Okay, here’s the short version. I recently got a bookshop gift card for my birthday, and used it to order a new book online: The Zoomable Universe by Caleb Scharf and Ron Miller. A day or two later, a package arrived in the mail. It contained the hardcover book I’d ordered and most of the dust jacket. You see, a roughly triangular bit on the back of the jacket had been torn off in the production process, and the damage was clearly visible under the plastic wrap.
The seller expressed their understanding for my disappointment and suggested I return the faulty book and then reorder. So I dutifully re-labeled and sent out the package and went back online to order a new copy. A day or two later, a new cardboard envelope arrived in the mail, and I opened it in eager anticipation. Imagine my surprise when, in that package, I discovered the very same copy of The Zoomable Universe that I’d just returned myself, torn dust jacket and all!
What to do?
Listening to the Cosmos
The first thought that popped into my mind was: apparently the Universe really wants me to have this particular copy of this book. Of course, I can’t seriously believe that the cosmos was “trying to tell me something”—that’s the realm of simple superstition and presumed providence. But I was willing to play with the idea long enough to find a reason that justified the decision I’d almost instinctively already arrived at: I was going to keep this book.
The thing is, I love books. And I already own a lot of books that have been badly mangled and abused (mostly by me as a youngster), so why would this new addition be any different? Could I learn to love a book that was flawed from the get-go?
What Is a Book?
Books are funny things: inanimate objects that we can cherish as if they were a dear friend. And significantly, books are many things at once. Let’s have a closer look.
For starters, a book is a product. (Not all books are products, of course, but the one I ordered was.) In other words, my birthday book had come into my possession in an exchange of value: money for paper. Any production flaw will decrease a product’s value, so that begs the question: is the trade still equitable? Had a bought a TV with a cracked screen or a car with a missing rear-view mirror, I would surely have returned them and not reconsidered the decision. But the tear in my book’s dust jacket was not a flaw on the level of, say, missing pages or a misaligned print. So even if this copy was a less-than-perfect product, it was still a book in every other way.
Books are also objects. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the convenience and portability of e‑books—but there’s nothing like holding a book in your hands. That new-book smell, the pages flicking past your fingertips, the weight of it in the palm of your hand… It’s delicious, it’s comforting, it’s timeless. Even with its torn dust jacket, my new “defective” book was still an object worth enjoying.
Perhaps most essentially, in addition to being a product and an object, a book is a story. Even an non-fiction title like my own The Zoomable Universe tells its own story of ideas. Books are treasure troves of humanity; they bear witness to our history, our hopes and fears, our quest for knowledge and understanding—the Great March of our big-brained species.
A Little Compassion, Please
Carl Sagan famously said that if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. That universe had dropped the same imperfect book into my lap twice, so I figured that if I wished to make lemonade from scratch… I might as well use that lemon.
That took care of the product side of things: my book had become an ingredient of something new, aiming to redirect disappointment into satisfaction.
My next step was to fix the torn dust jacket. I went to my kids’ old crafts box, which had been sitting neglected on a shelf even since the boys became teenagers. In it, I found some thick black paper, which I cut to a size slightly larger than the triangle missing from the jacket. I glued the paper to the back of the torn section of the jacket (which was also black), filling up the missing space.
That took care of the object part of the equation: the wound had been healed, the book was whole again.
All of which left me free to turn to the most valuable part of my new book: its contents. This is not a book review—but if you’re even vaguely interested in science, you’ll appreciate The Zoomable Universe as a whirlwind tour of everything that exists, from the very largest to the very smallest. I’m a few chapters in now, and I’m enjoying it a lot.
Here I am then, enjoying the story of a book that I initially rejected, but whose own story is now creatively linked to mine. There is a certain artisanal satisfaction in claiming “ownership” of something that you’ve fixed yourself. But for something to be fixed, it must first be broken.
It’s a good thing the universe isn’t perfect.
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