The Institute For Things To Do With Books’ Mailbag
Dear The Institute:
I am writing this letter to share with you a strange experience of mine. A few weeks ago I borrowed a book from a friend, a collection of short stories by an author I was excited to read for the first time. I started reading the collection, and was enjoying it immensely: however, when I got to the end of the first story, I found the page covered in writing: words were underlined, passages were remarked upon with comments like “brilliant closing sentence,” squiggly arrows traversed the page. I recognised immediately the healthy pencil scrawl of the friend who lent me the book, and while I knew of her habit of writing in the margins of books – a holdover from our graduate school days – encountering it in this way threw me for quite the loop. It took me forever to get through those last few paragraphs. I read and reread the underlined words as if I was stuck in them; wondered at each boxed-in sentence; stared bewildered at “so many adverbs, yet still effective.” Finally, after some struggle, I got to the end of the story, knowing that my reading of it had been, for better or worse, altered in some precise, yet subtle, way.
After the first story the penciled comments began appearing every few pages, sometimes constantly. Some pages looked more like a messy brain-storming exercise than published paragraphs of prose. At first I would try to ignore it, but I just couldn’t help being drawn out of the story to ponder the underlined clauses and six-word analyses. It was as if my friend was hovering over my shoulder, every few moments whispering intellectual sweet nothings into my ear: “what a unique metaphor”; “nice, unique adjectives”; “the best story so far” (a sentiment I happened to agree with); and “welcome to Adverb city,” next to a heavily underlined paragraph somewhere around page 90.
I wasn’t just reading a collection of stories, I was reading a collection of stories through somebody else’s eyes, through somebody else’s half-obscured thoughts. It was a bizarre, frustrating, and yet somehow uniquely intoxicating, experience. In fact, now that I think about it, the whole experience reminds me quite vividly of the time I worked for a book dealer of first and rare editions. During my first month there, my boss acquired the library of a recently deceased lawyer, maybe three thousand books (large quantities of books such as these were constantly finding their way to us). In the later years of his life this lawyer suffered from Alzheimer’s: every night he would take a book down from its shelf and, as he read, underline everything with black pen, so he would know what he had read, and where to start when he picked up the book again. However, every night his wife would take the book out of his lap as he slept and replace it on the shelf, and the next night the lawyer would just take a new book and start the whole process again. We were stuck with boxes and boxes of these books, the first eight or ten pages completely underlined in black ink. Needless to say they were unsellable. To my boss they were worthless, but to me they held an odd fascination: the lawyer had incontrovertibly left his mark on these books, stamped them with his presence, however diminished it may have been near the end of his life. I wonder: is this what my friend was up to, scattering herself as far and wide as she could in the hope of being remembered? Or is this something of an entirely different nature?
A Toronto Book Lover
Thank you for a truly haunting story. Who says reading books is an antisocial activity! As a retired graduate student you must be aware of the whole scholarly apparatus dedicated to studying the ephemera left in the margins of old manuscripts? Well, it appears that your friend, just like those nameless doodlers of antiquity, has one careful eye on posterity. What else can we say? Read often. Read widely. Read dangerously. Welcome to Adverb City.
Thanks for sharing,
The Institute Mailbag