Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Marginalia

I'm running low on copies of my (tragically) out-of-print novel, so I ordered a couple for $1 each from one of those used book warehouses (that are now doing to small used-book stores what Amazon did to independent bookstores). I was thrilled to see that someone had underlined something in one of the copies, though only one line: "I'm sorry. It's boring to hear about other people's dreams."

Seriously, I love that. I love seeing evidence that someone actually read that bit and had a thought about it... and that by the weird process that the book-writing business is, a thought from my head whirled out into the world and came back underlined.

And why that line? And what made the reader pick up her pencil that moment, and no other?

(Reminded me of another weird writing moment, when I was listening to my husband read a story for Selected Shorts at the Symphony Space theater, and the story included a rotten pork chop. And I suddenly remembered where that pork chop came from: it had been left by college students, several years before, in the freezer of an apartment my mother owned in Fredonia, New York. How bizarre it was to have that pork chop come floating back into existence in a darkened theater in the city.)

Which is why I think people should write in books. I love the idea of a book as a conversation, or as an artifact that is physically altered by the act of being read. (A friend once cut up, glued, and painted a copy of my book and turned it into a sculpture. She worried that I'd be offended, but it was an incredible honor.) Why should a book look and feel unread if it's actually spent time with someone, had a relationship with someone?

JRL doesn't really agree with me, and won't even dog-ear a page. But he doesn't seem to mind the other thing I like to do: slipping notes and letters and business cards and whatever between the pages to find years later, or whenever I next take a book off the shelf.

What do you think? Clean or cluttered pages?

13 comments:

jrlennon said...

No, no, you've worn me down, haven't you noticed? I abuse the crap out of books now. Your habits are contagious.

jrlennon said...

Actually, my favorite literary artifact you've ever created is the time you sneaked onto my word processor and programmed it to replace the word "the" with "the fuckin'". THAT was genius. Actually, come to think of it, I should have left it that way.

5 Red Pandas said...

As a reader and writer I like the idea of interacting with the pages of a book. I love trying to figure out another reader's notes in a used book, but as a librarian I've learned the importance of preserving books for other readers. Especially library books! I scared and shamed my younger students about writing in library books so much that I had kids coming up to show me every little scribble and ripped page, just so I understood that they had not been the ones to damage the book. I told the little ones that our professors at library school showed us mutilated books and that every student in the class had cried over the damaged books. They believed me. In order to make my students care about books I exaggerated how much care I give to books, which is actually much less than you would expect from a librarian. My husband, however, has the true librarian's reverence for books and will not use and abuse a book the way that I do.

I try not to dog ear a book, though. James is sincerely shocked and dissapointed when I do.

Sheila said...

Last month I picked up a copy of P Roth's My Life as a Man at a local used book store. It was a June '75 printing, and midway through I found a receipt from the San Francisco International Airport News Stand dated 25 Nov 75, yellowed to the same color as the pulpy paperback's pages. I can't say why, but it almost felt like winning the lottery.

Kevin said...

My girlfriend bought a used book once in Iowa City and found an old receipt tucked away in the pages, from the book's original purchase. The name on the receipt: Thisbe Nissen. She used a credit card, and the store didn't block out the numbers with asterisks, but it was expired... not that we would have charged anything to it... Anyway, my girlfriend, a huge fan of Nissen, thought that was pretty damn cool.

jon said...

When I moved to Ithaca from NYC it was years before I was able to finally unpack all of my books. They came out of the boxes smelling only very faintly of mildew and once they were on the shelves were fine. I missed them so much that i would open up my old favorites. In my copy of Ulysses I found a Nancy cartoon I had put there 15 years earlier.nancy and sluggo are going to the movies. their mother asks aren't they worried they will get hungry, and nancy replies, "No, we filled our water guns with soup!" and the panel has a picture of them seated side by side squirting their water guns into their mouths. Then I opened up Jim Thompson's 'The Killer Inside Me', the Black Lizard edition everyone had bought for 3 bucks. Between the back cover and last page was a remnant from life in NY: a tiny squashed cockroach, antennae intact. It was so appropriate. Underlining though preserves forever whatever happens to interest you. It can be embarrassing years later. It's a map to dead enthusiasms.

sjwoo said...

I'm all about marking up books. I tend to underline passages I like, hoping that the act of underlining will somehow seep that bit of brilliance into my brain. I don't think it's actually helped yet, but it doesn't mean I'll stop trying.

If I like a book enough, I'll buy two copies, one for marking up, one to leave virginal.

There's a chapter in my book where a used bookstore owner falls in love with a woman when she sells a bunch of novels to him with her notes in the margins.

The pork chop! I just read that story in Pieces for the Left Hand and loved it. It reminded me of the B.O. episode of Seinfeld (where Seinfeld buys a car that has unrelenting, unremovable B.O.).

jonah said...

I used to be much more of an underliner than I am now. Mostly because my books were more widely circulated in college. A friend would pull one off the shelf and take it for months on end. When I finally got the book back, I'd reread my notes with theirs added and have a whole new reading experience.
I love seeing what it was I picked up on in a first reading. It's interesting to see how I read differently now.

rmellis said...

Wow, guys, these are such great stories!!!

I could read a whole book of these, which gives me an idea...

AC said...

I like my pages clean. I like being able to change my mind on re-reading, and it's harder if my own stupid handwriting is reminding me of what I thought the first time around.

Other people's notations bother me less, and are frequently funny.

My mother-in-law likes to mark her agreement or disagreement with the sentiments expressed in a book, whether it's non-fiction or fiction. A passage that differs with her philosophy of life will get a "Really?" or "I don't think this is true." Something she likes will be marked "Yes!" Reading a book she really, really liked can be embarrassing. The chorus of "Yes! Yes! Yes!" (I can't help but hear it in my mind every time, in my mother-in-law's voice) starts to sound like a porno soundtrack. And that's not something you want to associate with your mother-in-law.

Pete said...

I never mark up my own books, but do enjoy reading other people's markups. Right now I'm reading 1984 in a copy that was owned by my wife's late uncle. I never knew him, but just from reading his jotted notes and seeing which passages he underlined, I can sense which parts of the books made the greatest impression on him. It's almost as if I'm reading along with him, and we've made some sort of connection from beyond.

FH said...

I've picked up the habit of copying passages/making notes into a notebook, so that way when I loan a book out that person doesn't have to know how stupid I am and can form their own uncluttered opinion. Everyone wins.

Lisa N.R. said...

I borrowed a copy of Animal Farm with the friend's notes inside. I ended up developing a huge crush when I saw his line, "Pig=The Party." Don't know why---thinking is a turn-on?