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I grew up in an austere Protestant ethos in which the annotation of a book was desecration, as sinful as a Catholic mass.
We were to cherish books and pass them along to others as we had received them. This was of course before the advent of the paperback. We were enjoined to call comics funnybooks, and reading them was as proscribed as genuflection or a stained-glass window.
My boarding school, which was also a working farm, was chockablock with books, almost all published in England. The closest they came to the moral obscenity of marginal annotation was to have notes inserted in them. I’m sure our instructors didn’t know that some of these notes were rather naughty, scented even.
A wealthy neighbor lady who befriended me once took me to dinner on Saturday and then to mass at her church in Babylon, Long Island. She was too influential for our school to offend, so I was allowed to be our liaison with this papist heretic. The mass was marvelously hair-rasing. I had met God and he was pink-faced and tousled my hair.
Our neighbor had a library that rivaled if not surpassed our own, and it was fraught with the forbidden and taboo. This was before I learned that the Catholic Church had its own ideas of what was forbidden and taboo. I encountered Saint Augustine, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. I had become deliciously subversive. But, more wonderful yet, our neighbor’s books were annotated with all manner of script, flourish and doodle. And often enough the marginal notes elucidated the text. What to make of this? Were these marks inherently damned? Would appreciating them send me to hell?
The problem, my boy, one of our instructors intoned, is that you are guilty of the sin of covetousness—you want these books for your own, you want to keep them from your fellow Christians. Christians? I was perfectly willing to give my books to infidels, if I knew who they were. Were they Catholics, or did it go beyond that? And what was beyond ”that”? Well, I certainly didn’t want to be covetous. Or did I? Let’s see, one synonym was hankering, and therein I saw a problem, because I certainly had begun to hanker after Dolores, who could outrun me on dirt, cinder and ice. Was it okay to hanker? Perhaps I could ask God. Would it turn his pink face pinker? I was in dicey territory.
Now, is there a moral here, you might ask? Or at least a denouement? Yes, there is. After 80 years on the planet, pondering such weighty moral issues, I cannot bring myself to deface a book. I owe it to posterity to hand over the book as pristine as I received it. It is vanity, utter, crass, vulgar vanity to think I might have something to say about a book worthy of its desecration. It doesn’t matter that John Donne scribbled all over his Horace and everything else he got his priestly hands on. He must have been a closet Catholic. And while I have shed my Calvinist sackcloth and scratched my heretical itch, I remain a severe Protestant when it comes to books.
But I am titillated by those who don’t give a fig about such qualms. Grateful even.
Copyright © 2015 Djelloul Marbrook
John Donne signature on the title page of book by Horace.