Whose Words?

This is my first Spider Jerusalem style “I Hate It Here” rant, and while I don’t generally like disparaging the people who come here to read this, I’m afraid it is unavoidable. If all three of you really want to be upset about this, then you can be upset for now.

I made a post to social media recently bemoaning the act of writing little personal notes in books before giving them as gifts. The overly emotional responses I received were startling. “This makes me sad,” one person wrote. One related a story about how he reads to his daughter from the same books his father gave him. As heartless as it may be, I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. “Every single one of my child’s books …” Hold on! Full stop! Are you insane?

Why do you think I’m talking about the pappy crap peddled to non-lingual children? You could read your life insurance policy to them and as long as you maintain a musical, lilting voice, they’ll smile and coo. All they care about is the sound of your voice and the pretty, pretty pictures. Put some felt fur on the picture of the dog and that kid’s in heaven. Clearly, that’s not what I’m talking about.

I could still fashion an argument about how your narcissistic need to scrawl your name and date across another human being’s artwork—regardless how commercially motivated said artwork may be—is grossly disrespectful. But I won’t, because you either believe in the wholeness of artistic composition, or, well, you need to sign your fucking name on someone else’s soul.

Makes you sad? Please.

Let’s walk about a block away from Sesame Street for a minute and get down to what I’m actually talking about. Big boy books. You know, the ones you stopped reading in high school because no one forced you to expand your mind anymore? What does The Merchant of Venice have to do with real life? If it doesn’t have Oprah’s seal of approval, it ain’t worth your time. Sure, you’ll read the novelization of that episode of CSI:SVU, or whatever the fuck it’s called, but you’d never pick up Irvine Welsh or Don DeLillo or Seamus Heaney. A Girl in Winter is not about some goth hacker chick, believe it or not.

God forbid you try to expand your world view by considering the meaning behind Kafka’s creations. If you think Pirsig was actually trying to teach you how to maintain your motorcycle, then maybe this conversation isn’t for you. Go ahead and write your greeting and well-wishes and declarations of love in those books, because they’re just dead trees anyhow.

If you give me a first edition of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, because I told you it’s my favorite Heinlein novel and I open the cover and you’ve scrawled “Hope this brings a smile to your special day. We love you more than we can ever say,” I will throw myself at you with every intent of sinking my thumbs two knuckles deep into your eyes. You have completely missed two critical points.

1)      Gifts are not for the person giving. They are for the person receiving. If you want to be remembered for giving a gift, give a memorable gift. If you give a shitty gift, don’t be surprised when your not-at-all-thought-out gesture fizzles into the static of near history.

“But I did put thought into it!” Maybe you did, but it’s the wrong thought. Maybe you don’t know that person as well as you think you do. Maybe you suck at giving gifts. I know I do.

2)      If you’re giving a book, you need to understand the book actually means something. It means something to the person receiving it. If they’ve read it and talked about it enough that you’re buying it as a gift, you need to appreciate the fact that the book is the meaningful part of the gift, not your pedantic message marring the title page.

The book means something. An author spent time stringing tens of thousands of words together to convey a story or theory or explain a concept or teach a lesson. The book is hours, days, weeks, months, or years of an author’s life. Filtered, honed, sharpened, perfected. This is the final product Oh, but it’s just not good enough for you. Got to put in that final touch. Personalize it.

Truth: It cannot be more personal than it already is!

What you are doing, at best, is linguistic masturbation. Self-gratification that leaves a mess no one wants to clean up. At worst it’s literary rape.

You are forcing yourself upon an artist’s work and irreversibly damaging it for your own obscene pleasure. You can’t get over your own ego long enough to appreciate the beauty of that piece of work, you’ve got to go ahead and make sure that anyone who sees that book for the rest of its existence sees your impact. When someone opens that book, they don’t see the final product crafted by the author, they see you.

You horrible, vicious monster!

Now, I’m sure you’ve got some anecdote about how you’ve got a copy of The Little Engine That Could that Great-Grammam Jones gave you and it’s the only connection to her that you ever really had since she died when you were two and the only memory you have of her is a single image of her standing at the other end of the kitchen while your dad helped her out of her coat (true story from my life, by the way). And now you sit with your little boy and read that same book to him and you’re so thankful for being able to share that story with him.

Awesome. Great. But again, as many people did in the “discussion” online, you’re regressing this conversation to children’s books. And I don’t care. You aren’t talking about how your message isn’t defacing someone else’s artwork. You’re relaying a story about nostalgia and familial connection. The book is, at best, tertiary to the experience you love. First, we’ve got to have great-grammam and your relationship with her. Second, the moment is pinned on that hand-written note. Third, comes what the note was written on (really?).

No. Holy crap! I’m wrong. Mark it down on the calendar, folks! The book is fourth. Cause if you aren’t sharing a moment with your crappy-diapered kid, you wouldn’t be sharing anything in the first place.

I’m getting off track here, but my point in this particular tangent is that the book doesn’t really matter in your scenario. It’s the experience. It’s the emotional connection. It’s the value you place on familial worship. You might not be Taoist in the rest of your life, but right now you’re invoking ancestor spirits. So, let’s ball up your glider story-telling and chuck it out the window.

Tangent two: The exception to the rule. Someone wrote, “It’s a shame [the book] can’t have meaning for both reasons……[sic] which might actually make it more meaningful to someone.”

All right, conceded. Let’s say you have chosen the perfect book—that would be an autographed first edition of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for anyone looking for that perfect gift for me—and then sat down to craft the perfect note. One that includes why you were inspired to buy the book. How you can see the influence of that particular piece of art on the recipient’s life. How that particular book has changed the way you, yourself, view the world. Perhaps how the book helped you to understand the recipient on a deeper level, and how that insight has allowed a more intimate connection between you. And, if you know the recipient isn’t going to be instantly put off by your pen strokes: Then, if the message is perfectly crafted and perfectly paced and perfectly printed, resulting in a cheek-soaked smile before they can even turn beyond that first pen-scratched letter; then, your gift is bombs out, heart-crushingly spectacular, and thank you for taking the time to touch someone so deeply.

But if they look at your note without flinching, you done raped a book.

Now, imagine this. You receive a book as a gift. It’s special to you. Touched your life. Opened your eyes to whatever. As you read through that book, you turn the page and a small fold of paper falls to the floor. Unexpected. Unannounced. What is this?

On that scrap of paper is the same heartfelt sentiment. Perhaps an explanation of how the book was chosen as a gift. A shared memory. Maybe just a sincere compliment or a meaningful inside joke. Now you get not just one gift, but two. And the book now serves as a reminder of your relationship. Your connection to that book has been intensified. But the gift-giver isn’t around to fawn all over. The giver knew the message was worth passing in private, as sensitive and heart-warming as it is. The giver wasn’t worried about public acknowledgment. They were only concerned about you.

If the words are right, you keep the note in the book. Or maybe in a memory box. If the words miss, it gets lost or scrapped, and the giver doesn’t have to worry about standing there waiting for a reaction that just ain’t coming. Such is life.

But, if that little social media post is any evidence, you don’t care about the artist’s creation. You don’t really care about the recipient’s preferences. You care about your little notes. Cause if you can’t write the date inside, you get sad.

You wouldn’t scratch your name onto the Mona Lisa, but the book has a flyleaf in it, and you’ll be damned if someone tells you that you shouldn’t sully that blank page with your need for memorabilia—rather, your need for someone else to have memorabilia from you.

Whatever. Go rape books. I’m just one guy. Just one opinion. And you’re not wrong, but then why the strong reaction? Maybe I’m hitting close to something, after all.

What do you think that is?