Are You a Courtly or Carnal Book Lover?


I am that monster.

But hear me out. Or rather, hear Anne Fadiman who frames the monster dichotomy differently. In Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, she divides bookworms into two types: courtly and carnal lovers. In her view, those who approach books as courtly lovers treat its physical form as “inseparable from its contents” and do everything possible to keep it in as virginal state as when it was first published, believing any wear or damage to the book’s body is less than the contents deserve.

Carnal book lovers, in contrast, regard a book’s words as inviolable, “…but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them…” are no more than a vessel to be treated “…as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”

Courtly book lovers use the thinnest bookmarks or avoid them entirely to avoid leaving any vestigial marks. That way when they’ve finished, they have honored the book by leaving it in pristine quality to keep or pass along.

Carnal lovers mark their places with whatever is at hand. That’s me. Among other things, I’ve used pens, other books, feathers, leaves, postcards, torn-out book reviews, and to-do lists. After I’m done I have often intentionally left in my books as small mementos —- a child’s drawing, a recipe, a cartoon. (I dog-ear the pages I want to return to, I use bookmarks to keep my place. Other monsters’ habits may vary.)

Courtly book lovers somehow keep their pages pristine despite the very human dew of sneezes, tears, and baby drool.

Those of us who are carnal book lovers love more messily.  We read in bathtubs and under leaky umbrellas, on sandy beaches and in leaf-spattered tents. We barely look up from the text while drinking coffee, slurping soup, or slopping curry into our mouths. A few unintentional spatters add to the history we have with that page— a sort of personal “Kilroy was here” marking what else we were taking into our bodies as we were taking those words into ourselves.

A courtly book lover is careful to never, ever crack a book’s spine. Some of us in the carnal lover category splay open a book’s spine as we read so that light leans into every inch. Some of us turn open books over to hold our places or set something on an open book to hold it as far open as possible. To us, the cracked spine is a sure sign of a well-loved, much-consulted volume.

Possibly most offensive to courtly lovers is marking a book’s pages. Underlining starring, sketching, and writing margin notes seems downright abominable to them. But to carnal book lovers like me this represents a personal conversation with the author and the author’s ideas. When my friend Diane passes a book along, I enjoy what she’s underlined and written, as if she’s reading it along with me. When I read a book my father once owned I enjoy his penciled margin notes, many of them addressed first-person to himself. Back when I bought used textbooks, all those highlighted portions and margin notes helped me pay more attention. Sometimes that was because I wouldn’t have underlined what previous readers found important, other times because those scrawled comments were more interesting than the book’s text.

The carnal book lover’s approach can and often does result in loving a book to shreds. Heck, that means we have to buy another copy to share, which is a great way to support authors we love. Courtly lovers tend to buy copies to share as well, because they’d rather not expose their beloved books to the ravages of another reader. Win/win for authors!

What we all have in common is love of books. Books sink into us, transport us, allow us to live hundreds of lives. When and where we’ve read them is often forever locked into what we’ve read.

What sort of reader are you?


20 thoughts on “Are You a Courtly or Carnal Book Lover?

  1. Carnal. Every time. Books are friends, and we must all hope to make an impact on the lives and natures of our friends. How can I love and respect a friend without warmly grasping a hand, hugging, nourishing and marking special events? Running along my bookcases, it’s easy to see and find my favourites, my oldest friends. I have books that belonged to my parents, still containing slips of paper marked with their handwriting, books I bought with my pocket money aged 11 or so (before that, saving would have taken too long), books that have been so loved that pages are sun-yellowed and coming adrift from their spines. I do draw the line at coffee rings, crumbs and greasy marks, but splashed bathwater has been known to crinkle the odd pages… Rather than courtly or carnal, I’d perhaps group readers as cerebral or emotional

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  2. I’ve gone into Kinko’s to have a spine cut off and the book rebound as spiral with homemade dividers and pockets inserted between the chapters. So much more courtly than tearing the pages out myself, punching holes and sticking them in oversized 3-ring binders! (Non-fiction only as best I remember)

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  3. I’m with you. Dog ears, marginal scribbling, broken spines, coffee stains, post it notes, underlining…the whole realm of book carnality. Pristine books are the ones I’ve not warmed up to. Not yet, any way.

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  4. A good fiction book is one I tend to treat like treasure. Once I had lent a book and I recoiled at the dog ears that it came back with and vowed never to share my personal books again, but I’m a librarian inspired by librarians, so I guess it comes with the territory. Yet, I have engaged with carnality by writing notes in non-fiction books.

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    • I wish everyone felt that way about library books but I once had to restore a library book that was partly eaten by a dog, but even I have been guilty of allowing a library book to get into my youngest hands, that I was greatly ashamed when I had to return it.

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      • You must have magical powers indeed if you can restore a book partially eaten by a dog!

        I check out a lot of books and have done so every week of my life since I could read. That gives me a high probability of damaging a library book but it has only happened twice, both were accidental water damage. I brought the book to the check-in clerk both times, confessed my crimes, and paid replacement costs. I continue to be surprised by how often library books we check out are damaged, especially children’s picture books (crayon marks and torn pages), but if they’re still readable we read them.

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        • Thank you for being a loyal library patron since many believe that such an institution is on its last legs. No magic powers, but I had a great mentor, Ms. James, that showed the ropes in order for me to repair the torn pages and replace the covers so when it was done one was able to read it comfortably even though they may have wondered what happened for it to be repaired.

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          • I visit a lot of libraries and am cheered by how busy they are. Patrons clicking away at computer banks, kids reading and playing, people taking classes and checking out materials. When I can’t find a parking spot at a library, and have to find a spot around the corner, I take a deep breath of satisfaction knowing that so many people love the places I love too. To me, libraries are one of the most vital ingredients in a healthy and wide-awake culture, Your library is lucky to have you, your concern for the future of libraries, and the skills passed down by the wise Ms. James. A nod of appreciation to you WRLibrarian.

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