MY friend, Linda, will not borrow books from me anymore. She is appalled that I turn down the corners of pages and speechless when faced with the underlinings that frequent my books. It is as though she can't bear to look through this smudge onto what she thought was the clear window of my character.
Linda and I start out in the same place with books. We always have one with us. Piles of books perch precariously on our nightstands. We read travel diaries, autobiographies, short stories, and essay collections. We read to our children, our friends, and sometimes the person we're sitting next to on the bus.
We sigh contentedly as a new book cracks open. We wear the musty odor of old library books with as much pleasure as some wear rose water or cologne. We feel that our lifetimes are not long enough for all the books we want to read. Here is where the similarities end.
Somewhere between my childhood when marking or bending a book was a crime ranking just above hitting my sister and a little below sticking gum on the furniture, and my adult years when I learned that I was the one who has to clean the gum and make things right with my relatives, I also learned that I formed a relationship with each book I read. I remember walking to school under an umbrella. I murmured to myself a phrase from "Charlotte's Web," "Rain spattered against Mrs. Zuckerman's kitchen windows and
came gushing out of the downspouts." I especially liked the word "gushing," which I repeated like a poem for one city block.
Just as surely as I knew I would touch or mark in some way the people that I loved, I began to highlight passages in books that I wanted to be able to find easily.
At first I simply turned down the corner of a page that held a favorite sentence. Then I started to underline a phrase or sometimes an entire paragraph.
One day I found myself putting stars in the margin next to meaningful passages. I graduated to two stars when something was particularly profound, as well as scribbled notes responding to the text.
Recently, I've been folding pages in half when the passage is one I want to return to often, as in Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet": "... and fate itself is like a wonderful, wide web in which each thread is guided by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another and held and borne up by a hundred others."
Before the written word, men and women used to tell stories. The story was a way of measuring the moments of life, of providing a guide in troubled times. A story could give comfort and inspiration as well as entertain.
The written word has carried on this tradition. I can't imagine parting with certain favorite books any more than I can imagine giving away family members.
I guess I'm one of those people who can listen to a song or read a story thousands of times and still want to hear it again. I've read a favorite Barry Lopez story about winter herons so often that the pages have thinned out in the small yellowed volume that sits on my desk.
I'm sure it is a nuisance to borrow books from me. Trying to read around lines, stars, and folds must be discouraging and annoying. And while I admire those who tend a book as carefully as they would a piece of fine china, I know I'm not one of those people.
I've been trying to use pencil instead of ink lately, just as I've been trying to walk a little more lightly through my life, but even if the marks are erased and the creases pressed flat again, a faint imprint of what I found meaningful will remain for my children to ponder.
Those of us who've lived together in this house have been touched and remembered in some permanent way by each other and by the stories that weave their threads into the cloth of our daily lives.