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.