'Only a Book' by Annette Thomson
Edgar scowled at the girl who had returned a copy of The Corrections. The book was dog-eared, the spine broken, and there was a coffee stain on the cover. Young people today, he thought, they don’t respect literature. He watched her wander the stacks, choosing which book to vandalise next. She was short, curvy, hair in a dark pixie cut and skin like porcelain. Just Edgar’s type. But defacing a book was unforgivable. She walked towards him with a copy of IQ84 and handed it to him to check out.
“A great book,” he said. “And a brand new copy.” She didn’t appear to be listening to him. “You’re the first customer to read this. New. Unblemished. Pristine.” But she had turned her back to him and was heading towards the exit.
Days went by, readers came and went, books were stamped, returned to the shelves and in his office, Edgar practised book binding.
When she came back she dropped the book on the counter. Edgar picked it up and gasped. The cover felt sticky. He turned to the title page and saw something red and shiny had been spilled across it. Edgar sniffed. Nail polish. The corners of many pages had been turned down and crumbs tumbled out from between the leaves. Edgar wasn’t at all happy.
Edgar checked the clock. It was almost closing time and the library was empty apart from himself and the girl who was idly searching through the true crime section. Edgar slipped the latch on the door – no point in letting anyone else in at this hour - and cleared his throat. “May I ask you why you treat my books so carelessly?”
The girl turned and rolled her eyes. “They’re not your books, are they? They’re as much mine. My Mam and Da pay their taxes. Anyway, they’re only books. What does it matter?”
Edgar was speechless. He could tell her that books weren’t ‘only’ anything; that they had been his friends when he had felt at his most alone; he could have told her that the words each book contained were a contract between the writer and the reader, a magic spell that allowed him to share a life so very different to his own.
But he knew his words would be meaningless to her. No, action was all this girl would understand so he took her arm firmly and pulled her along behind him, into his office. He’d show her how books could become a part of her too.
A few weeks later, Edgar reshelved IQ84. He had spent many hours on the book in his little office, putting right the damage the girl had inflicted. He’d even rebound it in unblemished leather, pale as porcelain.