Defending A Good Habit

March 06, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

When I entered first year secondary school – two years before the JFK assassination, since you asked – I sold my 5th and 6th elementary school year textbooks to a student who couldn’t afford new ones. Subsequently she also bought my first to third year secondary school books. Although I vaguely remember the transaction itself I do remember the sensation of getting some pocket money in exchange for my used books. What was inside my textbooks, however, I was to learn years later; underscored sentences, notes of explanations and examples that dropped from teachers’ mouths, sum calculations with the why and how; the sun, moon and earth phenomena in doodles, drawings of kidney shapes and cashew nuts, and so on. She and I, each with two kids under our wings, had met up again in the late ‘70s, and she told me how she’d reserve my textbooks at the beginning of each year for fear that I would sell them to someone else. She was very grateful to me, effusively so, for I was top girl at school. It was like inbuilt help with her schoolwork she’d said. She was a below-average student who constantly surprised her teachers with her ‘certain knowledge.’ She said I had even written the meaning to the proverb “Birds of a feather flock together” and with examples given by my teacher. Was I gratified my scribbling had helped to raise the grades of a hardly average student.

In my high school years I met other fellow students who didn’t appreciate one jot of my textbook scratching diligence. One of them was another top student whose parents collected records of classical music that they were afraid to play and scratch, and books of researches and other encyclopaedic tomes of knowledge that they were afraid to let anyone touch. He was so mindful of my carefree way with my books that I think he had his trousers twisted into a dead knot over it. I do remember his harsh comments: “Who needs your explanation of what the authors have cleverly explained…you’ve killed the'll never sell them…” To me, pencil or pen marks are delicious feasts to the eyes in a book. The highlighters that came out years after I left school are not as appealing; you can’t write with these neon light pens while marking with them. Once, he even said with great sarcasm, “Looks like you book is also a tea coaster, huh?” Oh, why not, they save the furniture from damage.  

Without an iota of regret, the books in my house would never rise to the rank of objet d'art for home décor, what with their dilapidated covers, their broken spines, flayed jackets, and dog-eared pages tattooed with wisdom that had fallen from my sleeves, even in red ink sometimes. While talking about like-feather birds, I have a great deal of respect for people whose books are similarly ‘spoiled,’ either by themselves or by some previous owners. A caveat: I do not mean wilful and mindless destructive actions or messages or propagandas of any sort. Intelligent and passionate usages and wear and tear, debates over some literary issues, even fiery disagreements over the authors’ views, with good examples and alternative solutions, or meaningful doodles, etc., are what I have called treasure and others called damage. This respect is followed by a respect for old bookstores, where you can browse and find on their weighed down book shelves some finely marked books, not necessarily of great antiquity, with the authors’ views augmented by their readers’ mind turned into writers’ hand. Bookstores where books seem to be vertically inclined towards the ceiling and then threatening to leap down to join others rising from the teeming piles on the floor.    


My taste may not be a connoisseurship, but it is an incorrigible taste. for good or for bad. It might have begun at age seven when my mother took me out of school to go with her to Singapore. (Living in Sarawak, my mother had to shop in Singapore for special Chinese herbs for her patients’ prescriptions. She was a successful Chinese traditional medicine doctor in the ‘50s and’60s.) We were away for a month (steamship travel speed!) and I had sorely missed my favourite schoolbook. I watched my city cousins at their homework with pangs of jealousy, feeling like a dropout. When we came home I could not find that particular schoolbook. Besides my shaky handwriting marked on some pages, it also featured my father’s writing where he had explained the word structures and so on. (Ah, like father like daughter, we say) I can still remember an inexplicable twinge of guilt for not hiding the book and preventing it from being kidnapped, as my mother had described it. I seemed to have lost a part me, and I cried hard. Somehow at the age of seven we have many tender excuses to cry about. To digress a little, I once ‘realized’ that we were all going to die one day. It had felt so extremely sad that I cried for many hours about how short life was. At that tender age! I sometimes flatteringly think myself precocious. 

After crying over my book’s loss I decided to do something to the awfully new textbook. I sprinkled water on some of the pages, and marked up the front page with my name and year, tore the corners of some pages to resemble the accidental tears in the missing book. Generally, the book had felt more comfortable to hold, and perhaps smelled more familiar. There, I was satisfied that no one would notice anything amiss. Until one day, I asked my mother’s clinic assistant to read a passage with me. She asked what had happened to my book? Nothing, I said. She was horrified as she turned the crinkling pages. Did I drop it in a bucket of water or was I running in the rain? Did it fall in the monsoon drain by accident? Did the cat chew the edges? She would never have allowed such damages to her book if she could afford to go to school. Was I sad, she asked, concerned. The truth is I was humbly embarrassed that my ruse was not quite adequate. Got to do better next time. Over the years though, I learn to feel it is not a sin to please oneself in this short life. Make your marks on the books or keep them in mint condition fit for decors only.  And so keep the mind tightly shut.


Nowadays I find myself occasionally hesitating to ‘edit’ or ‘note’ my books, due perhaps to having taken up painting. The art of articulation has migrated to the canvases and papers that I could spoil to my heart’s content, and my restless hands are now busy with washing brushes. Perhaps. But the itch to scratch books remains. I tend to find it necessary to give special attention to great passages in books while at times I harbour that moment of ‘to mark or not to mark, that’s the question’, thanks to people like my high school friend whose admonition remains a bad wound in me. So, imagine my immense pleasure when I stumbled upon Anne Fadiman’s book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (Farrar. Strauss and Giroux, 1998). My much maligned habit was liberated when I read that to her erudite family, “a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sin not of disrespect but of intimacy.” Knowing that we are of the same feather I have no qualms in underlining desirable passages of her book for easy references as this moment exemplifies. I would like to quote also her editor, Byron Dobell, who “didn’t give a damn about the condition [of the volumes]… In order to get where I had to go, I underlined them, wrote in them, shredded them, dropped them, tore them to pieces…” Sounds scandalously familiar.

My conclusion is that it won’t hurt your lungs or knees to read and mark your books. I strongly believe that the high school friend and his father were deprived of the sacred experience of ever holding a weathered book that seems to disintegrate by the second in one’s hand. They would have given my favourite used bookstores a wide berth. Well, they haven’t lived. 




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