For the (Carnal, Courtly, and Hypocritical) Love of Books

Books I’ve stolen borrowed from others (and haven’t even read yet)

I almost never lend people books.  But I have no problem borrowing those that belong to others.

I fully acknowledge the hypocrisy, and perhaps even level of selfishness, that applies to this policy of mine.

I’m not even a particularly good borrower of other people’s books.  Or rather, good returner of them, I should say.

Eleven years ago, I borrowed Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet from a friend.  Not only do I still have this book in my possession, not only have I moved at least three times with it – once halfway across the country – I haven’t even finished reading it.

Meanwhile, I’ve borrowed not one, not two, but three books from a co-worker: The Jade Peony, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.  And again, as yet have not read any of them.

The reason I still feel justified in borrowing book from others, though, is due to how well I treat their books.  How well I treat (almost) all books.

For one thing, I use bookmarks. I’d rather subject myself to a whole tongue’s worth of dog slobber than dog-ear the page of a book (and let me tell you: part of the reason I’m a cat person is the nice dry, sandpaper kisses they give).

I take care not to damage books’ spines, including not leaving open books face-down on the table, not even for the quick moment it takes to stir or serve up my supper.

I always read while eating supper (I live alone so this is a convenient option), but have special precautions to prevent my food becoming the unintended subject of the story.

I know exactly how to array my various dishes on the table to prevent inadvertent splatter, particularly when it comes to the anything tomato-based or a tossed salad, which I usually eat laced with oil and balsamic vinegar as dark as crude.

A love as if from afar

The fact that I take all these precautions to protect the books I read makes me what’s known as courtly lover of books.

That same colleague who lent me Bring Up the Bodies et al also told me of an essay by writer Anne Fadiman called Never Do That to a Book.  In this, piece, Fadiman divides readers into two types: the carnal and the courtly.

The former, she claims, are those who do things like read in a sauna, tear completed chapters out of books to reduce their weight, dog-ear pages, write on pages, purposely break the spine, and generally treat books with all the gentleness of wild boar.

Carnal book lovers are those who believe that the physical body of a book – its paper, cardboard, ink, and glue – is little more than a vessel, meant to be treated as intemperately as a body of flesh and blood.

Meanwhile, courtly lovers of books, she claims, are those for whom,

A book’s physical self [is] sacrosanct[,] … its form inseparable from its content; [the reader’s] duty as a lover [is] Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller.

I have books on my shelf – ones I’ve actually read – that bear no evidence whatsoever of their pages ever having seen the light of day.

But in truth I’m nowhere near as saintly in my book-handling habits as I’ve always prided myself to be.  For I neglected to acknowledge – most notably to myself until quite recently – that my behaviour diverges sharply depending upon whether a book is fiction or nonfiction.

Spilled blood, broken bones, and cold, hard reality

At present, I am researching Ancient Greece in support of a future historical fiction novel.  So far, I’ve read five of a total 15 books on the subject currently in my possession, with an indeterminate number of additional titles to go after that.

My love of the reference books I’ve read thus far, to put it mildly, was not courtly.

Not even a little bit.

Okay, maybe a little bit.  I still used bookmarks, as well as sticky tabs to mark pages I want to refer back to rather than dog-ear a single corner. I didn’t (and don’t) do any reference reading at all while eating.

But I’ve otherwise left considerable evidence of my involvement with these titles.  Even from the outside, their spines show evidence of rough usage – of at times willful breakage.

Inside, the pages are permanently stained with green highlighter – my preferred method (and colour) for calling out facts of known (or else potential) significance to my future project.

In my copy of Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks, the pages run green as if with Vulcan blood.  With it being the first non-children’s reference I read on the subject – and thus with my knowledge at that point being largely nonexistent – every fact became important as a result.

That’s not even the worst of it.  Fadiman writes,

The most permanent, and thus to a courtly lover the most terrible, thing one can leave in a book is one’s own words.

Of this cardinal courtly sin, I am entirely guilty when it comes to non-fiction.

Heavily highlighted (and also annotated) pages from Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks

Highlighted passages aren’t enough; I further like to make marginal notes so I know at a glance (and can later find again) the specific topic that I’ve marked off.

Hence the occasional purposely broken spine.  My most recently completed title – Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times – had such minuscule margins and was such a tiny book to boot, it was only by breaking the spine that the book would lie flat enough for me to write my annotations.

Other reference books, meanwhile, have their spines succumb to my coming back over and over again to check and crosscheck various facts.

My copy of Life in a Medieval Castle, which I’ve turned to heavily for my current WIP, is now in pieces.

Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity wasn’t in the best shape to begin with, having been purchased used, and will undoubtedly someday suffer the same fate.

A circle of hypocrisy

Nowadays, with the advent of Amazon, and more specifically, it’s resellers of overstock, library discard, and otherwise no longer wanted nonfiction books, I buy numerous references used for a pittance, the flat rate shipping often costing more than the book itself.

(Twelve years ago, when I was researching medieval England in earnest for my WIP, all I had was whatever I could find at my local library and a Kinko’s copy card.)

Every used book for sale on Amazon is provided a description of its condition.  I pore over these descriptions like tea leaves, comparing multiple similarly-priced copies of the same title for the one in the best condition for the best price.

For I want these books to come to me virtually untouched.  I don’t care so much about sun-faded covers, library markings, or absent dust jackets.  But I want the pages unmarked by all the tracks and signs I plan to inflict upon them.

(It annoyed me to no end that my copy of Ancient Greece bore copious underlines in black pen from the Mycenaean era all the way to the dawn of democracy.  Even though this previous reader and I had many similar conclusions as to what constituted important takeaways, I still found the person’s lingering presence distracting.)

When I’m first learning a subject, I prefer both the physical and mental space to make my own connections and draw my own conclusions.  When I buy a used reference book, I therefore want nothing to do with the ideas and insights of previous readers.

Fadiman writes that in her family, carnal book lover all, “Hard use was a sign, not of disrespect, but of intimacy.”

“Intimately” is how I want to come to know the subjects of the nonfiction books that I read.

I want to know them well enough to spout random facts at parties to people who may or may not give a damn.  I want to know them well enough to I dream about them, and likewise dream of the day I’ve finally spun them into novels I’d never dream of handling with such callous disregard.

Which yet again, I’m forced to acknowledge, makes me more than a bit of a hypocrite.

Are you a courtly or carnal lover of books?  Does this change under certain circumstances?  How do you feel about people who treat books in the opposite manner to you?  Let me know in the comments.

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

7 thoughts on “For the (Carnal, Courtly, and Hypocritical) Love of Books

  1. Definitely carnal – for my writing books. I don’t need the reference books as you do, because it’s all in my head or easily looked up in a second online.

    I joke that I will need a whole new set of writing books when I finish this trilogy, so I can underline – and annotate – the new story as it occurs to me.

    My writing books are disposable in the sense that once they are too cluttered, I will get a new set. Someone borrowed one of my Sol Stein books and didn’t return it, and said it wasn’t she, so I bought a second copy, labeled it #2, and kept scribbling.

    My Dorothy Sayers Peter Wimsey mysteries are also annotated – the good parts are both underlined, and the page corners dogeared. Too bad. These are my PERSONAL copies, and I can do whatever I want – inexpensive paperbacks with immortal words.

    If you paid for the book, it’s yours to deal with as most suits you, including (recently) feeding the hardcover chemistry text no one wants to the chinchilla. Well, she nibbles the edges of the cover.

    I don’t see how anyone else can object – and I would never do any of that to a book which isn’t mine. It would be like telling other people how to bring up their children.


    • I definitely agree that if you own a book it’s yours to use and abuse as you will. Fadiman’s essay wasn’t trying to promote one way of doing so over another (although the maid she mentioned in it certain was) but more so to contrast the two broad categories of book lovers.

      I’m impressed that you replace your writing books as needed. Even when my nonfiction book are bursting at the seams, I don’t replace them so as not to have to replace the highlighting and marginal notes as well. Any book I mark up becomes worth its weight in gold because of it – writing books included. Back in 2008, after passing two years without a single word written, I planned to quit writing forever. I got rid of all my writing books, including my favourite one that I put out at a swamp meet and was taken by this guy I barely knew.

      Fast forward four years and I decided I would NEVER give up writing. But after six long years, I needed to relearn how. I needed that book back – not a new copy, but the same annotated one I’d given away. So I reached to the guy (who I’d at first only seen in passing during those four years, and then eventually not at all) and asked for it back. Luckily he still had it. Even more lucky was the fact I’d contacted him when I did, for he was set to move out of province the very next week.


      • So glad you found your book and were able to retrieve it. What wonderful luck.

        Annotations are gold – as long as you still need them.

        I’ve given away many annotated books because I learned what I needed to learn from them – it is internalized. Some books have only a few of those nuggets.

        I still mourn the disappearance of Copy I of Sol Stein’s book.

        I put my name and phone number and/or email address in my books.

        But I’m past the point where I consult many of them. I have a set of twenty by my desk, and mostly use about ten of those. At some points all ten of them are open, spine bent, face down on my desk, because I’m literally switching from book to book hunting the pieces I need.

        When the last word of Pride’s Children is written, though, I will have no choice but to get new ones – most of the notations in the margins of the ones I have are using the examples in the text customized for PC. And there’s no more space!

        Or maybe I’ll have it all internalized by then – except for my Dramatic books, and a couple books which have such terrible indices that I can find things only by the notes I’ve added to the frontispiece every time I locate something new. I should just give up and get digital copies next time. But my brain needs that spread-on-the-table feeling.

        Everyone else can do whatever they like with their own books – unless there’s an overarcing societal reason for preserving a particular volume. Cheap paper copies were made for that.

        But I did prefer to buy secondhand textbooks which were NOT highlighted, so I could do my own.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve internalized most of what I’ve learned from my writing books as well. But I still like to keep them on hand just in case I want to refer to them again. And even if I don’t, that knowledge was hard-earned and the evidence of that learning remains a source of pride.


      • It is indeed hard-earned – I’m just in the paring-down portion of life: we’re planning to retire to a community, and put a whole life and three kids worth of stuff into a two bedroom apartment plus small storage area. EVERYTHING is getting looked at with a jaundiced eye: does this get space in the clean new future?

        Plus a lot of things ARE going digital; I think I have some of my writing books in various writing bundles I bought – without my annotations, of course. Sigh.


    • I definitely agree, Mary. If we own a particular book it’s ours to love as we will. For me, the most interesting part of Fadiman’s essay was her description of the many different things people do (or don’t do) to their books, some of which never would have occurred to me. There are probably as many different ways to treat a book as there are people to read it.


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