Monday, 26 October 2009

What kind of book lover are you?




Fellow book lovers,

I have a question for you:
Is your love a courtly or a carnal one?

The other day, Willow was describing a second-hand copy of Charles Simic poems that she had recently purchased from Amazon.  Rather than being in the "very good condition" that it had advertised itself, the book was marred by the intrusive scribblings of a previous owner.  I would have guessed that Willow is a courtly lover of books, but her poem on the subject confirmed the fact.  (I will also venture that Willow dislikes purple prose, but I know that she disdains a purple pen!)

Coincidentally, I had just been rereading an essay called Never Do That To A Book from the brilliant collection titled Ex Libris.  In that essay, author Anne Fadiman classifies two different kinds of book lovers:  those who maintain a courtly and respectful distance in relation to their books, and those whose approach is far more earthy and intimate, perhaps even abusive.

Fadiman describes a courtly lover as one who believes that "a book's physical self (is) sacrosanct."  A courtly lover practices "Platonic adoration" and treads as lightly as possible on the pages of the love object. Such readers do not care to leave mementoes of their presence, and they certainly wouldn't presume to rudely argue in the margins. Courtly lovers use special bookmarks, which they have probably taken great care to match to the book in some way.  Courtly lovers do not eat whilst turning the pages of their book; nor would they dream of taking a book into the bath.  Certainly you wouldn't catch a courtly lover stuffing a book into her handbag or letting it fall onto the floor of her car.  (Not that I would know anything about that.)

Fadiman places her own family firmly in the carnal realm.  "To us, a book's words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.  Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy."  Happily, she married another writer and reader with carnal tendencies.  (In one of my favorite essays in the book, Fadiman describes "marrying" their libraries.)

I don't know about you, but I tend to fall somewhere between the two book loving modes.

I've never been one for marking up books, much less writing "NO!" or "Idiotic" in the margins -- like one of my best friends does.   In every other regard, though, my habits tend to be more carnal.

Although I have cured myself of splaying books, or dog-earing their pages, I'm not especially fastidious when it comes to marking my place.  I possess many beautiful bookmarks, but more often than not, I will use whatever comes to hand -- a used envelope; a postcard; one of those ubiquitous order forms which constantly fall out of magazines; a square of toilet paper.  (I am fond of reading in the bathroom, whether or not I have business there.  I discovered, long ago, that it is the room in which one is least likely to be disturbed.  Also, our current bathroom has excellent natural light and a good view of the garden.)

I would much rather have a book than be without one -- which means that books are my companions during most activities, and sometimes they cannot help but get a bit roughed up.  I especially love to eat and read at the same time, and no doubt most of my books bear the smudges of not-too-clean fingers.  I will also take a book into the bath, although I do use some discrimination -- and  keep a towel at hand's reach.

Although I agree with Willow about not wanting someone else's dubious or objectionable witterings on the pages, I do like certain traces of former owners.    I especially love bookplates, and I was very tempted to buy a ridiculously expensive copy of Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope when I was at Jarndyce Booksellers last week.  Although I wanted the book, what really attracted me was the bookplate -- which had belonged to a certain Sir with a wonderfully ornate name.  I really want some bookplates of my own, although I'm about as likely to adorn my thousands of books as I am to organize my photo albums.  (I got behind on that project in 1999, and haven't caught up yet.)

Some kinds of intimacy are better than others: I don't want to find anyone else's crumbs between the pages of my book, but I would love to find a letter -- or even a shopping list.  This summer, I bought a used book primarily because I was dying to have a look at the letter housed within.  (It turned out that the book had been a gift and that the letter wasn't particularly interesting, but it certainly didn't deserve to be callously passed on to the second-hand book stall.)

In general, I would guess that the courtly lover is less likely to be a book-loaner -- mostly out of concern for possible wear and tear.  On the other hand, a carnal type might be more inclined towards jealous possessiveness.  I don't mind lending books -- not much, anyway -- but I've never figured out a good system for getting them back.  (My memory is, unfortunately, a very imperfect system.)  This is exactly why I need bookplates, although my lust for them is more aesthetic than proprietary.

By the way, the book pictured above (with a Dorothy Parker bookmark)  is A Girl of Mettle by Frances West.  I have a first-edition published in 1908, and my copy of it -- unlike Willow's Charles Simic -- is in "very good condition."   Although that makes me happy as the book owner, it makes me rather sad as a book lover.  It makes me think that it hasn't been read over and over, and handed down from daughter to mother.  It makes me think that it hasn't been loved well enough.



43 comments:

ArtSparker said...

Coffee or tea with a book are certainly enjoyable - there is a woman I see in my neighborhood who walks while reading.

rachel said...

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I belong to the courtly love group - my books have to stay as pristine as possible - except where cookery books are concerned, when I write on them, disagree, amend, make critical or complimentary comments, and where a truly filthy page indicates a favourite recipe. But all books require a cup of tea to go with them!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Like you, I fall somewhere in the middle. I don't mark up my books, although I sometimes enjoy someone else's notes in the margins of used ones. I am ashamed to say that I hate to loan my books... a character flaw I am certain, but I'd rather loan my shoes than my books. One the other hand, I'll use whatever is handy for a bookmark, and I'm never without a book. Train, plane or traffic, there is always one in my handbag and, as I read mostly hardcovers (another odd and often expensive quirk of mine) my handbags are weighty items indeed. I never read in the bathtub because my hands get cold.

I do have a particular affection for purple pens, however, for they were a trademark of Virginia Woolf.

willow said...

Oh, Bee, I thoroughly enjoyed this post! You pegged me for a courtly book lover, but actually, I fall somewhere in between.

Although, I never mark up books, myself, I really don't mind a phrase or two in the margins of second hand books. This particular copy of Charles Simic had words crossed out, arrows and circles through the body of the poems, such that is was nearly impossible to find the text in order to read them. That, I hated; only because it had been listed in "very good condition".

I almost always have a book stuffed in my handbag, have been known to read books in the bathtub, and they litter the floor of my car. But, I NEVer dog ear a page, to mark my place, and use anything handy as a bookmark.

Beeswax said...

I am quite sensual with my paperbacks, which is mostly what I buy. Food, tubs, folded corners, the works. Then, if I love a book, I give it away (with no real pretense of lending, I'm thrilled if they want to pass it on) as soon as possible to people I know will love it, too. Then, I buy another, in hardback, and put it on my bookshelf to love with a perfect courtly love.

(Mostly, I don't love it, and I don't feel any shame for treating it shabbily.)

Fantastic Forrest said...

Depends on the book - I've been known to be quite carnal, but do have my courtly moments. Like Rachel, my cookbooks are pretty messy - and of course I try to write in the date when I make something.

I came across a book I'd read a while back and was surprised to find just how much I'd written in it - almost like responses to a blog post - comments about certain passages. Don't often do that. Would you call such marks "hickeys"? Heh.

Beth said...

I love and revere books but I also love to nibble while reading...so, I guess I’m somewhat of a carnal book lover. I never mark up my books (although I did scribble in them when I was a child) which is why I keep a journal close by to jot down all those lovely combination of words I discover during my reading journeys.

(Oh, and I hate finding a stray hair in a previously read book. Makes me cringe.)

The Bug said...

Dog-earring a book is a particular peeve of mine, but I don't really care what I use to mark my place. Your list is pretty comprehensive, but since I read at work a lot I would add a folded up post-it note LOL.

I used to LOVE to read in the tub - although my hands did get cold that made it even more delicious when I put the book down & slid them into the tub... But I've had a cracked tailbone, arthritis, & shoulder injury in the past year - the tub just isn't a friendly place right now. Soon, though!

dogimo said...

Carnal. Definitely carnal.

Sometimes I wonder if the people who write "NO!" and "idiotic" in the margins do so as a preemptive disclaimer to anyone to whom they might end up lending the book? "It's a great book, you should definitely read it! Oh, but there's a few idiotic parts. Those are marked."

"whether or not I have business there" - Bee, you crack me up!

Catalyst said...

I am mostly courtly, though I do have a copy of The People's Guide to Mexico, saved from my years there in the 80's which has a couple of bookmarks: one, a label from a bottle of Victoria beer; and two, a business card from a not lamented hotel in Guaymas: Leo's Inn on the beach. The hotel was little more than a fleabag motel. I had thought, apparently erroneously, that that book (must have been another) was bookmarked with a much devalued 5,000 peso note and marked by a red wine stain on a couple of pages. Ah, memories.

fairyhedgehog said...

I don't dogear or write in books but pretty much anything else is fair game. I find that eating soup while reading is not good for maintaining pristineness.

I often have more than one book on the go at a time, for when I misplace the one I'm reading. As I wander round with a book under my arm and put it down whenever I need to use both hands, that happens quite often and my family is used to plaintive cries of "Where's my book?"

steven said...

hello bee- cool post - i love books, passionately but then i want to reexperience my innocence. so i take care of them and don't break the spine, rough up the page turning, no dog-ears or notes inside, no inscriptions etc. years later i like to return and savour the first blush, first kiss, all over. steven

JaneyV said...

Like you, I fall firmly between both camps. I think that I am more carnal than courtly. But I actually do love the physical book almost as much as the words. I love the smell of the paper and the weight of it. I don't write on my fiction books but I do dog-ear them if I can't find a piece of paper to stick in my page. I fall asleep with them and drink pots of tea while devouring them. I want my book to know it is loved. My cook books are greasy and have floury finger prints all over them and my reference books and textbooks are covered in notes and high-lighter pen. The use of the book is key to how it should be treated. In college I loved reading the notes in the poetry books taken from the library. I seem to remember that John Donne provoked a lot of lusty scribblings in the margin. These are almost as interesting as the text.

One of the things I love is picking up a book and finding a drawing or a note from one of my children in it. Books like photographs have a marvelous way of evoking memories.

kristina said...

I must admit (with great embarrassment) to being a courtly book lover in every way. I actually have to put my book in a cover before I put it in my handbag to keep it neat and tidy (even though the handbag itself is obsessively neat and tidy).

And this presents a real problem with cookbooks. Not only do I find stains upsetting, but I can't bear to make notations next to recipes, even when they'd be terribly helpful for next time (currently compromising with very faint writing in pencil).

Oh dear--I do sound pathetic! K x

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Ohhh, I am loving this post! How very interesting. I would never have thought to put it in these terms, but how very intriguing. I, like you, fall somewhere in between. I must admit, however, I am quite possessive of my books and will rarely ever lend them. I will only lend them to a person I deem responsible. Strange, I know.

Stacy Nyikos said...

I think I fall in between, too, but more depending on the book. If I'm reading a story to get at the heart of it, write about it, understand it, I tend to scribble, underline, leave ideas. This drives my ten year-old nuts. I am not allowed to write in her books. If I am in love with a book (like The Book Thief), I'll get a piece of paper and take copious notes there. Depends on the kind of love I'm feeling.

julochka said...

carnal, all the way. i love to write in them, comment in the margins, underline (in an array of color codes) and take them into the bath with me.

something i learned at the university of chicago is that the best scholarship and perhaps the most interesting conversations were taking place in the margins of the library books. ever since then, i've been an absolutely confirmed writer-in-er of books. even library books, tho' mostly i like to own my books, so i don't do that so often anymore.

B said...

Very interesting! I'm definitely a carnal reader!
By the way, in case you've forgotten, I borrowed a book from you, I promise I'll return it without notes or marks! :)

StuckInABook said...

Thanks for popping by my blog today, your comment did indeed show up in my inbox!
As you'll already know by now, then, I am definitely courtly...
You've reminded me that I must re-read Ex Libris soon.

Cl√°udia said...

One of the best scenes in 84 Charing Cross Road is the one when she receives a present from the shop's staff - a rare book. So precious, they had decided to write their gifts inscriptions in a separated sheet. She feels almost angry they did that, for she would love to have her present marked with their love messages.
The funny thing about it is that she concludes that the courtly behavior was quite British...

rxBambi said...

I'm trying to decide what kind of book lover I am. I don't really fall into the courtly love group. I mean, I love my books, but not for the paper they're written on. So I don't think that's me. But I also don't see myself as a carnal lover. I never write in the margins unless it's a textbook...
Hmmm, I think I'm an absentee lover. And that kind of distresses me.

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

I am courtly and overly fussy about my books but I will buy a book if it is inscribed by someone I'm familiar with. I'm really snobby about lending...just won't do it. And I love finding old books with uncut pages.
Have a great week, Bee!
Catherine

Nimble said...

This reminds me of the delicious variety of physical forms that books take. I love opening a really old book and noticing the differences in typeface and organization. Whether the paper is fine or acid cracked.

Paperbacks range in sturdiness from the ones that fall apart almost on the first reading to perfectly weighted little books that last for years. I love to buy Penguin paperback just because of their size and heft.

I bought a couple of old science fiction paperbacks from the 40s at a library sale last year. They are starting to flake and fall apart because they are true pulps. But that's why I like them. Ephemera that's lasted longer than expected.

Sarah Laurence said...

Flog me with a bookmark; I am a carnal reader. I write notes, underline and star the margins, although in pencil. I have been known to correct typos and grammatical errors in published books. Mostly, I look for the passages that make my heart sing. It is the only way to review a book and to reference it later while I’m writing. I also bring the book everywhere: to the beach, to lunch and, yes, even in the bath. Call them love marks. I’d prefer them to be mine than someone else’s.

I am still not a careless lover. If I borrow a book from the library or a friend, I treat it with due courtly respect. I wash my hands before touching my husband’s collection of old books and appreciate the history of past owners. I would never fold back a page or place a break any book’s spine. There is a fine line between passion and abuse!

I love this post, Bee!

A Cuban In London said...

I am definitely a courtly lover. I used to arrange my books years ago in the way I imagined their authors would become acquaintances with each other. Wacky, I know, but hey, I am a bookworm!

Beautiful post.

Greetings from London.

Barrie said...

For me, it depends on the book. If it's a how-to kind f book, I'm okay with marking it up. If it's not, I feel guilty even turning down the corner of a page.

Emm said...

I'll give you a clue. This morning I caught someone staring at me with an incredulous expression as I had turned my book with the spine facing towards me and was trying to massage out the tiniest crease. I must have sighed audibly and I think she thought I was a freak. Not many people get to almost the end of a book and still have the spine in near perfect condition!

I've also replaced my Harry Potter books a couple of times over as people borrowed them and returned them to me looking like sorry paperbacks in a yard sale. It is my own fault really as I prefer paperbacks to hardbacks.

Having said that, I did learn to write in my textbook at university with a very soft pencil that could be erased at the end of term. They were never erased in the end as I never had the courage to give them away.

Great post!

iNdi@ said...

i'm never without a book somewhere on my person
yes i have circled the occasional delicious morsel with a pencil
but
only in a 'keeper'
and i treasure a copy of 'the potter's book' by Bernard Leach, actually given to my mother but [luckily for me] not required by her
it's full of margin notes by a former owner
and having spent too much time trying to retrieve
lent books
from people who kept them for years
i no longer lend. if i feel that i can't give it away, i keep it. and that's that.
and if whoever inherits my library can't cope with the occasional pencil circle/tea stain/pressed flower/lost banknote
TOUGH.
glad to have found your pages
best wishes
india

Reya Mellicker said...

What a fabulous post!

I fall beween the two groups as you do, stuffing anything at hand in as a bookmark, reading while eating or drinking tea, and carrying my book with me wherever I go. But I never write in books, never, not ever.

Courtly yet familiar is my approach, as if my book was my BFF. Thanks for this Bee. Fantastic.

Meredith said...

Oh, I really enjoyed this post! I'm decidedly carnal, except for writing. I cannot even write in books that are supposed to be written in, like workbooks. It feels wrong somehow.

And yet I have in my collection an old French/English dictionary that I bought precisely because some long-ago French student wrote things in the margins and left little notes to herself tucked in the browning pages...

(I can't imagine the point of a bath without a book. Might as well take a shower and have done with it!)

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Books go everywhere with me - in the car, stuffed in my purse, even to the bathtub.

And I've discovered that the foil around gum folded up makes a perfect bookmark, as does the receipt from the library. ♥

Bee said...

I have been travelling for a few days, and it is perfect bliss to sit down at my computer -- with a cup of tea -- and read through these interesting and thoughtful comments. I am FASCINATED.

(Claudia, I WAS thinking of that scene in Charing Cross when I wrote this post.)

I thought that I would share a book-related anecdote: On Wednesday night, I got a flat tire coming home from Cambridge. It was dark, and smack-in-the-middle of the 5 o'clock traffic on the M4 (very busy motorway). The AA told us to get out of the car and stand behind the barrier -- for safety reasons. For an hour and a half, my daughter and I huddled in the dark and frighteningly clamorous sound of traffic . . . but happily, we both had books with us (of course). I read mine by flashlight, while she used the light from her cell phone. Yet again, an experience confirms one of my maxims in life: ALWAYS carry a book!

Elizabeth said...

How did I miss this stunning post?
As you can imagine my relationship with books is carnal beyond carnal
maybe even including cookie crumbs and jam thumbprints.

The letter you found reminds me of the laundry list in Northanger Abbey
you know the secret message to be revealed......

Kristen In London said...

I reread constantly, usually seasonally ("The Witch of Blackbird Pond" every October, for example!) and I love to get to a spot where I want a break, reach to dogear the page, and... find it already folded over where I dogeared it there last year. Such a comforting feeling!

Paperbacks only in the bath, and I always feel a combination of protectiveness and sadness when a book I buy has a nameplate or an inscription: who didn't care enough to keep it?

Jamie said...

I, like you, fall somewhere in the middle. I will take my current love to bed, to bath, and even to beach and will wine and dine it but I cannot bring myself to the point of marring a page with a dog ear! I still own many books that were my childhood companions and though they are well-read and well-loved (worn) they are still intact.

One of my favorite acquisitions is a copy of Chaucer and His Poetry from 1920. Its previous owner was definitely carnal. But I admit that makes my copy all the more interesting. I especially love the postcard it contains dated June 1,1925 advertising that Barnes & Noble, Inc. will pay cash for "prep" school and college books.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond numbers among one of those well-loved friends! The kind you enjoy introducing to your daughters.

Bee, what a lovely respite your blog is...thank you!

Christina said...

When I reach to buy a book at the store, I open it to see if the spine is broken. If it is, I usually put it back and reach for another. There is something about the stiff, freshness of the pages. Don't get me wrong, I certainly would buy it, if it was love at first site, and the only copy. I love the smell of the central library and the knowledgeable, stern librarians, that work in ours.
I adore reading, and really will take books, any way I can get them. I remember the first librarian that explained to me, I could get a library card.
Oh, how I could go on. ; )
Reading has saved me. As a child, when I felt lost, books embraced me.
xoxo

j. said...

I am certainly a courtly lover.
I love, love, love to read and respect the books I come across.

reading this was wonderful; thanks for sharing!

Nancy said...

I have a daughter who is so courtly with her books that she doesn't even open them very wide. But I must admit to eating, dog earing, cracking spines (only on paperbacks, of course) and not being overly respectful. It is the content I adore, but then most of mine are paperbacks, and not of the refined type.

Dick said...

Carnal all the way!

herhimnbryn said...

I fall between carnal and courtly.

A childhood of respect for books, read them, enjoy them but never mark them or break their spines etc. A poverty striken student-hood, using 2nd hand paperback copies with marginalia, and torn covers. All with their own particular charm I kept some, now with my notes scribbled in pencil.

I have books that are two hundred yrs old, they are my courtly 'lovers'. Read regularly, but protected from the air-con.

Thankyou for such a wonderful post Lady Bee.

Meri said...

Oh - carnal for sure. If a book is really juicy, I have to underline, comment, make it mine. I hang on to them, so I can savor them time and again.

Kathy Holmes said...

It depends on if it's paperback or hardcover. With a printing background, I certainly admire the whole package of a hardcover. For paperbacks, I'm somewhere in-between. I try to have a special bookmark, but if not, I may turn down pages. But I never write in them. And there's nothing like snacking and reading - a perfect day on the couch. :)

vicki archer said...

I think I fall somewhere in the middle....great post, thank you. xv