Ever written in a book?
Was it yours?
Twice this month I've encountered books that show evidence of previous borrowers. While this goes contrary to my childhood canon of Thou Shalt Not Deface Public Library Books With Your Childish Mumblings So Put That Pen Away, Kid, in both cases I've been amused and a little delighted to find tangible examples that these books have known the touch of other hands.
An author's job ends when the book goes to press. The inversions of their words, for good or for ill, are inked and smashed into tree squeezings and trucked cross-country, and that's where we come in. We, the readers, take those oh-so-careful words and do with them what we will.
Some of us read them carefully, fingerprints only on the uninked areas, spines treated with care, jackets preserved and corners carefully kept straight. Others do everything short of dunking the book in the bathwater with the baby; the internalized task of digesting the written word manifests in books with broken spines, mangled corners, folded pages and defaced margins.
I've always been more the respectful sort, with the exception of those dearly-paid-for collegiate textbooks, which I felt free to annotate with impunity. I have a Modern Poetry book in which I know some stanzas (both original and Amy-contributed) are nearly illegible due to my love of scribbling in and around the margins with broad-nibbed pens in my legendarily quasi-legible script.
(Much of my handwriting cannot be described as the depiction of discrete letters, but instead the artistic and intentionally-vague insinuation of what letters those wordforms might contain.)
Reading Iain Banks' "A Song of Stone" a week ago led me to discover the angrily penciled-in comment of a previous reader, attempting to contact the author via the margins to advise him that his depiction of warfare was wrong, and that modern-day black powder is indeed smokeless and that he should consider more careful editing in the future.
I was amused, and ran my fingers over the slashing strokes, wondering who might've written such a thing (in this military town, I mustn't be surprised at such an error being noted) but returned the book without applying eraser to paper.
But today, when stuttering through the first few pages of Nicholson Baker's "Mezzanine," I found a far more whimsical entry:
It bears no relation to the words on the page before or the page after; it appears to be just a drive-by inking of a previous reader. I'm inclined to reply, to break the tenets of my childhood and leave a message underneath the current one, though I have no idea what to say.
By the time the books reach us, usually all traces of the previous borrower are gone; they revert to the very meaning of the phrase "by the book"—just the marks made by the printer and no other signs to indicate where they've been. (Otherwise, my copy of "A Confederacy of Dunces" would now include stories of being read both under the harsh late-night fluorescents of a cancer ward and the rising sunset shadows of an empty public beach near Los Angeles.)
A pity this baby parrot only has two words. I'd love to ask it to say more.