Sunday, April 11, 2004

Resolved: That People Who Write in Library Books Should Be Rubbed Out

If there’s a better bargain anywhere in the world today than daily newspapers and library cards, I haven’t heard of it.
The appeal of the newspaper is easily understood: tons of information (you can even choose it for political slant, degree of nakedness in the photographs or ease of transport) horoscopes and funnies, and all (excepting on the weekends when you get the TV guide and all the other earth-shatteringly important bumph) for less than a dollar.
But libraries! The very idea that there are places you can go where if you obey some very basic rules (get a card, be reasonably quiet… don’t shake your umbrella on anybody) they let you take books right off the shelves so’s you can take them home and read them. If you return them within three weeks, all’s tickety-boo and right with the world; return them late and you pay a small penalty. Repeat as often as you like. It’s pretty much that simple.
So there you have it: free books, easy access, tons of fun for the whole family, right? Wrong. Because there’s a worm in the apple… an ant at the picnic… there are people out there who borrow library books AND THEN WRITE IN THEM.
You could argue that it’s worse to lose a book, or drop it in a puddle, or leave it somewhere the hamster can chew on it, but you’d be wrong. It’s the self-styled literary watchdogs and their unbelievable, unconscionable, unwholesome nerve in altering books that don’t belong to them, and then returning them defaced, translated, corrected, or what’s even worse – I feel a rise in blood pressure just picturing it – critiqued.
I’ve tried, I’ve honestly tried, to put myself in their armchairs and imagine just what possessed them to do it; what they were thinking as they licked their pencils and adjusted their pince nez in anticipation of committing their fevered thoughts to someone else’s page. Are they seeing themselves as modern day literary Robin Hoods? Secret Spelling Society Scarlet Pimpernels? Marvel Comics Accuracy action heroes - capes and masks in place, saving the world from not seeing things their way, one library book at a time?
Perhaps they’re radical revisionists, charged with the mission of placing or removing commas, sticking question marks in the margins of troubling paragraphs, scratching out whole words and sentences to be replaced with what they consider to be the correct phrase or better modifier, preening themselves at the cleverness they’ve displayed by underlining a questionable fact and then alerting us to it with a series of exclamation marks!!!!!!!
Maybe they think we’re all thinking these things, but are being held unfair hostage by a convention that insists we return things the way we agreed to… which is pretty much just the way we found them.
I don’t know. And I don’t want to know – but on the off-chance that a one of them is reading this, here are just a few things they should know:
1. Not everyone prefers, or even feels the need to see everything spelled the Canadian way. Keep your ‘U’s and your little arrows ^ to yourself.
2. There are those amongst us who are at least reasonably happy with the adjectives the author personally selected – please feel free to mentally insert your own alternatives, instead of sharing them – exhaustively – with the rest of us.
3. Unless the book has ‘English/German (French, Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Lithuanian, Russian – or any other language) Dictionary’ or ‘Foreign Phrase Book’ on the cover, please stop practicing your translation on the novels and go get yourself one. Stephen King writes fiction mostly – the reference books are over there.
4. I’m sure you know the geography of Iceland better than the rest of us, or an alternate Latin spelling for anus horribilis, or even a better wine to go with the Veal Prince Orloff – but WE DON’T CARE. Stop showing us the error of the author’s ways and have a drink yourself. Or two. Have two, and throw away your marking pen.
Because really fellow library enthusiasts, the act of reading is about as personal as it gets. What I see in my head when I read The Grapes of Wrath, or The Kraken Wakes, or Diary of a Mad Housewife is likely completely different to the mind pictures and emphases and musings your personal mental wiring has created originally and magically and especially just for you. To insert yours in mine is like a mental breaking and entering – you’ve stolen some things, made a mess, and violated my personal head space.
But next time you considering scribbling your deathless prose in the margins of someone else’s hard work, spare a thought for the Library Police; I heard about a guy who got caught all alone in the stacks with a John Grisham and a ballpoint pen – let’s just say a little judicious stamping was involved and it definitely left a mark…

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