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.
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)