Tuesday, May 03, 2005

About marginalia

As you most likely know by now, I fixate on descriptions of reading and writing in the novels I read. In Matt Bondurant's The Third Translation I was pleasantly surprised to find a discussion of marginalia. Protagonist Walter Rothschild is at the secondhand bookstore where he meets his future wife, Helen. He is a fan of used bookstores, and of used books:

...it seemed remarkable to me that any historian would choose to read a new book when a used copy, a copy already with some sort of intrinsic history, is readily available. Often you could find underlinings, exclamations, curious symbols, cryptic messages and notes written in the front and margins, things to decipher and use to construct images of the previous readers and their lives. (p212)
Later Helen gives Walter her much-read copy of Aaron Copland's What to Listen for in Music:
... what I read wasn't Copeland's [sic] rambling discourse on the properties and foundations of music, rather I concentrated on the curious script that lined the margins, a cipherlike shorthand of lines, dashes, exclamation points, and the ocassional phrase, like chromatic scale and overt tone color and only Mahler would try this! I spent the entire night poring over these notes, examining her cuneiform scratchings, and by morning I had constructed a base-line key of sorts, a way to translate the basic elements of her scribblings. I got so I could read her shorthand notes like my own. From this I formulated many things, about her life, about her art, about the way she read the world. I could see that she was a kind and loving person, the kind of person who would always remember everyone's birthday, and that she felt most alone reading in her bed at night. I could also tell that I was desperate to be closer to her. (p216)
Like Helen, I write all over my books, hardcovers and paperbacks alike. I find that if I don't read with a pencil in hand, it's as if I haven't read at all -- not much stays in my memory. But if I scribble all over, underline, circle, question, exclaim, analyze, argue, summarize -- then I remember. I always tell my students to approach texts as active collaborators, since passivity is not a good quality in readers or learners (or anyone else, for that matter). It's hard to break them of their habits, though; they either want their books pristine or color coded in neon underliner.

But like Walter, I also love to pore over other reader's markings on a text (as long as there's no neon involved!). Just like I gravitate towards other people's bookcases to check out their book selections, I feel compelled to look at other readers' notes -- what do they find important, challenging, intriguing, worthy of marginalia? I admit I also get a little thrill when my professors give us copies of articles they have marked up; I always smile when they apologize for not finding a clean version to photocopy. Cleanliness is highly overrated (in reading copies, at least).

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