Sunday, January 28, 2018

How I Ruined My Books

Until recently, I could say that I’d never signed one of my books. This was partly because no one ever asked. It seemed incredibly arrogant to offer my signature as though it would add value to a book. After all, I’ve never sought signed copies of the books I read, not even my favorites.

The other reason I never signed books was more personal and more deep-seated. It was also more ridiculous. I couldn’t do it because I was brainwashed against writing in books as a child.

The textbooks at my school – like most schools – were used for several years before new ones were purchased. Each child wrote his or her name inside the cover at the start of the year and nothing else was allowed to be written in that book the rest of the year. Nothing else. Period. Every single non-erasable mark found at the end of the year was worth a fifty cent fine. And each child had to stand in front of the teacher’s desk while she flipped through it checking for compliance. Being a rule-follower, I wouldn’t have considered writing in a book even without the hefty fine. Writing in books became a huge no-no. I carried this mentality to all my books.

I once found a mark maybe two inches long in a school book. It looked as though someone had carelessly turned a page while holding a pen. My 10-year-old self freaked out. I wondered if there was a list somewhere. Was there a record that someone had already been fined for the ink on page such-and-such of the book in my possession? Or would I be held responsible for what I knew I hadn’t done? I took that book home and tried to erase the line. I knew ink did not erase. Of course I knew that. Nothing erases ink! It was a crisis. The best I could do was use a white crayon to make the line fainter. And I felt seriously guilty using that crayon in a book. I was doing exactly what I was trying not to get in trouble for not doing. Panic and logic do not go together.

I ended up escaping a fine that year. I felt very lucky. What I could not escape was the lingering feeling that writing in a book is always wrong. Always. It doesn’t matter who owns it. I don’t even write in my own proof copies. I’ll have a book that I know isn’t finished, that I know will be recycled after I mark the revisions, and I still cannot bring myself to write directly in the book. I use bookmarks crammed with notes. Somehow, that feels more normal.

I show up for my study group with spare paper for notes. That’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s what I was trained to do. I cringe as others write in their books and kind of want to scream at them for doing something so wrong. My in-laws have the habit of writing in every single book they give to my kids. It’s usually something short like “Merry Christmas 2012.” It’s great that they give the kids books because books are, in general, awesome. But I always wonder why they had to ruin the book before they gave it to us.

I know.

I know I’m the one who’s weird here. Inscription is a word. Lots of people write in their books. Lots of people think it’s actually a good thing. That’s why when I was finally asked to sign copies of one of my books, I did not say, “Are you insane? I can’t ruin the books before we pass them out.” I acted as though it was no big deal. You want me to scribble in the books first? Sure. I’ll ruin them if that’s what you want. I am not willing to sacrifice my principles to gain more readers, but I will gladly sacrifice an odd hang-up. Well, maybe not gladly. Maybe there was cringing.