Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

At the Margins

An image of playwright William Shakespeare from a first edition of “The Herball,” a sixteenth-century book on plants, in London, England, May 19, 2015 (Toby Melville/Reuters)
On writing in, and appreciating, books

If a new book is a monologue, a used book is a conversation. Underline a passage or write a note in the margin and you have left a message for future readers, or for future versions of yourself. As many book-owners can attest, such dispatches from the past can be both heartwarming and bizarre. I cannot open my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood without seeing a birthday greeting from my friend Hugh, who gave me the book as a present nearly 20 years ago. My paperback In Our Time, on the other hand, contains not only Hemingway’s early stories but someone’s failed attempt to add up the cost of pizza, beverages, and a night at a Sheraton hotel. Word to the wise: You’ve got to carry the three. 

Perusing one’s secondhand books, one finds curiosities by the dozen. Here, on page 203 of William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It, is what appears to be an abortive soup recipe (“onions, celery, carrots,” et cetera). There, tucked inside Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, is the business card of a Middle Tennessee State University admissions counselor, never mind that I bought the book in New York and have never been on MTSU’s campus. One of my many copies of Beowulf belonged for some years to a college library in Memphis and contains due-date stamps going back to 1940. (The names on its check-out card — Truman, Gene, Arnold, Kitty — are like something out of a time capsule.) My Paradise Lost, at one time the property of an Annie Lou Smith, has giant “X”s across almost half of its pages.

Even the inscriptions one discovers in one’s home library can delight and surprise. Aunt Mary’s 1988 Christmas greeting to Gretta in my Poetry of Robert Frost is standard fare, but “To Bob — You got out! — Sam” in Padgett Powell’s Aliens of Affection is both evocative and mildly disconcerting. Perhaps the best inscription I’ve seen is in the aforementioned copy of Beowulf, to which some wag has added well wishes from the title character himself, in the form of a greeting to “all my dear friends at Southwestern.” While the last six letters of the hero’s name are rendered simply enough, the “B” has been wrought with exceptional calligraphic flair. One supposes the style is characteristic of the Geats.

Like having a child or planting a garden, annotating a book is an expression of hope for the future. Adding a comment to a text, I affirm that I, or someone, will pick up the volume again someday — that books will endure as objects of interest in a civilization not wholly digital. Rereading David Guterson’s The Other, I am pleased to discover that my younger self recognized in Chapter One’s lost-in-the-woods sequence a “broader existential crisis.” If my son or daughter pulls that novel off the shelf one day (kids, it’s a masterpiece), they’ll see my note, and we’ll have a kind of chat, even if I’m long dead.

The same is true to varying extents of all the books I’ve marked: Absalom, Absalom!, whose (literally) Faulknerian logic requires frequent explanation; All the Pretty Horses, whose Spanish passages I have (inexpertly) translated; The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which I thought as an adolescent to underline the first appearance of each character’s name; and too many others to list. Though many Christians write in Bibles, I have always kept the Good Book pristine, in part because my penmanship is an affront to God. In secular texts, however, I have scribbled with abandon. Should I or others desire a glimpse into my brain, we need only crack my spines. 

Unsurprisingly, the books I’ve filled most thoroughly are those I’ve hauled into the classroom. Yet it is in these cases that the notion of annotation as communication begins to break down. In a perfect world, an English teacher armed with a highlighter would color only those lines with which he meant to illustrate a point. My own foolish habit, however, has been to yellow the page so thoroughly that my highlights outpace my explanations. Perhaps my 25-year-old self can tell you why the words “‘I’ve got complications,’ she said” are forever scored in my Wordsworth Classics edition of Ethan Frome. I, alas, cannot. And while it may be important that the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping feels “small in the landscape” on page 79, the reason I first thought so is forever lost to me.

That what I’m describing is a tension inherent in the marginalia business will be obvious to anyone who’s ever read with pen in hand. Writing in a book today, I record some portion of my thinking for tomorrow. Though I trust that it will be readable, I can’t pretend that it will all make sense. Among my favorite margin notes, for instance, is the lone exclamation point, with which I frequently signal both agreement and furious dissent. Will those who come behind me know one from the other? Will I? Perhaps not. But we’ll know what moved me.

If the notes from my professional career are occasionally shrouded in mystery, the analyses of my student days are often embarrassingly obvious, as I discovered to my displeasure while researching this piece. On the desk in front of me sits my high-school edition of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, in whose pages I declare that bomb-throwing anarchists are “bad.” (Have I stumbled upon President Trump’s copy?) Within easy reach is my ninth-grade text of Macbeth, in which I aver that the Scotsman’s wife is “a villain.” Though one had rather be naïvely right than terribly wrong, readers of this magazine will doubtless join me in thanking God I was never assigned a biography of Hitler.

 As for the contributions of previous owners, they tend to be, as one might expect, hit or miss. The same math dolt who used In Our Time as scratch paper responded to Hemingway’s “The End of Something” with what is actually an astute question. (“Since when do guys touch each other?” is, if not politically correct, at least germane to the story.) Yet whatever the original purchaser of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love thought, nothing on page eight indicates a “circular view of time,” and time is not a subject of that novel in any meaningful way. While I am not one to deny a man his interpretations, I do draw the line at foodstuffs. My dime-store edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, stained on pages one through 35 with what appears to be maple syrup, should probably just be thrown away.

 Were I to rescue just one book from my burning library, I would leave the first editions to the flames and take instead my father’s high-school copy of Animal Farm, on whose inside cover he once worked out whom each character represents (“Napoleon — Stalin,” “Mr. Jones — Czar,” and many others). Allow me to save two and I would fetch a volume of poetry by the British fantasist (and Inkling) Charles Williams, annotated on almost every page by a beloved teacher and passed to me after her death. No educated reader needs to be told, of course, that Orwell’s Snowball is a stand-in for Trotsky, and I can’t make it through more than a stanza of the Williams. But these books fairly throb with emotional significance. It may be that my children or students will feel the same, one day, about something of mine.

 In part because one symptom of tech-fetishism is a tendency to exaggerate, the obsolescence of physical books has been drastically overstated. Indeed, for the past several years, physical books have been reclaiming lost ground, a process the New York Times has characterized as “a reverse migration to print.” Though e-books remain convenient, print books’ enduring popularity is not difficult to explain. Physical books are objects, with their own texture, smell, and history. As there is no conceivable reason to give them up, people mostly won’t.

 Whether we will continue to write in them is, of course, a matter of personal choice. But after four decades of filling my own margins, I say, ladies and gentlemen, mark ’em up.

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Graham HillardMr. Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.

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