I used to write in my books. When did I stop? Why did I stop?
When I was quite small and could only manage crayons, I drew all over my books, inside and out, scribbly slashes of color.
My siblings and I always got books for birthdays and Christmases, and we were encouraged to use them. And use them we did — took them in the tub with us; read them in bed and dropped them over the side; splayed them out facedown to save our page, cracking the spine.
And we wrote in them.
Nobody ever told us it was wrong to write in a book (other than a library book, of course) — my father, an English professor, certainly wrote in his.
I scrawled on the endpapers and flyleaves, identifying the books as mine. In one of the “Little House” books, I wrote “This! Is! Laurie! Jo! Hertzel’s! Book! Duluth, Minnesota, USA, the World, the Universe.”
So mitts off, everyone else.
When I got a little older — 9 or 10, maybe — my parents gave me a package of bookplates. You wrote your name on one, licked the back like a stamp, and pasted it in the front of a book. The plates pictured a smiling green-and-blue cat and bore the words Ex Libris, which made me feel smart, because Ex Libris was Latin and I knew what it meant.
Inspired by my father’s marginalia, perhaps, I made notes in my books, starring poems that I liked, or underlining sentences that I thought deeply meaningful. (The Potato Face Blind Man, for instance, in Carl Sandburg’s “Rootabaga Stories,” held a sign that read “I am blind too.” That struck me as profound. It got an underline and an exclamation point.)
I thought of my books quite passionately as mine — mine to write in, to think about, to mark up with my pre-adolescent questioning comments. I never turned down the corners of pages — oddly, that seemed like vandalism. But I did everything else, pressed leaves and flowers into collections of poetry, left books outside in the rain. Once I killed a cockroach by slamming “The Swiss Family Robinson” shut on it, though I was afraid for weeks to open the book again.
Books were to use, and I used mine completely. But over time, I starting treating them with more care.
In college, I wrote in my textbooks, of course, with yellow highlighter and ink, but I stopped writing in other books except, briefly, to note where I had bought them: The Winding Stair in Dublin. Indigo Books in Montreal. Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City. But after a while that felt pretentious (“Look at all the places I’ve been!”), and I stopped doing even that.
Now my books are pristine. They barely look read. I could leave one in a Little Free Library or on a park bench, and nobody would know it was mine. Nobody would know it was loved. I don’t think I could bring myself to write in a book anymore, and so while my books remain perfect and unmarred, they also seem somehow less mine.
The funny thing is, I have a half-dozen or so of my father’s old books, books he read and reread and taught. What I love about them is his notes. He underlined things (Why this half-sentence? What was he thinking?) or marked page numbers on the flyleaf, or scrawled cryptic notes to himself, notes that are mysteries to the rest of us, little clues that go nowhere.
I don’t know when I stopped writing in my books. I don’t know why I stopped. I am not sure, now, that I should have.
Do you write in your books? Did you at one time? Did you teach your children that books should be respected and treated carefully, or that books are something to love and make your own? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org, include your name and city, and I’ll use some of your comments for a future column.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks