May 6, 2010

Reverence, Respect & Mauling

In Anne Fadiman's book Ex Libris, a fabulous ode to book nerds the world over, she discusses the different ways in which we treat our books. Fadiman wisely surmises that "... just as there is more than one way to love a person, so there is more than one way to love a book". The way she sees it, there's 'courtly love' and 'carnal love'- and which the book lover practices can say more than one thing about them.

I found myself fascinated by her articulation of a thing I've thought about for years. It's interesting to me how people treat their books and how adamant they are about the right way to love literature. One of the authors at work- definitely a courtly lover- admitted to me that she hates writing in books, so much so that she didn't want to mark in a copy of her own book. I'd say that's an old-fashioned feeling- books are hallowed, keep them clean- but I've known many an older reader who beat their most loved books into submission. My grandfather lived by his books, and he wrote in his (with a pencil). Granted, he only put tiny tick marks next to paragraphs, a pretty minimalist legacy to leave behind. Reading past his tick marks is like becoming a detective: why did he mark that part? What was it that made him slow down and make note?

It seems to me like every reader has their own cringe-worthy feelings about a certain book marking vice. There are those who think writing in a book is a huge bookkeeping sin.
Then there are those people who want to cry when they see a book laid open and face down instead of using a book mark. I've never much cared about leaving books laid open, but a broken spine is a tough pill for me to swallow.

Then there are those people (I'll say right now that I DO NOT get you) that won't buy second-hand books because they are 'dirty'. You know what else is dirty? Money. Treadmills. Door knobs. Your car seat probably has a higher probability of giving you somebody's cooties. And isn't there something great about a book with a history? One that you know has been in someone else's hands, has passed through somebody else's life? Plus they are savers of trees. So get over yourself.

I'm a carnal lover of books (shocking, I know). I tend to devour them, underline them, sometimes (often) stain them. That, plus my frighteningly acute power of losing book marks (even while lying supine and still), means that dog-earring is sometimes a necessity. But ever since I watched Finding Forester, I've had conflicted feelings about dog-earring a page. I can understand why someone would find dog earring offensive... but isn't it better to see that a book has been consumed?

All of this nerdy musing leaves me wondering: can you tell the level of love a book has experienced by its condition? By looking at how someone treats their books, can you learn anything interesting about them that you wouldn't have known otherwise?

I went to my own bookshelf to investigate.

Most of my books are still State side, so I've got a limited sample size. That said, here are some of my findings from books I picked (somewhat) at random:

St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves (loved it): browned, water wrinkled, and written in. Still has the price tag on from Politics & Prose (bought 12/7 of an unknown year), which makes my heart squeeze.

Confederates in the Attic (loved it): Holding up well, but a little dirty around the edges. It still smells like the bookstore at the Antietam battlefield. Makes me think of fall and of my Dad.

Down Under (loved it): Wow. I just found my ticket stub from my flight from Paris to Dubai in this book- one of the flights on my first long journey to Australia. I can tell I had this book while in 'Europe' mode- it is yellow, beaten, tired-looking and proud of it.

Watership Down (loved it): scratched and a bit weather beaten, but still in pretty good shape. I found a bus slip in it from grad school days. Spine still very much unbroken.

Mudbound (loved it): spine broken (damn), and bottom corner stained, probably because I loved it so much I loaned it to three people and keep on my desk (where I often eat [spill] breakfast and writing snacks).


1. I have not made a habit of keeping books I've only sorta liked since coming to Australia.
2. I can tell which books are from which eras of my life. Dog eared and written in profusely= high school falling-in-love-with-literature era. Sun damaged from sitting on a windowsill/dented from holding up a bed= frantic, boisterous college era. Filled with memorabilia but otherwise treated with some semblance of respect= big girl era. All have been ravaged. Just in different ways.
3. My books are a time machine through which I can revisit the time when I bought them and read them. That's pretty nice.
4. The only books of mine that look pristine are the ones I haven't read yet.

Inconclusive findings, but interesting (to me, anyway). So what's your book handling philosophy?


  1. Oh man I love your conclusions part of this blog. I don't know why but it made me all teary eyed ... perhaps because you're growing up?? haha Well, Katie, I'm with you on the second hand books and hand me down books. I get most of mine either from you or from the library these days. I like a well loved, well traveled book. I especially love my copy of Time Travelers Wife because you wrote in the front cover and made underlines and marks in the book before you gave it to me. It now is also stained and slightly wavy from being drenched in coffee. I am a dogearer even though I do have plenty of bookmarks. I'm reading Peace Like a River like you recommended and I'm enjoying it!

  2. I keep all the plays I have worked on that all are doggeared and a few smell like beer...weird?

  3. I think this may be one of my favourites of all your posts, Kate!! It rings OH SO TRUE to me. I am finding that my newfound "big girl" life is manifested most clearly by my steadily growing collection of books that I just can't wait to devour and then keep for all eternity!!! Yay being permanent!