Things to Do With Books #444: The Joy of Books

Resting an open book on your forehead. Resting an open book on your chest. Cracking in a new spine. Finishing a book you loved and minutes later starting a new one; finishing a book you loved and not reading anything for two weeks. Keeping a candy-cane coloured string on your wrist in case of bookmark-emergencies. Wondering over each dogeared page, each splatter of coffee, each scribbled inscription, name and date. Trying to unobtrusively catch the title of what the person across from you on the subway is reading (and, each time you do so, remembering that one time you held up your own book so a curious fellow passenger could get a clearer view of the title, and they responded with a look of the deepest offense, as if by acknowledging the fact that people are interested in what other people are reading you were maliciously breaking some sacred taboo). Reading a book of poetry in one sitting. Reading a single poem over and over again in multiple sittings. Memorizing a sentence and leaving it on the voice-mail of every single member of your book club. Hearing the name of a book in a grocery store and picturing its exact spot on your bookshelf, going home, reading it for the fourth or fifth time, and then carefully placing it back where you found it, on the top shelf of the case near the window, two books in from the left.

So go ahead. Grab a book, get on a bus or the subway, sit in a cafe, a busy restaurant, a waiting room – wherever you are, chances are a person just as bookish, just as delightfully odd as you, will be curious to see what exactly it is you are reading on this fine spring day.

Welcome to Adverb City

The Institute For Things To Do With Books’ Mailbag
Letter #218

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?

Humbly Yours,
A Toronto Book Lover

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

Things To Do With Books #27

For this month’s entry we have a simple, yet fun exercise that can really spice up your book reading with minimal effort on your part. We here at The Institute For Things To Do With Books call it the self-induced deja vu. Here’s how it goes. Next time you find yourself in a book store – which, if you are anything like us, happens with frightening regularity, and often when least expected – go out into the fiction stacks and find a book that meets the following criteria: you have not read it; you have no immediate intentions to read it (which includes having it already on your shelf at home, having a hold on it at the library, or having dropped obvious hints around friends and family members as your birthday/gift-giving holidays approach); and, finally, you can see yourself reading said book somewhere down the line, say in two, three, or five years.

Once you have found a book that satisfies these guidelines, open the book to a random page, somewhere after page 50 but not much farther than page 200. Now read a full paragraph from this page. There. That’s everything needed on your end. Close the book and place it back on the shelf. And now the waiting portion of the exercise begins (warning: the majority of this exercise is waiting). With any luck, over time you will not only forget the details of the paragraph you read, but the very fact of you taking the book from the shelf at all will have receded far enough into your mind that it might as well have never happened. Now, if you ever do happen to read the book, when you finally get to that paragraph, you will hopefully experience any or all of the following sensations: having already read the book, which you know is impossible; having dreamed the book; confusion; excitement; floored by the deep unending mysteries of the world. In other words, deja vu, surging like a sugary drug through your entire being. This is what we here at The Institute like to call ‘the payoff.’

There are some further considerations for those interested in carrying out this exercise. Since there is always the chance the book you chose might never find its way into your hands, we suggest repeating the exercise as many times as it takes, with as many books at as many bookstores, until you’re comfortable with your odds. Finally, our researchers have discovered that this exercise works better when carried out in used book stores, though any local, independent place will work just as well. If needed – and only in extreme situations – a big box chain will suffice, though we have had reports that the payoff in these cases is dulled, diluted (as far as we can determine there is no scientific reason for the phenomenon; but such is the way of books).

The bottom line, as always, is have fun! If you enjoyed this exercise be sure to let us know. And don’t forget, if you pass this on to the members of your bookclub or graduate seminar, be sure to credit us here at The Institute For Things To Do With Books. Your acknowledgement, as always, will be much appreciated.