Saturday, May 16, 2009

With Respect to Books

For a long time, I thought books were one of those things that were completely impenetrable. Fortresses. I'm not saying I didn't read or understand books - far from it, I was an early and voracious reader, and continue to read almost everything I can, all the time. I'm that spacy-looking girl on the subway, really getting into Lavalife ads and trying to read over people's shoulders. (Sidebar! Okay, true story: once, on my way to catch a train, I surreptiously read three pages of what, for all intents and purposes, was erotica, over someone else's shoulder. Caveat: the "porn" was about werewolves, and I could only read the pages that faced me. Racy stuff, though. The reader also did the rest of the subway car a favour by utilizing the classic study-hall trick of swapping in a less titillatilating cover, but I [to this day] think that she should have just owned it. Can you imagine the hilarious discomfort of trying to ignore cover art featuring gross wolf porn? Brrr.)

However (and seriously, a first-paragraph sidebar that devolves into porn? Who >am I?): books. Books, I love. Books, I admire. And I'm not talking about the 100 Books You Should Read But Won't, or Top Ten Books of 2008, or whatever. I'm talking about the actual physical specimen. I'm not sure if it was taught or innate, but books were one of those things, unlike my sister's Polly Pockets, I have always respected. They are ideas, they're entertainment, they're other worlds and worlds that I create. As a lonely, bad-at-friends child, books saved me. I respect them. I would be a very different person without a constant influx of the written word.

So, in adult life, people who underline freak me out. It's like walking up to a childhood pal and drawing a Sharpie mustache on their lip. I am a re-reader, and to return to a tome and find it riddled with clues ("Wow! Insighful!") makes me want to die of embarrassment, or angry that I can't enjoy it again for the first time. I know that marginalia is one of those obscure categories lauded by literary scholars, but for the longest time, I was all, "Quit markin' up my books, jerk!" Even writing my name in them seems tacky. Books seem like animals, not entirely domesticated. They don't belong to me; they belong to themselves.

Regardless of how some people feel about Salman Rushdie, something I admired about him is that his childhood home loved books as much as I do. "If I dropped a book, and I was a clumsy child, I had to pick it up and apologize." I think that's spectacular. I inherited a paperback copy of The Stand from my dad when I was fourteen - much too young, in retrospect, given that whole post-apocalyptic thing - and read it over and over, until the cover fell off. For some reason, it felt like both a sacrilege and an honour to have defiled the book like that, even though I'm pretty sure my dad bought in an airport in 1990. Ties that bind, you know?

In any case, I've recently become a book-writer. Not an author (maybe someday, Mom!) (wait, seriously, I love my mom), but that weirdo who underlines and writes in margins. I hated those folks in the past. I'm still not totally comfortable going there - there's still that gasping moment of breaching a border best left alone - but now when I flip through books, I feel like there are three of us: me as I flip through, me as I first considered it, and the book. The book is the hinge on which both me's turn, and it's a gift.

That sounds sappy and lame, but this is the reason I'm skeptical of digital replacements for the book. Books are living documents in ways with which your iPhone just can't compete. Writing in the margins, jotting down a vocabulary list on the end pages, taking a desperate phone message with an eyeliner pencil on the back cover (don't front, we've all been there)...books are living things. Salman was right: when we knock one over (here I'll put in the usual disclaimer regarding chicklit, in that wedding/relationship/shopping paperbacks written by moonlighting Vanity Fair editors don't fall under this respect-deserving heading) they deserve our respect. Think about that when you repurpose your hipster-required copy of Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as a doorstop.

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