Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: books, literature, marginalia, reading, writing
I often work myself into a state over the future of stuff related to books that are actually books – like, you know, loaning books to people, buying used books on the cheap, finding strange things in library books (I still have nightmares about what I found stuck to the pages of a children’s book I checked out when I was about twelve – maybe it’s good if some of these things pass away), dog-earing and marginalia.
Despite Amazon’s attempts to create a “community” around reading by sharing notes and markings created on its kindle reader, the habits of book bloggers when it comes to extensive quoting and philosophizing on what makes a book good, and the fondness of countless twitter and facebook users for posting quotes that “really, really represent their lives”, nothing, in my mind, replaces old-fashioned marginalia, the stuff you scrawl in your book and the sloppy underlining that manages to obscure surrounding passages.
It’s occurred to me, though, that despite my interest in the New York Times’s take on the dismal future of marginalia, I don’t have a whole lot of interest in what other people have to write in the books they’re reading. There’s the occasional exception, like my copy of Of Mice and Men in which every curse has been scribbled over, suggested replacements written in the margins, but I often act more like Rory Gilmore, seeking the used book that either hasn’t been marked up or is the former property of a lazy if enthusiastic highlighter who didn’t make it past the first chapter. Yet when it comes to my own reading, I dog-ear, underline and make notes freely, secure in knowing that my every thought as I read is of interest to future readers.
I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories (2001) from the Peace Corps library last Friday, and the markings are so unrelenting and obtrusive that I want to track down the book’s original owner and give her a talking-to. Once I start reading someone else’s notes on a book I can’t stop, in much the same way that I keep reading the facebook status updates of people I haven’t spoken to in years and didn’t like all that much in the first place. But some of this reader’s marginalia isn’t just redundant or stupid; it gets in the way of the story, as when she writes, “foreshadowing of future betrayal,” evidently getting some retrospective marginal notes in there to thumb her nose at the reader who, not having completed the story, has no idea that there is a betrayal on its way.
Sometimes, maybe in this short story case, marginalia is not good at all. Sometimes, as with Of Mice and Men or when a famous author writes something awesome in a book he’s reading, it’s very good. But do any of us have much interest in the marginalia of other people, or is it nothing but an intrusion into our reading? Is my interest in preserving my own marginalia nothing more than another example of my self-centered nature, or is this the way most people feel? And is it wrong that I feel strongly about the need to preserve marginalia, but only when I consider it insightful or when I write it myself (which is saying the same thing, really)?
What are your thoughts on marginalia – do you like it all the time, just when you’re writing it, just when famous people, friends, family (people you have some interest in) are writing it, just when it’s well-done, or never? And why?