Mingling With The Text

It seems that the business of marking or highlighting notable passages in the books we read has suddenly become a hot topic on the Web. No sooner had I written a blog about it earlier in the week, then Sam Anderson took up the issue in an article, “What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text,” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

The onslaught of e-readers and tablets is surely one of the reasons the matter has taken center stage, as scribbling on these gadgets is virtually impossible. And those who are dedicated, almost addicted to the practice, are facing a serious quandary. Anderson says that when he first read about the “spiritual and intellectual” benefits of marking up books, his life was changed forever. Here’s how he puts it:

I quickly adopted the habit of marginalia: underling memorable lines, writing keywords in blank spaces, jotting important page numbers inside of back covers…. Soon my little habit progressed into a full-on dependency. My markings grew more elaborate…I basically destroyed my favorite books…with scribbled insight.

He says he rarely reads anything these days without a pen or pencil in hand. Marking up these documents “is the closest I come to regular meditation.”

And get this: “…marginalia is—no exaggeration—possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.”

Well! Get the word out!

Anderson then moves on to a lengthy discussion of what he calls the “grand vision of social reading,” a topic that interests me less than the matter of taking seriously getting involved in a book by marking it up. Anderson imagines,

“…a stack of transparent, margin-size plastic strips containing all of my notes from Infinite Jest. These I thought could be passed out to my friends, who would paste them into their own copies of the book and then, in turn, give me their marginalia strips, which I would paste into my copy, and we’d all have a big virtual orgy of never-ending literary communion.”

Anderson also dreams of more than reading the marginalia of your friends and other readers, for example, those who share their notes on Kindle, but also, “the notes from all of history’s most interesting book markers.” Good grief! If you’re really interested in all those readers, I can’t imagine reading more than one book a year.

Do I want to read the marginalia of other people? (“I’ll show you my scribbles if you show me yours?”) Anderson reports his wife really gets annoyed when she reads a book he has already read. And I can’t imagine getting much pleasure from reading the marginalia of others especially while I’m reading a book for the first time. Maybe I might after I finish it, say to compare notes for a while. But I can easily live without that.

Once I compared the marks in the margin I made in Night Train to Lisbon with those of another reader friend of mine. I must have marked over 100 separate passages, while she marked less than 10 and there wasn’t a single overlapping passage between us. The probability of that outcome must be about .0000002 given all the passages I had marked.

Anderson makes no mention of the last but to me crucial step of transcribing the marked passages in a notebook or as I do, in a Word document. This is one way to “reread,” the book, consider once again the passages that mean the most to you, and have a permanent record to recall and perhaps draw upon in writing about the book.

Anderson, like all of us, hopes that there soon be a time when those who write the software for these digital readers will take the practice of writing in the margins seriously. I cannot imagine it is that difficult a technical problem given everything else these gizmos can do.