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?