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As a schoolchild, my classmates and I were instructed NOT to write in our books. This, we were routinely told, was because at the end of the school year, we would have to turn in our books to our teachers for their inspection. If we were good students and our books were in acceptable enough shape and if we did not bang them up too bad, we could return the books without incident and without our parents getting fined money. Of course, we never inherited the books in perfect condition in the first place and there was some elaborate — and mysterious — grading scale the teachers used to keep tabs on all of this.
This created an interesting — and sad — dynamic. Books and education became pristine and off-putting concepts. Our assigned textbooks became items we did not want to actually open too much, for fear of getting them dirty and ruining them. To make a mark, even for the purpose of taking notes, and you know, actually learning, in these books was taboo — no highlighting, no stray pencil marks, and definitely no doodling in the margins.
Remember the famous Robin Williams scene in Dead Poets Society where he instructs his students to rip up their books? That would have been a welcome lesson.
As you might imagine, this trained system built a personal resistance towards books. The books weren’t to be engaged with — they were to be feared. They weren’t my friends. They were part of the machine — school. I couldn’t “play” with them, they weren’t actually mine, and they were only with me for a short time. I didn’t own them; they were borrowed.
How did this affect me?
Outside of assigned tasks, I didn’t read much on my own, besides comic books and, eventually, Pro Wrestling magazines. These magazines, glamorously published by a group called TV Sports out of New York City, were filled with dynamic and even violent action photographs and writing with a certain flavor of pulp fiction-like humor unique to the Pro Wrestling word. With those magazines, I had the freedom to cut out some pictures to make collages of the guys beating each other up. I could even make highlighted marks of certain passages or fill out fan polls when the editors used that technique to keep their readers fully-engaged. These magazines were, indeed, mine. My mother even kept me going by buying me subscriptions to several of these magazines and buying me even more at the newsstand. I remember, at the time, her telling a friend that she was "just happy Michael is reading anything."
Meanwhile, "real" books — fiction, non-fiction, paperback, hardcover —remained mostly foreign to me. Because I associated "real" books with school, I couldn’t, or chose not to, get over my fear and distance from more traditional books. No Lord of the Rings trilogy for me. No Harry Potter.
I didn't engage in fantasy books or epics of any kind.
For the most part, my childhood was either my beloved Pro Wrestling magazines or the aforementioned, mostly ignored, school textbooks.
It's sad, and overwhelming, to imagine what lessons and knowledge I missed out on.
And yet, somehow I became a writer. And somehow, eventually, I began to engage with books. I think it was through acting and film-making. Taking on this profession lead me to many, many profound books on the craft of entertainment. And to give them credit, several successful Pro Wrestlers began to write their auto-biographies. Wrestling champions Mick Foley and Diamond Dallas Page both wrote massive volumes filled with both humor and photographs that were highly instrumental in getting me to read "anything."
But I didn’t actually write in a book until a few years ago. A friend of mine named Harrison Condit gave me a book titled Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. The book begins with an interactive questionnaire that demands the reader to actually write in the book itself. I couldn’t believe it! I went ahead and did as Mr. Hill ordered. And can you believe it? I didn’t get “in trouble.”
Now? Highlighters, pen marks, and note-taking are par for my reading experience course. I feel like I am making up for lost time.
Some books are immune to this, like photography books, of course.
But for the rest of them? Open fire. Fair game!
Write in your books. They are YOURS.