Sunday, February 8, 2015

I am an Abuser

It's true. I abuse books. Not only do I crack their spines, crease their pages into deep dog-eared triangles, write notes in their blank spaces, but I also rip them. I make two small rips on the side of the page so I can fold it toward the lines that have me nodding my head and thinking, "Oh, that's a good one. I want to remember that."  But I know I won't remember it . . . unless I mark it in a way that ensures when I pick up the book months or years later, it will open to those pages and that special excerpt will be there waiting, like this one from The Cellist of Sarajevo: "Life is a series of tiny unavoidable decisions . . . a series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster." C'mon, isn't that a great line?

Okay, so you probably do not want to lend me any books and if you already have, you know I typically don't return them. Nor am I a very good library patron, so I almost always have to buy the books I want to read.

Around 1984, supermarkets started selling them in a big way, and I remember my elation the first time I walked down the book aisle. The decisions were easy: buy milk or buy a book? . . . never a difficult choice. So, yes, now I've got tons of books, because I also do not part with them once they're in my possession.

I might have a little problem.
I love the smell of the paper, the soft feel of the cover, the weight of a paperback in my hands as I bend back the pages and smooth them out. And for these reasons an e-reader just doesn't do it for me. I've tried. So many people love their e-readers and that's great, but for me the feel, the smell, the page-turning and yes, the abuse, are all part of it, right down to the moment that, as I read in bed, the bulk of it hits me in the face, jerking me awake, but not quite as awake as when an e-reader clocks the bridge of my nose.

My kids used to say that I was the opposite of a hoarder. I got rid of stuff as fast as I could and it's true -- I didn't like clutter -- millions of lego pieces or blocks or doll paraphernalia; they clogged my brain.

"Hey! Where'd my Barbie House go?"
"Stop crying. You're 6 years old for God's sake. Here, go read this book."

Books are different; they aren't clutter and without them, the house would feel empty. So now we have a couple hundred of them, resting in different rooms. But each one is more than a story. I can pick a book up and remember when I bought it, where I bought it and where I sat to read it. They are a timeline of our lives, moving from picture books to adolescent stories. When my husband came exhausted from work, I knew I needed to keep the children quiet so he could rest. He usually fell asleep on the couch in our tiny apartment, so I would take the kids into our bed and I would read to them for hours. I hope those moments created a new generation of book abusers.

At any rate, I now have my middle school students, which puts me in a long-term position of having a new group of impressionable preadolescents each year. And I am lucky to be in a district where the class size is small enough for me to buy books for them. So, when my nephew, Matt, told me about Stone Fox, a book he had read and loved, I bought it and read it. He was right; it was a great story, so I bought more of them to read with my students and then -- without regard for lesson plans, state regulations, district requirements--I read it to them.

On the first day, I recognized a book-abuser-in-the-making. He grabbed the book, smelled it (Yes! really) and said something like, "Wow! This is a new book. Nobody else had it before us." I read them a few pages a day and when I came to the end of the story (I won't ruin it by telling you the end, but it's a tear-jerker), my eyes filled up and I was barely able to choke out the last few words. We closed our books--the story over, and there were a few seconds of silence and then lots of chatter about the ending. It tickled me as a teacher, to see them talk so animatedly about it, but the true moment of pleasure came when my fellow book abuser came up to me and said, "Can I keep this book?"

"Sorry," I said, "I need it. But you can borrow it. Just make sure you return it to me sometime in the next ten years."

I don't expect to ever see it again.

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