Posted in Books & Reading

The Care & Feeding of Books

“Their schooling over, readers were presumably qualified to make their own additions to the books in their care.”  –H.J. Jackson, in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books

“books as pets–pet dragons, maybe, or something exotic–care & feeding of your book”  –scribbled note in my own (heavily annotated) copy of Marginalia

I used to starve my books, all un-knowing.  I’d been taught not even to place an open book face-down, let alone fold down its page corners or (heaven forbid) write in it–with the result that I kept an extensive library of books that probably needed therapy, their only discernable marks of attention being the address labels I carefully fixed inside their covers.

Then, in my 20s, I came across Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris–a celebration of reading in which she contrasted “courtly” and “carnal” book-lovers.  I indisputably fell in the “courtly” category, treating my books as delicately as swooning corseted ladies, and I concluded that if I were a book I’d rather be ravished than revered.  More to the point, I realized the relationship I was missing with my books.

I’d responded to books, but sterilely, separately, in carefully documented “reading journals” of extracted quotes, or sometimes in the form of Post-It notes added impermanently to the pages.  So in the spirit of experiment, I selected a book whose thickness had almost doubled with its burden of Post-Its, and set about transcribing those notes into the book itself.  The thing came to life!  It became MY book in a way it hadn’t in all the years I’d owned (and read) it.  I carried on gleefully from that point, carrying on conversations in the margins–with the text, with myself upon a subsequent reading, with others who borrowed my books with my encouragement to annotate…

And I swore, with the advent of e-Books, that I’d never switch.  Give me the weight and the cover-art and the ability to keep conversing with my books over the “convenience” of the portable library.  Until I discovered that my iPad allows for highlighting and marginalia–and suddenly I’m hooked.  My growing library of electronic books (ALL of which I can carry with me ALL the time) is highlighted in a rainbow of colors, and sprouts dated notes (and poems and scribbles and sketches) throughout the margins.  The books are arranged on digital “wooden shelves” (cover-art in view) in my own peculiar categories, and with a flick of my finger I can pull up the highlighted and bookmarked passages and my own notes.  Anne Fadiman wrote that “If you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs.”  I haven’t figured out the digital equivalent of muffin-crumbs, but I’m joyfully fulfilling the rest of her prescription.  And while I’ll never be without bookshelves in the house, I foresee our next change-of-address being an easier move.


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

9 thoughts on “The Care & Feeding of Books

  1. Are you really enjoying your iPad? I’ve contemplated so heavily about purchasing one mainly due to the overwhelming amounts of books that I have covering my bookshelves (and floor because lack of space) but I’m having separation anxiety. I, too, was told to never place a book with its spine open, or to fold a page, but then I hit college and now I write myself notes and underline things in almost everything I read. Only with pencils though! No high lighters. The books though? They become mine; my own little save haven of thoughts tucked away between the pages. I had someone borrow my copy of my favorite book, East of Eden, and later told me that they enjoyed the book even more for the excitement of the things that I found entertaining, important, sad or just little funny notes I scribbled to myself.


  2. I have completely MOVED IN to my iPad–yes, I love it! ;)
    I think I can safely say I’ll never have bare bookshelves–but next time we move, it will be a *selection* of the physical books that will go with us… (Probably that selection will consist of the most-written-in volumes!) In the meantime, I still have the shelves (and floor-stacks!) of the old friends… To address separation anxiety, I’ll just say that (although my future purchases will probably be almost all eBooks), a person can ease into it. :)


  3. I like the e-books too – except for one thing. If I’m reading something with a complicated plot, where I want to flip back to a previous plot point or scene, it’s really hard to do. I’ve read a couple of books where I’ve had to take out the library book to make sense of it. I’m using a Kindle, but maybe the iPad is better…


    1. That would be frustrating! I suppose that’s where my own notes/highlighting come in handy, since I can pull them up with the flick of a finger and go directly to their pages… For myself, it’s my own notes that guide me when I flip back for reference in a printed book as well. (Which is, no doubt, why I don’t get along with libraries anymore… ;)


  4. As a fellow book lover, I still have trouble “hurting” the book. But your post is a good reminder to engage with the text–to read it and mark it is to remember it. Still, I feel bad. : ( Also, isn’t Ex Libris the best?? If you haven’t read her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, do. A great read.


    1. hmm, you could hand HIM a pen with a book and urge him to get engaged with it… ;) Give him the opportunity to read it first (with pen) and tell him you enjoyed how his comments added to YOUR read of it? (Happy ideas, anyway–I’ll add, though, that they didn’t have any effect with my first husband… ;)


      1. It is funny how different folks treat books. I value them but am not afraid to USE them. I have bought used books, however, that were either not loved or perhaps not even read. A great find for me, but someone missed out . . .


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