Confession: I Marked in a Library Book

(…continued from last week)

It was almost as though the pencil I held in my hand had a mind of its own.

On page 5 of Wendell Berry’s amazing novel “Hannah Coulter” are these words, written by Hannah about Nathan, her second husband. Unlike her first husband, whose remains were never found, Nathan did not die in World War II, though he fought valiantly. “He didn’t like the idea of killing women and old men and children,” Hannah writes, “or of destroying the world in order to kill people, or of great machines made only to kill people.” How could I not underline those words, even though the book they were written in belongs to the Putnam County Library?

It’s not that I don’t know better than to write in a library book. But when I got to page 6 and came upon the sentence “On windy days you could sit right by the stove and your back would be cold,” I underlined it, too. And so it went. By the time I finished reading “Hannah Coulter,” there was scarcely a page that wasn’t marked upon.

My intention was to go back and, with a giant pink eraser, rub out every mark I’d made. But I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I bought my own “Hannah Coulter” and copied the underlining. Then, on the blank first page of the library copy, I wrote a note:

“To the library staff member who discovers the marks in this book: Sorry. I couldn’t stop myself. I thought this book would be a quick read and that I would breeze through it and return it straightaway to the library. That’s not what happened. I got so caught up in the main character’s life and in the lives of the other folks in Port William, Kentucky and in the beauty of Wendell Berry’s words that I picked up a pencil and started underlining…I couldn’t bear to forget the many places where it had touched my heart.

“My plan was to erase the underlined passages in the library book once I had my own copy of ‘Hannah Coulter.’ But just as I was about to do that, I thought wait a minute, maybe the next person who reads this book will love what I’ve underlined, too. So I left the marks. If you want them gone, I promise to erase everything. If that’s not good enough, I’ll pay for a brand new copy. Thanks for your understanding. Long live great literature.”

Then I wrote my name and telephone number.

Thus far, I’ve heard from two library patrons who checked out “Hannah Coulter” after I turned it in. They adored it, too, and told me they appreciated the underlined passages. No one from the library staff has been in touch. It will be interesting to see if that changes now that this column has hit the newsstands.

(March 10, 2019)