Tuesday, February 03, 2009

On writing in books

Patrick Kurp admits had he “stopped writing in books a long time ago. It came to seem like a form of vandalism, and when I’ve reread my annotations I was most impressed by their fatuity: ‘Symbolism!’ “Foreshadowing!’ That sort of thing.” And now I must tell my students never to read Anecdotal Evidence, because on the first day of class I routinely urge them to “make the books [for the course] your own. Write your name in them. Underline. Draw question marks beside passages you don’t fully understand. Make notes in the margins.” Then I tell them a story.

My senior year at Santa Cruz I shared a house with the poet Mark Jarman and two others. Graduation Day arrived. Mark’s family was in town to see him receive his diploma. His sister wandered into our sunlight-drenched living room on a hill overlooking Monterrey Bay. (Not for nothing did I coin a phrase for the difficulty of completing one’s studies in surroundings of such natural beauty: “The agony of gorgeous days.”) I remember that I was reading Herzog. I had a pen in hand. “Getting a little studying done?” Mark’s sister asked. Nope. Just reading. “Then why are you underlining?” she demanded.

Why indeed? I had never asked myself the question. Without benefit of much reflection, I told her that, when I had been in the Boy Scouts, I had been taught, if I were ever to become lost in the woods, that I should break branches along the way to prevent myself from tripping in circles. (The truth of this warning had been borne in upon me a few weeks earlier when my friend John Kucich and I had become hopelessly lost in the woods high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Without a fixed point of reference above the trees, we circled aimlessly for a couple of hours, frightening a stag at one point, who charged right past us, before we accidentally struck the road. Although we were both former Boy Scouts, we both forgot to break any branches.) “I underline in books for the same reason,” I told Mark’s sister sententiously; “to keep from going around in circles, and to find my way back.”

Opening the same copy of Herzog now many years later, I find my notes even more embarrassing than Kurp’s examples. Except for the conversation with Mark’s sister, which I scribbled on the end papers, most are even more groan-inducing than what I told her. “Ideas that depopulate the world,” Bellow writes. “That kill?” I have scrawled in the margins in fine-point blue ink. “Or that make the thinker more unique? More necessary?” Say again? A description of Ramona (she had “eyes that held metaphysical statements”) reminded me of my current girlfriend, with whom apparently I did not have a carefree relationship. A remark by Sandor Himmelstein, the Chicago lawyer who looked after Herzog one autumn, reminded me of Gordon Lish, my teacher Raymond Carver’s editor at Esquire: “We’re all whores in this world, and don’t you forget it.” Not that Lish was a whore. But this was his general attitude.

I also tell my students about the copy of Doctorow’s Book of Daniel which I prepared for a review in the student newspaper. At one place I underlined every word on the page. Every word. Boy, did that help me trace my way back to a memorable passage! Years later I had to hunt down another first edition of the novel to replace the one I had defaced.

I no longer underline every word on pages, but except for hardcover first editions of novels, I continue to read with a pen in hand, even on Shabbes, when I cannot use it to write. It is what I hold instead of a cigarette. Kurp suggests the habit may be just as bad, but I am a passionate scorer and composer of marginalia. Writing in books is something like Ascham’s method of double translation for me. My notes convert the author’s words into my own, and when I turn them back, I find that they have impressed themselves upon my memory. Perhaps the method does not work for everyone, or even very many, but it is the only form of intertextuality to which I subscribe.


Becca the Promo Mami said...

Anne Fadiman has something to say about this - carnal vs. courtly book lovers:
" "Carnal lovers" will mark and dog-ear pages, rip covers or whole chapters etc while "courtly lovers,"... revere their books and leave them untouched."

it's from her essay “Never Do That to a Book.”

I'm DEFINITELY carnal - though I used quartered post-it notes to track my thoughts for a while - UNTIL I recently went back to an old copy of Rabbit, Redux that I had marked up a few years earlier - and most of the post-its fell out because the adhesive dried up.

I'm back to pens.

"To treat a book wantonly is a sign not of disrespect but intimacy." - also from Fadiman.