this wild love of letters

Posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I recently decided to take a break from the ever-growing stack of poetry, fiction, psychology and spiritual books I’ve been reading to start a new book – a book about reading books, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.  Knowing I did not necessarily ‘need’ this book (my book collection is already a bit unmanageable), I tried my best not to give in when I first saw it flirt with me last week at the local used paperback store.


 Its sea green cover seemed to wink at me.  The yellow lining, wrapped around from front to back, jumped up, extended its long yellow arms and embraced me in a hug.  Ex Libris’ friendly gesture stuck with me the rest of the day.


A few days later, still thinking of her first impression and, in a rage of addiction and lack of discipline, I snuck on and purchased the book.  Defeat or victory?  Depends on whom you ask.  Although I feel a bit guilty for not supporting a local store, I did save more than fifty percent, which helps with my argument when my husband asks, Why did you buy another book?!  The savings clearly give me justification for the next time an untamable impulse comes my way.


I’ve just completed the chapter “Never Do That to a Book.” Soaked in the spirit of her stories, I feel as though Anne has immediately become a friend.  I snicker at similarities in our love for books (hence, her reason for writing the book and my reason for reading it).  I notice my once leisurely reading quickly transforms into a surge of passionately frantic scanning.  Eager to consume each of her essays, I can’t seem to slow down.


Just before diving into Ex Libris, I had a big decision to make: Do I use a highlighter, pen, pencil or do I not write in the book at all?  Do I use post-it page markers or write my favorite quotes in a journal?  I face this tough decision every time I initiate the consumption of a new book.  My latest spiritual read is lined with soft shadows of a pencil (although I don’t yet understand fully why I recently adopted this timid approach – It’s not as if I plan to later erase the markings and notes) and decorated with pink post-it markers; the fiction book, borrowed from the library, will have to be renewed once again when pages that I just can’t let go yet come my way; and another, filled with insight is empty while the journal I’ve paired with it is oozing with notes, poems and other thoughts of inspiration.


I’m back to “Never Do That to a Book.” My mouth starts to water, my senses begin ramping up, as if I was in the middle of starvation.  My previous decision to just sit and read teases me.  Anne begins to describe courtly versus carnal readers.  “Courtly” would be someone who can miraculously finish reading a book while leaving it in perfect condition, while the contrary to Anne and her family, such as her brother who left books facedown and wide open would define a carnal reader.  Captivated, I read on.  Anne writes, “Just think what courtly lovers miss by believing that the only thing they are permitted to do with books is read them!”


Yes! Yes!” I shout from my back porch. Confession after confession, Anne shares about her family’s lascivious reading, “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.”  My blood begins to warm. “Yes! Yes!” I shout again.  I am not alone in my wild romance with books.


I am not a courtly reader, one who reads without leaving a scratch, but I am not as wild as biting the book with my teeth and ripping it to shreds.  I decide I am a mix between courtly and carnal reader.


And then, I do what feels right.  I grab my pencil.  I underline my favorite sections, treating my new book with delicate carnal delight.  Perhaps if things get hot and heavy, I’ll break out the pen, a permanent sign of my love, or even touch the ears, my fingers rubbing the soft page to a fold.


I am pleased knowing there are other carnal book lovers of the world, each with their own sense of style, exploring new places to “do it,” new toys with which to mark their favorite scenes.  I am thrilled to read of owl feathers, pressed flowers and bug markings, each offering their own sense of memory and marker along the journeys of fellow book readers.  Finally, after a break from my book, I feel the fervent hunger increase again, telling me very clearly with an inviting finger luring me over, it’s time to go back for more…


Post Script

I spent the rest of the day finishing Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.  I stuck with my pencil and increased the number of notes along with the page number.  I added comments in areas that caused me to laugh out loud (I’m not usually a laugh-out-loud kind of reader), complimented emotionally captivating conclusions, and even added stars next to other favorite chapters: “My Odd Shelf,” “Eternal Ink,” “The Literary Glutton,” and “Nothing New Under the Sun.” (Ironically, I’d recently wanted to write on this same topic before reading this chapter about the fine line between plagiarism and borrowing writer’s words.)


While I passed up invitations to gather with friends on this particular day, I chose to devote my afternoon with my friend Anne and her companions.  Invigorated by a fellow (and much more skilled) reader and writer, I think now I’ll step away from my cave and go make friends again with the rest of the universe – tomorrow who knows what new world I’ll chose to enter next.



feature image provided by Joy StClaire



  1. I put this on my reading list the day you mentioned it to me, but it looks like I’ll be heading to my local bookstore tomorrow to track it down! Thanks for sharing.

    • Andrea,

      Oh, I look forward to hearing what you think. The essays are short enough to read in one sitting, and on a variety of topics I’m sure you’ll relate to. Happy reading!

  2. “Defeat or victory,” you ask above? I say, victory!

    Jessica, what I so appreciate about what you share above, and what inspires me, is the felt-sense that you clearly communicate the way in which you’re following your intuition. It seems following those subtle breadcrumbs leads you to discoveries that are not only fresh, but more authentic. At least, that’s what I sense. Would you agree?

    “Carnal book lovers of the world!” As soon as I read this I thought of a professor I had. Studying particular modern day mystic-saints, most of us showed up to class with read yet tenderly treated books. I always enjoyed the wildness of seeing him pull his books from his briefcase loved to the degree they were held together by rubberbands. It felt like the books were more loved through use than by a trophy on a shelf, behind a stuffy glass case.

    I’m curious if you’ve read “Bird by Bird” and/or “Writing Down the Bones”?

    I like your writing.

    • Zachary,

      Thank you for your kind words. Thank you for your time spent reading. Thank you for your book recommendations. I have not read Writing Down the Bones yet, but will for sure add this to my wishlist collection.

      Bird by Bird is one of my all time favorites. I read it not too long ago when completing my master’s exam. That mantra, bird by bird, actually got me through that long, challenging time of fear and eased me in knowing I would eventually be able to study all the material. Not only has that mantra stuck with me, I learned a lot of writing tips from Ms. Lamott. Out of all the books I have checked out of the library, that one should have been a keeper. Sometimes I peek at my library, hoping that maybe it’ll show up, that I had mistakenly dreamt that I only checked it out and had to later return it.

      I know I’ve seen some of your books carefully tabbed and lined. How would you describe your reading profile is?

      Either way, it is the joy in reading, learning and growing that is so fun, however we choose to devour our books. Cheers to following the breadcrumbs! May we continue to bump into each other on the path, overflowing with hunger and fulfillment.

There comes a time when one realizes the cage was unlocked all along. Learn More

Copyright © 2012-2016 Rowdy Prisoners. All Rights Reserved.