionado-slash-children’s-book-author by night. Actually, that’s pretty close.

Do you do these things? What are the strangest book-loving habits you’ve adopted?

Featured image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

About Ben Kassoy

Ben Kassoy

BEN KASSOY is the Editor-in-chief of the DoSomething.org, the co-author of eight books, and a former online columnist for Glamour and Details. Read Ben’s work on his website or say hey on Twitter.

  • MimiB

    Besides using bookmarks from favorite shops, I collect and use interesting calling cards and admission tickets from my travels to use as bookmarks, along with other appropriate items, such as a library date of return card that was used in the “olden days”. Old card catalog 3X5 filing cards can be great bookmarks too. Many libraries that have switched over to electronic catalogs still have some old cards. Librarians can’t bear to get rid of all of them. Just ask.

    • Ben Kassoy

      I can’t believe I’d almost forgotten about those 3×5 cards! I remember seeing them for the first time in kindergarten, when the librarian gave our class our first tour of the school library. What a magical time that was. Thanks for reminding me, Mimi!

  • Lauren C

    I carry books with me everywhere. Doesn’t matter if I’m going to the movies. I always feel better if I have a book at my side.
    I also collect any sort of books that I deem ‘special.’ I found a copy of Les Miserables once at a used bookstore and even though I own far too many copies of the Hugo classic, I needed to buy it solely because the previous owner used his plane tickets to Paris as the bookmarks. That book has its own story attached and it needed to be a part of my library.

    • Ben Kassoy

      Ah, yes! A good eighth item on this list could’ve been “Take your books everywhere. Like, everywhere.” You’re spot on; I’m the same way.

      I love that story and how subjective (and personal!) “special” is for every reader. Love that you’ve defined it for yourself and get more out of books than what’s written on the page.

  • Denise LittleUni Null

    I rotate putting my paperbacks on their covers to keep the book as flat as possible and in like new condition.

    • Ben Kassoy

      LOVE that dedication. Trigger warning: you’re going to have trouble with this provocative defense of dog-earing, written by the RIF editor. Look out! http://www.readitforward.com/essay/defense-dog-earing-books/

    • shelia in TX

      Denise I haven’t gone to that much trouble…yet…but I could any day. =)

  • Diane U

    I woke up the other night with a HUGE BAT flying over me. I grabbed two Kindles and hid in the bathroom until morning. I ran one completely down and half of another. They would have lasted longer but it was a cloudy morning. FYI: my Doctor insisted on rabies shots and they are no longer as painful as they were when I was your age. Less than a tetanus shot, similar to a flu shot. I read Paper and Fire by Rachel Caine to calm myself and for distraction during the 8 freaking shots. I was congratulated on my calmness and not crying. Rachel Caine is a goddess. I’m buying the series in hardback and with gold edges, if possible, as soon as I pay off the hospital. Only fair. Read her books.

    • Ben Kassoy

      This story absolute, 100% gold. I a) thank you for sharing this hilarious gem, b) commend you on your courage, and c) apologize for taking so much pleasure in your fear. Please write this as an essay and pitch it to Read It Forward. Unreal.

  • I organize my books from favorites to eh. Because I think inanimate objects have feelings (thanks, Toy Story), I have to apologize to books every time I demote them to a lower shelf. It’s torture.

    • Ben Kassoy

      That is the sweetest! I feel like I did the same thing with stuffed animals (you’re right: thanks, Toy Story!), but taking books’ feelings into account shows real, serious love. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Tammy/The Self-Taught Cook

    When reading paperbacks, I only open them slightly and then read them carefully. I can’t stand to see people flop open a book and fan through the pages. And if it’s my book they’ve opened, I have a minor to mid-level panic attack.
    Oh, and I have what I consider to be an awesome collection of bookmarks. It includes postcards, concert tickets, business cards, basically anything that looks interesting to me.

    • Ben Kassoy

      Interesting about the slight opening and careful flipping! I’ve never considered that, but I totally get how it could pique something in you.

      And oh yes, all of those make swell bookmarks, I’m sure. I’m curious: With such a large collection, how do you choose which to use?

    • shelia in TX

      Tammy, I do the same thing with paperbacks! I hate to crease the spine. And what also genuinely annoys me is for someone to turn down the corners of pages! Even on the library books it makes me crazy.

  • Great piece, Ben!!

  • Kimberly Bilyk

    Loved this article, great job. I tend to use whatever’s handy as a bookmark (receipts, index card, the price tag from that new shirt), usually because I’m only using it for a few minutes. For longer periods between reading, I tend to use stickies (Post-It Notes, to be clear), as they are wonderful and don’t slip/fall out.

    I find I also will spend time sniffing a book. Old, new, there is always something wonderful about the way they smell. And I refuse to read in the bathtub. I cannot bear the idea of getting my books wet.

    • Ben Kassoy

      Ah, yes: sniffing books — you’re totally right! And each books scent says something about it: it’s age, its journey, whatever. Great point.

      And, right: Reading in a bathtub seems logistically impossible. And in a pool? Or any body of water? No idea how anyone manages it. Thanks for commenting, @kimberlybilyk:disqus!

    • shelia in TX

      Kimberly, my rule exactly. No reading of BOOKS in the bathtub. BookPage newspaper, magazines or catalogues are acceptable. I couldn’t bear not to read /something/.
      Same for a phone. I leave it in the other room.

  • shelia in TX

    Enjoyed your article. You came up with some things even I hadn’t considered.
    Just this morning as I was lying in bed, I thought, you know, I have books in every room of my house, even the garage and my truck! Then I remembered I don’t in an extra bathroom that I allow the kitty to use her box. But even there I have a COPY of a page from a book saying that even the Queen doesn’t flush for a pee. So I think that counts.
    Anyway, yes, I am obsessed with collecting bookmarks from everywhere I go. They bring back memories of shops closed now sadly. The ones I tend to use mostly are the Perfume strip ad inserts. I gradually open them during the course of reading the book and lay them below my chin letting the scent waft upwards as I read myself to sleep.

    • Ben Kassoy

      “But even there I have a COPY of a page from a book saying that even the Queen doesn’t flush for a pee. So I think that counts.” Ha! Literally lol’d at that.

      And those perfume strip ad inserts: genius! I never, ever would’ve considered that. What an amazing image of you wafting/reading yourself to sleep.

      • shelia in TX

        Well of course, it had to be Kitty Kelley from THE ROYALS, page 236:
        The Queen seemed hardworking to her subjects, who appreciated her frugality. . . . They liked her small efforts to conserve, especially during the droughts of the 1970s. When she alerted her households to save water, signs promptly went up in the lavatories of Buckingham Palace: “Don’t pull for a pee.”

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