“Library Property. You are responsible for any damage to this book, including ripped pages, water stains, underlining, highlighting, dog-earing, etc.” This statement, or one similar, was included in every library book I read as a child — and I read a lot of books.
As everyone in my life knows (as I tell literally every single person I meet), I grew up in a small town just north of Boston, Massachusetts, with a population of a little under 20,000. It’s the kind of small town where you don’t know everyone, but you can’t go a few hours without running into somebody you know. Especially if you are a regular in certain places, you come to be known very quickly.
Thus, from about the time I could walk somewhere on my own, I was a regular at the town library. When I wasn’t known by my name, I was distinguishable by the large stack of books I carried in and out every other day. I tore through the shelves, exhausting series, genres and even the entire children’s section at one point.
The library was my favorite place. Three isles from the back corner of the fiction section there were two empty shelves on the bottom row. I would snag a pillow from the couch in non-fiction, grab my favorite novel of the week, and curl up there, surrounded by shelves upon shelves of books. The hours would fly by like seconds.
This is how I spent my childhood — hair tied back in a ponytail, backpack tearing at the seams, tattered library card in my back pocket, nose always buried in some far off place. I read everywhere, the beach, a tree, the playground, the dock, the overgrown path behind my house; only the bath was off limits. Wherever I went I took special care of my library books, never forgetting the essential message printed on the cover page.
Until that dreaded day.
It was fall, the leaves on the trees were turning, and this particular day a storm rolled through the greater Boston area. I came home from school drenched, using my body to protect my book from the rain. The moment my mother saw me, shivering and wet, she made me a bath. But my book, “Peeled” by Joan Bauer, was just too good. I couldn’t stop reading just when lead reporter at her school newspaper Hildy Biddle was so close to uncovering the ghost of the Ludlow house! So I swept all caution aside and took the book in the bath with me.
I was nearing the novel’s thrilling conclusion when terror struck. My pruning fingers slipped, and “Peeled” fell beneath the suds. I plunged into the depths and recovered it, but the damage had been done. I emerged from the bath, tears flooding my eyes, distraught that I had ruined such a perfect specimen. I would be banned from the library, never allowed to check out another book. Worse, I would never find out what happened to Hildy!
Of course, this did not happen, my mother marched me down to the library, and together we paid for the damages and took the book home. I sat in my bed that night, reading those final wrinkled pages and realised something.
As much as I loved books, I did not have to honor them by wrapping them in plastic. “Peeled” wasn’t destroyed just because it got a little wet, rather, now I look at the watermarks with nostalgia for that time when I simply could not put a book down.
Now, I understood my novels were meant to be, as all great things are, worn and torn and highlighted, even (gasp) dog-eared.
Take a look at my bookshelves, night side table, or even the floor of my room and you can easily distinguish my favorites. My copy of “Middlesex” is held together at the spine with duct tape. My first ever Harry Potter has no front cover. “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” has entire pages covered in scotch tape.
How else would I find my favorite quote on page 110 of “The Great Gatsby” without dog-earing the page? How would I remember the beautiful imagery in “All the Light We Cannot See” without highlighting it? How would I find the saddening climax of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” without the crinkles of that tear-stained page?
Books are meant to be read, worn, torn and loved; not put behind a glass case never to be touched again. The books I love are the stories through which I tell my life, and each carries its own life, a story to tell about that time that I ran over it with my bike, or dropped it in the mud.
The best books, like the best experiences, have a little risk and a few tears but are always taped back together. Hopefully, my life will have so many of these memories, I’ll have to dog-ear every page.
“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members.
Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].