Wide Angle

Never Do That to a Book

Sure, you love books. But is it courtly love or carnal love?

A book, sliced in half.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by tbd/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In light of recent controversy, Slate is proud to reprint Anne Fadiman’s classic 1995 essay, originally published in Civilization and later collected in her book Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.

When I was eleven and my brother was thirteen, our parents took us to Europe. At the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Copenhagen, as he had done virtually every night of his literate life, Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table. The next afternoon, he returned to find the book closed, a piece of paper inserted to mark the page, and the following note, signed by the chambermaid, resting on its cover:


My brother was stunned. How could it have come to pass that he—a reader so devoted that he’d sneaked a book and a flashlight under the covers at his boarding school every night after lights-out, a crime punishable by a swat with a wooden paddle—had been branded as someone who didn’t love books? I shared his mortification. I could not imagine a more bibliolatrous family than the Fadimans. Yet, with the exception of my mother, in the eyes of the young Danish maid we would all have been found guilty of rampant book abuse.

During the next thirty years I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love. A book’s physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. 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.

Hilaire Belloc, a courtly lover, once wrote:

Child! do not throw this book about;

Refrain from the unholy pleasure

Of cutting all the pictures out!

Preserve it as your chiefest treasure.

What would Belloc have thought of my father, who, in order to reduce the weight of the paperbacks he read on airplanes, tore off the chapters he had completed and threw them in the trash? What would he have thought of my husband, who reads in the sauna, where heat-fissioned pages drop like petals in a storm? What would he have thought (here I am making a brazen attempt to upgrade my family by association) of Thomas Jefferson, who chopped up a priceless 1572 first edition of Plutarch’s works in Greek in order to interleave its pages with an English translation? Or of my old editor Byron Dobell, who, when he was researching an article on the Grand Tour, once stayed up all night reading six volumes of Boswell’s journals and, as he puts it, “sucked them like a giant mongoose”? Byron told me, “I didn’t give a damn about the condition of those volumes. In order to get where I had to go, I underlined them, wrote in them, shredded them, dropped them, tore them to pieces, and did things to them that we can’t discuss in public.”

Byron loves books. Really, he does. So does my husband, an incorrigible book-splayer whose roommate once informed him, “George, if you ever break the spine of one of my books, I want you to know you might as well be breaking my own spine.” So does Kim, who reports that despite his experience in Copenhagen, his bedside table currently supports three spreadeagled volumes. “They are ready in an instant to let me pick them up,” he explains. “To use an electronics analogy, closing a book on a bookmark is like pressing the Stop button, whereas when you leave the book facedown, you’ve only pressed Pause.” I confess to marking my place promiscuously, sometimes splaying, sometimes committing the even more grievous sin of dog-earing the page. (Here I manage to be simultaneously abusive and compulsive: I turn down the upper corner for page-marking and the lower corner to identify passages I want to xerox for my commonplace book.)

All courtly lovers press Stop. My Aunt Carol—who will probably claim she’s no relation once she finds out how I treat my books—places reproductions of Audubon paintings horizontally to mark the exact paragraph where she left off. If the colored side is up, she was reading the left­hand page; if it’s down, the right-hand page. A college classmate of mine, a lawyer, uses his business cards, spurning his wife’s silver Tiffany bookmarks because they are a few microns too thick and might leave vestigial stigmata. Another classmate, an art historian, favors Paris Métro tickets or “those inkjet-printed credit card receipts—but only in books of art criticism whose pretentiousness I wish to desecrate with something really crass and financial. I would never use those in fiction or poetry, which really are sacred.”

Courtly lovers always remove their bookmarks when the assignation is over; carnal lovers are likely to leave romantic mementos, often three-dimensional and messy. Birds of Yosemite and the East Slope, a volume belonging to a science writer friend, harbors an owl feather and the tip of a squirrel’s tail, evidence of a crime scene near Tioga Pass. A book critic I know took The Collected Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe on a backpacking trip through the Yucatan, and whenever an interesting bug landed in it, she clapped the covers shut. She amassed such a bulging insectarium that she feared Poe might not make it through customs. (He did.)

The most permanent, and thus to the courtly lover the most terrible, thing one can leave in a book is one’s own words. Even I would never write in an encyclopedia (except perhaps with a No. 3 pencil, which I’d later erase). But I’ve been annotating novels and poems—transforming monologues into dialogues—ever since I learned to read. Byron Dobell says that his most beloved books, such as The Essays of Montaigne, have been written on so many times, in so many different periods of his life, in so many colors of ink, that they have become palimpsests. I would far rather read Byron’s copy of Montaigne than a virginal one from the bookstore, just as I would rather read John Adams’s copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s French Revolution, in whose margins he argued so vehemently with the dead author (“Heavenly times!” “A barbarous theory.” “Did this lady think three months time enough to form a free constitution for twenty-five millions of Frenchmen?”) that, two hundred years later, his handwriting still looks angry.

Just think what courtly lovers miss by believing that the only thing they are permitted to do with books is read them! What do they use for shims, doorstops, glueing weights, and rug-flatteners? When my friend the art historian was a teenager, his cherished copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths served as a drum pad on which he practiced percussion riffs from Led Zeppelin. A philosophy professor at my college, whose baby became enamored of the portrait of David Hume on a Penguin paperback, had the cover laminated in plastic so her daughter could cut her teeth on the great thinker. Menelik II, the emperor of Ethiopia at the turn of the century, liked to chew pages from his Bible. Unfortunately, he died after consuming the complete Book of Kings. I do not consider Menelik’s fate an argument for keeping our hands and teeth off our books; the lesson to be drawn, clearly, is that he, too, should have laminated his pages in plastic.

“How beautiful to a genuine lover of reading are the sullied leaves, and worn-out appearance … of an old ‘Circulating Library’ Tom Jones, or Vicar of Wakefield!” wrote Charles Lamb. “How they speak of the thousand thumbs that have turned over their pages with delight! … Who would have them a whit less soiled? What better condition could we desire to see them in?” Absolutely none. Thus, a landscape architect I know savors the very smell of the dirt embedded in his botany texts; it is the alluvium of his life’s work. Thus, my friend the science writer considers her Mammals of the World to have been enhanced by the excremental splotches left by Bertrand Russell, an orphaned band-tailed pigeon who perched on it when he was learning to fly. And thus, even though I own a clear plastic cookbook holder, I never use it. What a pleasure it will be, thirty years hence, to open The Joy of Cooking to page 581 and behold part of the actual egg yolk that my daughter glopped into her very first batch of blueberry muffins at age twenty-two months! The courtly mode simply doesn’t work with small children. I hope I am not deluding myself when I imagine that even the Danish chambermaid, if she is now a mother, might be able to appreciate a really grungy copy of Pat the Bunny—a book that invites the reader to act like a Dobellian giant mongoose—in which Mummy’s ring has been fractured and Daddy’s scratchy face has been rubbed as smooth as the Blarney Stone.

The trouble with the carnal approach is that we love our books to pieces. My brother keeps his disintegrating Golden Guide to Birds in a Ziploc bag. “It consists of dozens of separate fascicles,” says Kim, “and it’s impossible to read. When I pick it up, the egrets fall out. But if I replaced it, the note I wrote when I saw my first trumpeter swan wouldn’t be there. Also, I don’t want to admit that so many species names have changed. If I bought a new edition, I’d feel I was being unfaithful to my old friend the yellow­bellied sapsucker, which has been split into three different species.”

My friend Clark’s eight thousand books, mostly works of philosophy, will never suffer the same fate as The Golden Guide to Birds. In fact, just hearing about Kim’s book might trigger a nervous collapse. Clark, an investment analyst, won’t let his wife raise the blinds until sundown, lest the bindings fade. He buys at least two copies of his favorite books, so that only one need be subjected to the stress of having its pages turned. When his visiting mother­in-law made the mistake of taking a book off the shelf, Clark shadowed her around the apartment to make sure she didn’t do anything unspeakable to it—such as placing it facedown on a table.

I know these facts about Clark because when George was over there last week, he talked to Clark’s wife and made some notes on the back flyleaf of Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival, which he happened to be carrying in his backpack. He ripped out the page and gave it to me.