Anne Fadiman: “Never Do That To A Book”

Anne Fadiman, author of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (and other books), spoke at the Main Branch of the Cambridge Public Library on April 1 as part of Harvard University’s 375th Anniversary. In her talk she revisited the subject she addressed in one of the essays in Ex Libris, “Never Do That To A Book”: in short, she identified two different types of book lovers, the “courtly” and the “carnal.” Courtly lovers treat the book as a sacred object; carnal lovers have a more physical relationship with books – folding down pages, underlining, highlighting, and writing marginalia, and in the odd case, using bacon for bookmarks.

Though Fadiman was most likely correct to say that “Everyone in this room loves books, but not in the same way,” most of the audience identified themselves as somewhere in the middle of the courtly/carnal scale. Fadiman is, by her own admission, a carnal lover of books, believing that marginalia is “a way of turning a monologue into a dialogue.” Reading, she believes, “is a relationship like any other.”

Fadiman also said, early in her talk,”The story of our lives is the story of our books,” which reminded me of a fragment of a poem (“Improvisations of the Caprisian Winter”) by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Franz Wright):

So many things lie torn open
by rash hands that arrived too late,
in search of you: they wanted to know.

And sometimes in an old book
an incomprehensible passage is underlined.
You were there, once. What has become of you?

I am also somewhere in the middle of the courtly/carnal book lover scale; in books that I own, I have written and underlined (but only in pencil). I have folded down the corners of pages (but only until I finish the book – then I write down all the quotes I wanted from the dog-eared pages and un-dog-ear them). I do not splay books face-down; I do not highlight; I do not sleep with them under my pillow (though there is a stack on the nightstand and another stack on the floor).

And of course, whether the book was my own or belonged to the library, I would never use bacon for a bookmark.

5 thoughts on “Anne Fadiman: “Never Do That To A Book”

  1. Great article! Now I can call myself a carnal book lover =) I am guilty of splaying the book with its spine facing up and dog-earing books. But never write in the books because I feel that is invading the writer’s space a bit. and marking a book in someway during reading keeps me actively thinking about the writings. I suppose it is considered your property once buying the book..

  2. no food in books! leaves oily spots on the pages! i loved reading other peoples favorite books- and like many of them….interesting that there were so many repeats.

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