Love it tender, love it rough, never let it go
My grandfather owned a copy of the Norton Facsimile edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare that had been gifted to him by his uncle when he was a teenager. By the time I inherited this copy — several aunts and uncles had already feasted on the bard’s immortal words — its forest green cover had turned black and the pages were a magical translucent yellow that almost crumbled to the touch. By then, reading this hefty, yet fragile, tome was nigh impossible. But I solved my quandary by appropriating the crossed bookstand from the altar that was used for the Gita.
When author and editor, Alex Christofi, found himself in a similar situation, he chose instead to slice the book in half along the spine, diminishing the intimidating breadth of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace into two slimmer volumes. When Christofi posted a picture of his crime online, Twitterverse exploded, with people requesting the International Criminal Court, the FBI and the Metropolitan police to arrest him for murdering the book.
Christofi is what the American essayist, Anne Fadiman, would call a carnal lover of books, to whom the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread and ink make up the mere vessel that carries the soul of a book and, as such, is dispensable. I, on the other hand, would be classified as the Platonic lover who tries — always in vain — to conserve the state of chastity in which the book had left the bookseller.
Where the profligate reader thinks nothing of folding the top corners of pages or — horror of horrors — even an entire page diagonally while taking a breather or a toilet break, the likes of me would dash around the house, office, café looking for a slip of clean paper to carefully slide between the leaves before answering nature’s call. Yet, when thumbing through musty old volumes in College Street, it is the dog-eared volumes with some corners chipped off that I am more likely to bring home with me.
The groaning spine of an open book plonked face down somewhere, the angry or excited scribbles and violent underlining of passages from books that have been lent out have broken many a friendship. Yet, books belonging to authors where their notes on the margins of pages have started inter-generational dialogues are prized possessions of any book lover.
I may cringe when an eager friend leaves an oily thumbprint on the crisp pages of a new novel, but the truth is that the yellowing pages of my One Hundred Years of Solitude bear witness to more than one lunch that I wolfed down while reading it. There is then a third category of book lovers that Fadiman did not consider. These are the jealous lovers, the Othello of bookworms, if you will, who might think nothing of ravishing a book, cover and all, themselves but would have a bilious fit if anyone else so much as touched their beloved titles.
If books are vehicles for transmitting stories to successive generations of readers, the tales they tell are of past lovers — passionate, gentle and jealous.