Open book, hardback books on wooden table. Back to school. Copy space

Editor Alex Christofi set off a fierce Twitter debate Tuesday when he posted a picture of three books split down the spine and asked: “Yesterday my colleague called me a ‘book murderer’ because I cut long books in half to make them more portable. Does anyone else do this? Is it just me?”

I hope it’s just him.

As someone who routinely walks to work while deeply engrossed in a book, returning from William Dalrymple’s India or Meg Wolitzer’s New York City only to make sure I’m crossing the street at the appropriate lights, I ought to be sympathetic to Christofi’s desire to read on the go. And yet, I must declare — not even reluctantly — that Christofi is indeed a book murderer and a literary offender on par with those who organize their books by color. If you love books, and love reading, do not cut them in half.

Purely from a functional perspective, splitting large, ambitious books certainly makes them lighter, but it introduces other problems. What happens when you’ve walked out the door with the first half of a volume that is enriched by its footnotes or, in fact, uses those notes as a kind of dialogue with the main text, as is true for David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” one of the books Christofi rent asunder? Or what about when, deep in the second half of your book, a character long-absent from the narrative re-emerges, leaving you flipping back phantom pages to refresh your memory? I quite enjoy the novelist Marlon James, but without being able to cross-reference figures and events, there are times when his complex books might shade over into incomprehension.

It’s true, as my friend and former editor Eleanor Barkhorn pointed out on Twitter, that some fiction that we now think of as single works was actually published in installments. But to be true to that particular literary form, the proper way to mutilate such a volume isn’t to aim a blunt cut roughly at the book’s midpoint. Rather, it would be to snip “The Brothers Karamazov” or “The Three Musketeers” into little pamphlets and have them mailed to you one cliffhanger at a time.

If it’s bad literary form to divide books in half simply by weight, there’s also something a little dispiriting about wrecking material objects that have been designed to be beautiful and pleasurable in service of efficiency.

The mass-production of books means that few volumes are now made of the materials such as leather or rag paper that, as a character in Antonio Perez-Reverte’s novel “The Club Dumas” put it, can “withstand both the passage of time and human stupidity.” But some books are still printed on deckle-edge paper with pleasingly heavy covers. And cover design can still produce tremendously compelling and clever works of art. As bookseller Josh Cook of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, writes, it’s not just any cover that can make a reader immediately see “the grandeur and core” of “The Wealth of Nations,” or “summarize (James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’) one of the most important, most complex and most expansive novels of the twentieth century” in just three letters and a splash of a particular shade of green.

There’s a reason that, when the young wizard Harry Potter stabs a cursed diary in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” the book seems to suffer and die. A book that’s been cut in half is a book that can’t be displayed, and that can’t very well be lent or donated. The very act of consuming a volume this way shortens its life as a physical object and as a vehicle for transmitting stories to a successive generation of readers.

Even as you are destroying a book in order to read it, that destruction is a pre-emptive announcement that your relationship with a volume is impermanent. Before you’ve even finished the book, you’re declaring that you don’t much regard it as a physical object, and foreclosing the options for how it will be used in the future, including the possibility that you might want to read it again in a different way.

And one of the great pleasures of being a voracious reader is being able to pluck a beloved volume off your shelves and deliver it into the hands of a person you just know will love it. Keeping your books whole is a way of keeping them alive.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about the intersection of culture and politics for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.

(2) comments


Do you love reading? Then do what you have to. The book itself is not important, it's what's in the book.


One or two things happening in DC (roll back on clean water one of those) and we get a fluff piece on taking care of books. Way to go Bulletin Ed Board. Bias by omission.

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