My mother, a librarian and English lit major, loved books so much she couldn’t sell or give them away. So I grew up in a house surrounded by books, and learned early on about the joys of reading and — as you can imagine from having a librarian for a mother — how to properly take care of a book. Always use a bookmark; don’t bend the cover; always remember who you lend a book to, and don’t forget to ask for it back.
Writing in books, of course, was practically a venal sin, something I found out the hard way when I first took a crayon and tried to embellish my own picture books.
My mother had a copy of Louis Untermeyer’s The Albatross Book of Living Verse from 1948. The spine had long fallen apart and had been rebound, but except for a few formerly dog-eared pages — William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” and Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” two poems my mom could recite from memory — the book was pristine.
I’m pretty sure I read the book cover to cover. My favorite class in high school was Advanced English, so I was doubly psyched when we got to the part of the syllabus discussing poetry. This time I had actual copies of the poems, instead of the smeary mimeographed handouts that made the inside of my backpack smell.
So I brought my 1948 book to class.
One of my classmates asked to borrow that book for a few minutes “just to look something up.” In retrospect I should have been suspicious. He was the class’s practical joker, and I’d been burned by him before.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him writing for a few minutes with the book open on his desk. He returned my book, his face trying to suppress a smile.
A little later I opened the book and saw he had written — written! — in the table of contents.
Then I turned to the last page and saw how he had defaced my book by adding song lyrics — “from memory,” he bragged later, which is probably why they’re partly wrong.
I was pissed. I wanted to get up and smack the smirk off his face. It was not just because my classmate had vandalized the book. It was because my mother owned it as a teenager, the same book of poetry (I guessed) that probably made her want to be an English major in the first place, and the same book (I also guessed) that she brought with her to her lit classes in college.
My book was ruined forever:
I’m a little older and calmer now. I can laugh at the whole thing not just because of how aggrieved I felt as a teenager, but also because of its inadvertent commentary on the idea of poetry canons. And I’m remembering this incident thirty years later because I just happened to see that same band — whose lyrics my classmate vandalized my book with — at a show the other week, and surely this qualifies as a testament of sorts to “living verse:”
Okay, so “Wild Boys” isn’t one of my favorite Duran Duran songs. That dystopian Russell Mulcahy-directed video aside, the football hooligan cheers are awful, and Simon sings too far above his usual register in the chorus. (And none of the lyrics approach the heights — or depths — of “Some people call it a one-night stand / But we can call it paradise.”)
But still, listen to the cadence! It’s like Alfred Comma Lord Tennyson!
The wild boys are calling
On their way back from the fire
In August moon’s surrender
To a dust cloud on the rise