I recently read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris for class. It quickly became one of my new favorite books, and I revisited it last night for my class presentation. Aside from the fact that she outlines a relationship to books much like mine has been, and hopefully will be, she has a chapter dedicated to the treatment of books that I found most fascinating. As a true bibliophile, as she discussed what it means to love a book, I was left panting at the end.
In “Never Do That To A Book” she recalls the time her family took a trip. Her brother was reading a book which he left open on the nightstand one morning. Upon returning to their room the book had been closed with a note from the chambermaid stating “Sir, you must never do that to a book,” implying that leaving a book open with its spine contorted was bad for the binding and damaging to the book itself.
Fadiman uses this to delineate the dichotomy of readers between what she refers to as the carnal and courtly lovers of books. The former have regard for the literary contents with an air of disregard for the physical book, while the latter treat the book as the conduit of the insides, regarding the physical objects as things to be revered and handled with care.
I, much like Fadiman, am a carnal lover of books (with the exception of rare books, which are an entirely different matter altogether). Mine are sprawled upon the dining room table in all manners of disarray. Pages are bent, contorted in all fashions, with an orgy of highlighter, pen and pencil marking the various passages.
At a quick glance it seems as though I am color coding various phrases, but really I am using whichever highlighter is handy, with lines alternating between hues of pinks, blues, greens and yellows. I underline in pen, and am very fond of annotated marginalia.
My comments are haphazardly splayed across the page like Courbet’s Demoiselles au Bord de la Seine, beginning strong, fading towards the end, and unless I have reason to believe anyone else will see them, almost always ending in climactic ellipses, with occasional exclamation marks for good measure, reserved for those times I feel very strongly, but not enough to expunge the ellipses in their nonchalance.
My books are well used. The covers can be deceptive, almost always neat. Paperbacks have a few bends, sometimes awkwardly remaining open, but generally clean, almost serenely untouched. It is not until the books themselves are opened that they display the almost visceral conditions under which they were enjoyed.
I have more books than I can count stained with coffee. I have also found that there is a direct correlation between how terrible a book is and its length. One book in particular was so horrid I absolutely refused to read it before having some wine. As you can imagine, it was also a very long book. Having been forced to read it over a period of several months, its pages have been baptized in wine. I am sure you are wondering why I didn’t just get drunk one night and read the whole thing. You know, get it over with. But I don’t drink to get drunk. And even under the influence of alcohol I could not bring myself to read more than one chapter at a time. It was a very slow and painful process, and the book bears the burden of the sadomasochism it inadvertently inflicted. Sadism on the part of the person who made me read it, and masochism on my part for having acquiesced. As if I had a choice. Another book has a rather fancy splattering of blood across its middle pages. It was one of those old books with the thick and serrated pages. As I was turning one of them I got a paper cut. It was the kind that you don’t realize how deep it is until you are spewing blood from your hand as if you have just slashed your arteries. You know, the kind where you stare dumbly at it, not fully comprehending or moving, and then your book is covered in blood. I really can’t envisage it getting more carnal than that.
So no, I don’t wear gloves when handling my books. I have no qualms about exposing them to direct sunlight. A nice number of them have had various fluids spilled on their pages. Various inks have mingled within their confines. If there is such a division between courtly and carnal lovers of books, then mine have been carnally mauled from day one. And should I ever stay at the same hotel as the Fadimans, the chambermaid would be mortified.