First day at college, I almost got into a fistfight with my new roommate. His offence: using a ballpoint pen as thick as my thumb to mark a page in one of my books. I was seventeen, headstrong and a little volatile. And my roomie, who is now a good friend, might as well have shoved the pen up my nose. Hard.
I was raised by a bibliophilic, no, bibliolatrous family that had grounded the four-year-old me for doodling in an old copy of Ukrainian Folk Tales. The shadows of that childhood trauma continue to haunt me, and I have been at war against defilers of books ever since. Write in a book, and I’ll hit you with my death rays. Break its spine, and I’ll break yours. I am a zealot through and through. The physical form of a book is not to be violated in any way. I don’t care.
Or I did not care. Until I was lent this book by a friend who had just finished reading it.
Although I never miss an opportunity to give her cartloads of horse manure about the state of her books, this is a lady whom I much respect and whose opinion I hold in very high regard; despite her lunchtime stories about how her labmate once dunked his very old and rare Bengali translation of the Russians in a pool of semisolid human excrement; and despite her, two minutes later, attempting to thrust under my still-mortified nose an old James Herriot that seemed to have narrowly escaped a wormhole while transporting its reader through space and time; simply because of two of her many redeeming qualities- her being considerably better-read than I, and her being someone who can truly take my writing apart. When she insisted that I should start with “Never do that to a book”, I had a prickly feeling of impending doom. If I knew her at all, she was about to have her revenge.
It took me five minutes to go through the essay. I sighed, went through it once again, put the book down, texted her that I hated her, and re-immersed myself into the elegant prose.
Eh? So we have taxonomic classifications, do we?
Well, she has a point there. Annotated books are interesting. I was forcefully reminded of Harry Potter’s copy of Advanced Potion-making in Half-blood Prince.
Mmm… some of the things she writes about makes my skin crawl, but Fadiman does manage to portray courtly love as something utterly devoid of life…
I have since been through six more of the essays in the book, and each one of them is a gem in its own right. I am no longer a zealot. I want to get intimate with this book. I want to circle the words I don’t know, to mark passages in it, to write in it, even to argue with the author on the margins. It promises to be a lot of fun.