“Love of books is like any other kind of love,” Fadiman said. “It takes different forms.” There are “courtly lovers” of books, who treat books as sacred objects, and “carnal lovers” — those who engage with their books as physical objects, and who are more than willing to profane them in all manner of ways.
Examples of the latter camp abound. Wordsworth once cut open the pages of a new book (a necessity due to the bookbinding techniques of his time) with a butter-greased knife, according to Fadiman. William Empson was reprimanded by a librarian for returning a copy of “Dr. Faustus” smeared with jam from his morning toast. A Columbia University librarian reported a returned book with a fried egg in its pages. And as per the tale that provided the lecture’s title, New Yorker legend A.J. Liebling was said to have used a strip of bacon for a bookmark.
Harvard librarians, Fadiman reported, have found in the pages of books a sewing needle, feathers, playing cards, yarn, a parking ticket, an arrest warrant, “a piece of fuzzy pink cake that was presumed to be a former Hostess Sno Ball,” and even a used condom.
“At least those things are removable,” she conceded. “The one thing that is least removable is your own words.”
And they stay on the pages for the life of the book, so make your annotations wisely (or preferably not at all).