Published in Gold Man Review, November 2020
I feel a kinship with readers who leave their marks, like calling cards, in the margins of used books. Like when you meet a stranger’s eyes reaching for the same bottle of wine off a shelf and acknowledge your shared inclinations: “I love this with pizza, don’t you?” I trace the telltale footprints, intuit what their owners deemed important or inspiring or confounding, what they liked or didn’t like.
Several years ago I bought a paperback copy of A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects at a neighborhood used bookstore. The pages were peppered with underlined words, starred passages, cursory notes. The signs of rigorous activity told me that its previous owner was a student, stumbling through unfamiliar terrain. I like to imagine him, midway through the book, becoming swept up by the twisting tale, enamored with the lyrical language.
Byatt isn’t easy reading. Her prose demonstrates sophisticated thought; her vocabulary is challenging. My predecessor may have underlined unfamiliar words that he intended to look up. Or perhaps he liked Byatt’s eclectic word choices. Fifty-four underlined words in fifty pages (omitting duplications and foreign words in italics), include: amorphous, abeyance, assiduously, citron, coppice, carapace, didactic, draconian, and depredation. Also roundel, midge, complaisance, viscous, higgledy-piggledy, inimical, orcs, formicary, interstices, perforce, pullulation, parthenogenesis, smutched, sanguine, and sagacity. Others are terms for fabrics—gauze, tulle, organdie, calico, muslin, damask—which lead to my arguable assumption of the masculine pronoun: when my husband is at a loss for a word in a crossword puzzle, it’s often some kind of yard goods.
The asterisks are more perplexing. One to four stars are interposed above selected words and phrases: “he had written a daily examination of his conscience” – one star; “whose flames flickered” – two stars; “a simple row of pearls, soft white” – three stars; “he felt dirty and dangerous” – four stars. With no common thread running through them, I’m clueless as to what the ciphers might signify. I chalk it up to the bifurcated nature of book markings. They’re private, readers’ notes to themselves, but they become public when the book changes hands.
Poet Billy Collins shares my fascination with books’ previous readers. In “Marginalia” he observes that some notes are fierce “skirmishes against the author,” while others are offhand responses like “Please!” and “Ha!” Check marks and exclamation points that “rain down along the sidelines” are added by “fans who cheer from the empty bleachers.” He asserts that we’ve all done it, “seized the white perimeter as our own / and reached for a pen….” No, not all. Some people insist vehemently they would never deface a book. They’re dismayed by others’ seeming lack of respect, judging it on a continuum from slight annoyance to criminal vandalism.
I have a writer friend in that camp. Recently she sent me a marked copy of a story collection she liked. Notations in the book were clearly those of a writer: a line drawn under the penultimate paragraph of a story, with the comment “This is where it should end;” a box drawn around every use of the word “like”—I agreed it was excessive—with an asterisk in the margin. I told my friend I appreciated her annotations, and she replied, “NOT MY NOTES!! I would never write in a book.”
I had a roommate in the seventies whose politics skewed to the extreme right. She gave me a copy of her favorite book, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. “You have to read it,” she said. The book was a new hardback that she had gone through page by page with a yellow highlighter, scoring significant passages. She neither converted me to her libertarian views nor created a rift in our friendship—I accepted her gift as well intended. My motivations were pure when I bought a copy of Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty for another friend when she reached that milestone age. I knew she’d appreciate Jong’s wry and witty take on the mid-life passage, but my friend abhorred the “F-word.” She never said it and was offended when others did. Fear of Fifty was awash with the offending four-letter bomb, so before gift-wrapping it I went through with a black Sharpie and blotted out every fuck.
For the past thirty years I’ve studied and written about the life and work of Virginia Woolf, so my Woolf books are heavily notated. Two copies each of A Writer’s Diary and A Room of One’s Own are crammed with post-its, the endpapers black and blue with penned notations, the pages annotated and highlighted in different colors for different research projects. They spring to life as I scan my notes: papers I wrote on Woolf and food, Woolf’s self-writing, her use of repetition and color, her relationships with other writers.
My copy of Jacob’s Room came stamped in perpetuity with another’s identity. “David Sanchez ‘90” is printed in block capital letters on the fore edges, top, bottom, and side. In the margins David—I feel we’re on a first-name basis—parsed Jacob’s character with bracketed passages and notes of description and interpretation (“Jacob likes life at Cambridge.” “Sandra has him hooked.”) He noted personal traits, time passages, location shifts, curiosities. When David came to the mention of a Moorish kiosk, he could have breezed past it, but to his credit he researched it. Written over the words is “band stand,” and in the margin is a line drawing identified as a kiosk, Moorish-looking at that. Years after adding my own notes I still can differentiate them—straighter and lighter, thin blue pen or gray pencil lines—from David’s gashes of black ink.
I volunteer an afternoon a week at Bluestocking Books, the lone holdout on a block that once housed several used bookstores. Kris, the owner, just celebrated her store’s twentieth anniversary, but the site has housed a bookstore for more than fifty years. Bluestocking seems like a fixture in the neighborhood, but staffing and resources are spread thin. I believe books should be a renewable resource; my small contribution may help to assure the shop’s continuity and save some books from the landfill.
I enter books donated or received on trade into the database, then onto the shelves. More than half of the books Kris takes in have some kind of marking in them. She gives them a new lease on life whenever possible, rejecting only those beyond redemption. In accordance with industry standards, I note each book’s condition, designate most of them good to very good-plus, listing details: writing in margins, creased pages, often falling back on the catch-all “shows light wear.” A bottom-level category of acceptable promises only that the book is readable, its pages and cover intact. At first I was too generous with my rankings—my fondness for lived-in books blinded me to flaws that others might find objectionable. I’ve learned to squelch my penchant for personalization and assess them more critically.
Mortimer Adler, the author of How to Read a Book, defends marking in books as an act of love rather than mutilation. We own a book, he says, not just by buying it but by absorbing it into our bloodstream. I open a book with a pencil or highlighter at hand. A clever choice of words, a perfect metaphor, an evocative description—I underscore or bracket them, place an asterisk in the margin, jot down a word or two. Marking books helps me remember what I read, imprint it on my brain, and find it again. I don’t say “I wish I’d written this,” but that’s what might sometimes be read between the lines, literally, in my cryptic symbols. I flag pages with stickers and scraps so I can go back and transfer my notes to the endpapers or to my writing notebook.
I flip through the pages of a beloved novel—The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys. It’s full of notes and references, as I’ve read it several times and written an essay about its homage to Virginia Woolf. I stop at a lightly underlined passage: “I am thinking now that I much prefer parsnips to people. They are infinitely more reliable.” The narrator, a horticulturalist, is a loner, uncomfortable with people, unsure of herself in social situations. That penciled line translates as: “Mm, yeah, I’ve been there.” Another, “I could thread myself through London moving from leafy square to leafy square,” evokes my latent Anglophilia, the years I was swept up in the aura of London’s tree-shaded parks and neighborhoods. I don’t need words; the emphasis is enough to stir my memory.
I don’t think about who will read my notes and what they’ll think when, in periodic purges to free up limited shelf space, I pull down books to donate to Bluestocking, my local library branch, or one of the rapidly proliferating Little Free Libraries. I leaf through them and pause at my markings and margin notes. It’s like reading old diaries, picking up past conversations with myself. Sometimes my notes will induce me to keep a book—an interesting reference, a memory elicited, a gorgeous sentence. This book meant something to me; I may want to read it again. I send the discards on to find their next owners. Who might wonder why I underlined a particular passage; what my asterisks and exclamations mean. Who might respond to my notes and feel a kinship with me, nod and say “I love this sentence too.”