Monday, October 25, 2010

Marginal Notes

A determined reader catches a long-buried
nuance in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
I never write in books. I was told to as a high school student, and I continued to try well into college, but I never really got the benefits from it I was told I would receive. I never remembered anything better, or made connections I wouldn't have otherwise made. Maybe it was just that I never liked the damage it seemed to do, and I encountered so many instances of readers' notes gone wrong--entire pages damp with highlighter, or margins littered with right-wing polemic (always right-wing, perhaps because college professors are always making students read this liberal literature all concerned with "expanding your mind").

Right now I'm reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the book I selected for my MFA workshop to read as instructional for my work. (I didn't have the courage to go with The Princess Bride, and besides, I do like Calvino, and besides again, I think I honestly couldn't handle people rejecting The Princess Bride in front of me.) I bought Invisible Cities for a college history/humanities colloquium on "Imagined Worlds," used. There's super-light pencil marks in the margins; I can't figure out whether I made them or Mike made them or someone before us made them. What's strange, though, is that every time I stop on a passage (most often trying to note for myself ways of mixing concrete with abstract, and separating concrete from abstract, which are my big problems with the book I'm working on for my thesis), it's one that's already been underlined or called out somehow in the margin. There's nothing written, so I have no clue as to what the notetaker thought was interesting or important about the passages he/she chose to mark. It's strange, then, that they're turning out to be so relevant to me under what I presume are vastly different circumstances.

How do you all approach writing in books? Is it more physical habit, or intellectual exercise? Do your notes make sense to you later?


  1. It can be sorta addicting. For the last 7-8 months I made extensive annotations as I read in order to try and figure out what the supposed benefits of book-annotations would feel like in the long term, and I'm no longer convinced it's a very important thing. If you need help slowing down and reflecting on individual sentences or paragraphs of book (instead of blazing through), it can help. But I suspect most people on litblogs are past that point.

    The physical feel of writing all over a book can be very pleasing while you're doing it, as you're in the moment. Not so much because you're learning more than you would otherwise, I don't think, but just because it's fun to scribble on junk. I think I actually learn better when I don't do it, except for maybe marking the page #'s of important/useful passages inside the back cover of the book, and possibly writing up a few quick reflection-essays.

    Of course, reading literature is much different than most kind of studious reading. In my experience literary memory relies mostly upon passive memory: it's not like you can recall arbitrary paragraphs verbatim, but as you read any single paragraph can invoke the recall of a cluster of past awesome reading experiences. (And memories change each time we recall them, so it's like we're re-writing these texts in our heads, or forming some weird conglomeration of texts.) I'm not explaing this well, so here's how Emerson put it: "There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world."

    But reading in science or math requires active recall in addition to understanding (I failed a Calc 2 course at Butler because I couldn't grasp why my understanding of the problems wasn't translating to decent test scores), so I can see where annotations would be more helpful there.

  2. Of course, as soon as I finished writing the above I started reading a book and writing in it, so maybe I'm just confused.

  3. i NEVER write in books. i find it somewhat sacreligious.