Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How to Make Your Mark

One of the book blogger appreciation week discussion questions for today is whether you tend to mark your books as you read, or whether the idea of writing in books "horrifies" you. And I am slightly horrified by the question. Marking in books is the single best way to learn critical reading skills, so if you're not doing it, how are you compensating?

A writer must learn to make notes as she reads if she wants to have some ideas to consider when she finishes. If you're hesitant, start with sticky notes. Then add a pencil mark bracket or star to the side of an interesting passage, and then try to advance to pencil underlinings of key passages. Some people--and I'm one of them--never do get to the point where they can take a highlighter to a book and/or write their own words in the margins.

A lot of us had early training in not scribbling on our story books with crayons. But we're past that, now. It's like the feeling at the end of this poem by Sherman Alexie (from his volume Fire) called "How to Create an Agnostic":

Singing with my son, I clapped my hands
Just as lightning struck.

It was dumb luck,
But my son, in awe, thought

That I'd created the electricity.
He asked, "Dad, how'd you do that?"

Before I could answer, thunder shook the house
And set off neighborhood car alarms.

I thought that my son, always in love with me,
Might fall to his knees with adoration.

"Dad," he said. "Can you burn
down that tree outside my window?

The one that looks like a giant owl?"
O, my little disciple, my one-boy choir,

I can't do that because your father,
Your half-assed messiah, is afraid of fire.

One of the appeals of this poem, for the mother of teenagers, is remembering the days when my kids believed what I said. But once we're adults, we need to think more about the reasons we do things, lest we end up like the woman in the joke about cutting the end off the ham. (Child: Mom, why do you cut the end off the ham? Mom: Because my mother always did. Child: Why did she do it? Mom: I don't know; Mom, why do you cut the end off the ham? Grandmother: "because it wouldn't fit in my big black pot otherwise.") If it's early training that makes us reluctant to mark in our books, then we need to think about why we received that training. My parents kept only books they wanted to reread, and presumably my father didn't want to reread his copy of The Collected Plays of Jean Giraudoux complete with my markings for my high school speech club interpretive reading of two pages from The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Maybe you should think about why you keep books, too. I buy mostly books I intend to reread, and I don't think of them as decorator items or relics. I put old tickets in them as bookmarks and dog-ear the pages until I'm done with the book (and then turn the ends up again as I go through collecting the ideas I marked that way). I love my books, and I leave my mark in them.

One of the most interesting experiences I ever had as a reader was getting a rare copy of a very minor 18th-century satire from the Folger library, and finding Robert Southey's marginal notes all over it. Southey himself is a minor 19th-century poet. But all of a sudden he came alive for me. What better way to be remembered could I imagine for myself?


Amanda said...

I just can't do it. Mostly I think it's because my thoughts and ideas and interpretations change over time. I can't go back and reread those old margin notes. I'm the sort of person that keeps things in her head well. I make mental notes, so to speak, about books and then write some of them up in my reviews. I bring my ideas to book clubs and elaborate on them. I have literary debates with my husband. But I can't write things down, because that makes it so solid, and I'm an ever-evolving sort of person.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, did you ever have trouble with deadlines? Because I've had students tell me that their interpretations keep changing, and I accuse them of reluctance to commit and actually pursue an idea. I certainly would never accuse you of that!

Alison said...

I am the descendant of book collectors and librarians. I cannot write in a book, save for perhaps a textbook (although that took years, too, since I went through the first eight years of school not actually owning any of my textbooks).

Actually, I have a few Penguin editions of plays in which I highlighted the role I was working on, but I really dislike looking back at them, because what was important to me in that moment is usually not the same thing that is important to me now.

Jeanne said...

Alison, this changing views thing again! I like seeing what my previous self thought--perhaps it's a higher degree of narcissism.
It's true that one should not write in library books--but it seems the whole point of owning a book, to me.

Amanda said...

Nope. I was always early. I've always had a fear of being late for anything. I won't even walk into a classroom if the class started a minute beforehand. I can't stand to draw attention to myself. My interpretations don't change so much over a couple-week period, just over the course of years as I gain experience. So last year when I reread The Bell Jar, it was a very different experience as reading it a decade ago. And I hated my decade-ago perspective. I couldn't stand to read it.

I tend to keep my notes in notebooks or in places where I can reference back without ruining present experience of a book. I say ruin because if a book has markings on it, I personally can't concentrate on the typed text. It's frustrating. I won't read books that are marked in anymore. It's gotten worse over time.

lemming said...

I have a few books saved in which I used the end -papers to take notes for something else, which is always amusing to stumble across...

The New Yorker ran a great piece years ago (Nicholson Baker, maybe?) talking about using the card catalog at IU and reflecting upon the many other hands which must have touched its cards - did the dirt smudges come from Umberto Eco?

Anonymous said...

While I do make notes on a pad of paper as I read - I can't bring myself to mark up a book. I think this stems partly from the fact that I loan out a lot of my books and I wouldn't want other readers to be distracted/amused/horrified at my notes.

Harriet said...

I love marginalia. I write in my academic books all the time. It was a habit I commenced in college. I rarely write in other kind of books, although I, too, use tickets and dog-ears and also page points (from Levenger), which is probably the best present ever to appear in my Christmas stocking. I find looking back over my old annotations in books entertaining precisely because my interpretations change over time, as Amanda mentioned. They are a record of a time and place and they generally reveal a lively engagement with the text. I argue, I talk back, I am fierce and rapturous by turns. It's fun to reread. But then, my mother wrote in her books too. We were usually discouraged from doing so, but she wrote in her college books and I liked trying to decipher her tiny handwriting. I will only write in pencil, however. Never, EVER pen. I'm not sure why. It's not like I ever go back to erase them. But I know that I could. Also, in grad school I checked out a book for research once and found it had last been checked out and written in by the college professor who encouraged me to go to grad school in the first place. I loved that. I like remembering that books are objects that others have used and maybe loved.

Trish said...

Great point about keeping books to leave your mark in them. I've never thought about it that way, but I also loan out my books a lot and I personally don't like reading books that have already been marked up. I do, however, write my name in the cover of every book I finish with the date I finished the book. I LOVE pulling books off the shelf and seeing when I finished them.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

There is a Billy Collins poem called "Marginalia" that I always think about when I'm writing in a book. I don't write in books I'm reading for fun as much as I write in books for school, but I'm certainly not squeamish about it. I love going back to old books and seeing my notes in the margins -- it's like getting to go back and argue with myself again :)

Jeanne said...


Lemming, Harriet, Kim and I are amused or else ready to (as Kim so aptly put it) argue with our former selves when we see old notes in books.

Lemming and Harriet and I also like to hero worship through marginalia or just smudges. (There's an egg salad smudge in the Billy Collins poem!)

Lass and Trish worry about loaning books to people who might be horrified or amused at their markings. Hmmm. Maybe they're nicer people? I know that Lass, at least, can argue with the best of us!

Cschu said...

Like Harriet, I write in academic books. I have also taken to highlighting, but that occasionally bothers me later. I tend not to write in other kinds of books. It's a different kind of interaction, I think.

Kristen said...

The last time I marked in a book I was three. After that, I have prefered my books pristine and untouched looking. Can't help it. It does make me shudder a little that my 6th grader came home and told me that they are being obligated to write in their books this year. Since I read what my kids read, I guess I'll just have to read them first before she gets to them if I want the unsullied reading experience!

Jeanne said...

CSchu, is your distinction between escapist fiction and nonfiction? (I certainly think that fiction can engage a person intellectually.)

Kristen, I love that word "unsullied." A significant number of people feel as you do.

Memory said...

Well said! I'm also a marker; I underline passages that strike me a certain way, and I've been known to scribble in the margins if I feel that I need to comment on something. I love it when I find used books with previous owners' markings, too. Several years ago, I acquired a few classics that an English professor at my school no longer wanted. I found it fascinating to see what she'd had to say about each of the books.

I agree with your reasons for keeping books, too. If I don't plan to reread something, I pass it along to someone else. I do consider my books at least somewhat decorative, since I can't use them all at once, but I want my library to reflect my interests. I don't see much point in keeping a book I'll never return to; I'd rather see it go to someone else who may get more out of it than I did.

Cschu said...

Actually, Jeanne, I think the difference is the context in which I am "interacting" with the book. My professional persona is much more likely to mark in a book than my private persona. (I'm not sure I can really explain why. It may be because in math books people make off-hand assertions that sometimes take me 10 minutes to figure out. Once I unravel the mystery, I write myself a note in the margin, so that I won't have to spend the 10 minutes the next time I read the book!)

Interestingly, I recently bought a used book that had MANY pages turned down and lots of things highlighted. As others have said, it made reading the book a bit like looking over the shoulder of the previous owner. Interesting feeling, spying on a total stranger.

Karen said...

I, like Cschu, mark up texts I've read professionally, so that I don't later have to puzzle out connections that my markings let me recall at a glance. In fact, I think I have a marked-up copy of one of Cschu's books here on a shelf near me now.

I don't tend to mark up fiction, but I will make notations/reflections in essays and poetry as I read them.

I love this poem, by the way. My boyo is clearly in love with his parents. His face ignites anytime we play hide and seek, and his whole-body rapture of capturing our laughter and attention is beautifully evoked in Alexie's fifth couplet. Our son can't fall to his knees (intentionally), given that he can't yet stay balanced on his feet (independently), but he can and does fold in half at the waist, burying his face in the floor as he collapses either with despairing protests (you won't pick me up! and I bumped my head! and I can't catch the cat!)or with the body-wracking force of joyous laughter.

I will miss this, someday.

I will miss being adored, even as I look forward to his evolution of self. (And, let's be honest, I kind of miss being young and whole-hearted enough to view my parents this way. Once upon a time, my dad was Superman, capable or pulling WHOLE TREES out of the ground with his BARE HANDS. What did it matter that they were less than 3 feet tall? So was I.)

Jeanne said...

Memory, with your name, how could you not be a marker??

CSchu, don't you like spying on total strangers? I always wonder how old the child a book is inscribed to is now, and whether he or she actually liked the book and then a parent got rid of it.

Karen, when you miss a toddler's admiration, you can find your comment here, like a mark in a book. If the internet lasts that long.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.