The greatest happiness, even greater than sex, is reading a good book. I’ve got lucky the last couple of days with Anne Fadiman, whose “At Large and At Small” was kindly gifted to me by Nilanjana a few days ago. It’s a book of familiar essays, and I derived great consolation from her essays on coffee and circadian rhythms, instantly losing my guilt at staying up every night drinking coffee by the barrel. I demand you go out and grab it and devour every word.
The excerpt below, though, is from “Ex Libris,” her book on the joys of reading. Here you go:
When I was eleven and my brother was thirteen, our parents took us to Europe. At the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Copenhagen, as he had done virtually every night of his literate life, Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table. The next afternoon, he returned to find the book closed, a piece of paper inserted to mark the page, and the following note, signed by the chambermaid, resting on its cover:
SIR, YOU MUST NEVER DO THAT TO A BOOK.
My brother was stunned. How could it have come to pass that he—a reader so devoted that he’d sneaked a book and a flashlight under the covers at his boarding school every night after lights-out, a crime punishable by a swat with a wooden paddle—had been branded as someone who didn’t love books? I shared his mortification. I could not imagine a more bibliolatrous family than the Fadimans. Yet, with the exception of my mother, in the eyes of the young Danish maid we would all have been found guilty of rampant book abuse.
During the next thirty years I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so there is more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love. A book’s physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.
Even better, if I may add to that, one does not need to expend energy seducing a book, for it is always compliant and often, if the writer is skillful enough, enthusiastic.
I was a courtly lover as a child, and my father, a devout collector of books, instilled in me a sort of reverence for them. In India, of course, it is considered disrespectful to touch a book with your feet, as if it is an idol—and I don’t anymore believe in idle worship. Now I am carnal, happily writing notes in the margins of books, leaving them facedown, reading them while eating and allowing my gravy-stained fingers to turn the pages, as if to leave a mark that says You are part of me now, and here, I am part of you as well.
“Ex Libris” is a beautiful book: if you love books, or are “bibliolatrous” like the Fadimans (what a charming word!), you will love every essay in it. I hope that love is carnal.