Don't Just Laugh and Turn the Page

I was looking at the little slip of paper and wondering whether anybody collected such things when I realized the snow must be getting into my brain. Of course somebody collects these. It’s not possible that there’s a non-collectible left on the planet, thank you eBay.

“Please Note: This book is bound with a flexible binding, stiff enough so that it will not sag on a book shelf. It is not to be handled in the same manner as books with limp bindings. When turning the pages, place forefinger INSIDE of cover, and thus avoid bending the cover sharply back and perhaps creasing or bending it.”

This was laid into copies of a textbook called “Applied Mechanics” about 90 years ago. I think the placing is appropriate. I probably wouldn’t have understood anything inside the textbook either. I can’t quite figure out from these instructions how I’m turning the pages or holding the book, but perhaps it’s one of those things that are easier to do if you don’t try to describe the process. (As in “Do you breathe in or out when you putt?”)

I’ve never had one tell me where to put my forefinger, but I have seen these little notes many times, sometimes bound just inside the front cover, sometimes loose. Ah, what a world it was before the eBook, my children! Publishers were so wrapped up in producing beautiful books that they laid awake at night worrying that you didn’t know how to operate them. Yes, I know your Noodle (half Nook, half Kindle) has an instruction manual, too, but that’s different. This was just a piece of paper: modern technologists aren’t happy unless the manual weighs more than the device.

Some of them ask you to warm the book up first: opening the cover and pressing down on the hinge, opening to about page 20 and pressing down on the hinge, opening a few more pages and…. Other publishers preferred the William Matthews method, in which you open the front and back covers, holding all the pages upright, and then release a few to the left and right, allowing them to express their individuality (and NOT breaking the spine of the book.)

Books which were unopened, with pages still fastened to each other so they couldn’t be read until the purchaser freed them, often came with directions on how to “open” the book. They seem to have leaned toward blunt weapons—a sharp knife might cut into the page instead of staying neatly on the crease—but this is by no means unanimous, either. Using your forefinger was especially frowned upon.

The untutored, who are on their way to the text to find out whether Drusilla marries kind, calm Lloyd or steamy, passionate Blake, have no time for these niceties. If you’re not planning to read the book a second time, what difference does it make if you damage the binding, knock the cover loose, or put your forefinger in quite the wrong place? I sympathize, really I do: a book you can’t open without doing damage to the book isn’t much use. On the other hand, I’m the lad who has to resell what you’ve read and then donated.

Some people do it, you know: donations come in with all the books so pristine, so unread-looking (“tight” is the bookseller word for it) that you can’t help wondering whether they were purchased just to fill shelves, and were discarded so a new load could update the decoration scheme.

But now I know: it’s all in the forefinger.

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