A friend posted a photo on Twitter recently, showing a library book she was reading that had notes in the margins. Someone had been writing notes in pen, either for their own edification, or for a class, or other study of some sort.1 Someone else followed later in pencil, critiquing the previous reader’s spelling and adopting a bit of tone. She captioned the photo tagging a mutual friend and mentioned he seemed like the sort who would write the second note, but said she knew better. He noted it couldn’t be him, because he didn’t write in all caps any more. I cut in and noted if I didn’t abhor writing in books, I’d wonder if I’d written the 2nd note (hashtag postitlover). At this point, yet another friend piped in with simply one word: “Marginalia!” At which point, I remembered a half-dozen things and mumbled I should write a blog about marginalia. Font Folly thought this would be a fun read. So. Here is a bit of un-packing of my thoughts.
In college (or high school, but I recall it the most in college), books are bought (really leased) and then later sold back in book stores, and you end up with used books that are loaded with notes; in the margins, on the page, within the tables, and along the lists.
If you were very lucky, you had a book that was previously used by a smart note-taker. More often, you have people who aren’t always paying complete attention to the teacher.
So I developed an extreme hatred for notes in the margin of biology, chemistry, history, political science and theory books. Even more, as I was an English major, I detested notes in the margins of novels; textbooks of essays, short stories, and poems; and plays. Because I could never experience the work unaffected by others. I never could get a first, unadulterated read.
I quickly discovered most professors had no sympathy for that argument:
“Just ignore it!”
But how do you ignore words on the page when you’re reading?
“Well, you ignore footnotes, don’t you?”
NO! They’re there to be read, and put there by the author or the editor! They’re intended to be part of the work.
“Wait, you actually read the footnotes?!”
Why wouldn’t I?!
“No one else does!”
Eventually, I figured out that not everyone reads in blocks and absorbs at least a general idea of the block of text at a quick glance.
I have to slow down significantly when reading aloud, because I can’t grab all of the text at once. It won’t come out of my mouth right. I recognize that’s not the best example. Everyone has to slow down a little bit to read aloud. Another example: I glance at a sign or ad block, or even a phone screen; and while I rarely get it exact, I can generally summarize what I saw without particularly trying. In fact, I have to work very hard to ignore or focus on just bits at a time. It’s a nice challenge, if I’m looking to do it. But if I’m trying to simply absorb the knowledge I’m reading, it’s a nuisance.
On the other hand, when I’m reading an article about how a historian or archeologist has discovered something new about monks, or normal people, based in part on the study of marginalia, and how those people were interacting with books and papers they found important at the time; I’m incredibly interested and want to read all about it! Yes, I even want to read those pages, myself! Because then it’s historical record, and in some way, my brain has decided it’s okay, even intended, to be experienced in such a way.
I do realize; it’s a hypocritical reaction. But I can’t deny I find the sociological implications very intriguing and even enthralling.
So I can’t say I hate marginalia. Because it’s more that I have a complicated relationship with it. I would prefer to use post it notes myself, when keeping notes2, and not have to see others’ notes when I’m studying something actively; but I do love that they exist and that there are things we can learn from them.
1. Honestly, I think the original reader was arguing with the text and couldn’t resist him or herself.
2. A reading journal would be awesome, but I’m not that organized and I recognize that about myself.
I picked up Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — Parts One and Two (Special Rehearsal Edition) recently, and finally got around to reading it Tuesday night. According to Amazon it’s 320 pages, and I sort of remember that, but some of that is table of contents and biographies and cast and such.
Because, when it comes down to it, it’s a script you know.
Scripts read somewhat differently than novels, although not a lot. To be honest with you, once I’m a handful of pages into either my mind’s eye takes over and it all sort of flows with words and voices and images of the setting and they feel about the same, except scripts go a teeny bit faster. I read quickly anyway, but normally 320 pages would probably have taken me closer to 5 or 6 hours, and it did not take me nearly that long.
I enjoyed it. I had seen some things on the internet (spoilers) about specific people missing from the book and how that was important/horrible/weird, but in one case specifically they aren’t “missing” they’re just … off-stage. And the characters on-stage react to their existence very much as if they’re part of the world, and in fact, important there. In a play, this is considered normal and is a useful device. In a book, it’s somehow less common (although honestly still happens, but I think people don’t think about it with characters who once had speaking parts and somehow don’t now in this book).
I got to thinking about it though, and I think I’ve been reading scripts since I was either 5 or 6 years old. That I can remember, at least. Mom and Dad had the collected works of Shakespeare in the house, of course, but Daddy had shelves of scripts. I still own some, in fact. I was in an original children’s play as a very small child. And in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as an older child. And Murder in the Cathedral as a teenager. Not to mention plays for school, like Lilies in the Field and others I can’t currently recall. I didn’t particularly like being up on stage, in front of people, but I liked playing a part. And I really loved helping with set creation and lighting and talking about costuming choices and blocking; so I enjoyed reading scene direction.
All of that meant that I have very clear ideas and opinions about what the characters in The Cursed Child look like. And how some of the story line would force some interesting costume changes. (I’m particularly fond of Hermione and Ron in one bit, I’d love to see that live and interpreted on stage!) I have a feeling for where they’d be on stage, and where they were in the universe of Harry Potter. It felt as fleshed out, in many ways, as the books. Perhaps this worked because I’m already familiar with the universe? I think it must be that, to a large degree.
It does make me miss Mom and Dad more, though. I can’t recall if Daddy liked the Harry Potter universe or not. He didn’t read long form for fun all that often, although it did sometimes happen. But he watched a pretty wide variety of television and movies and they would have been within the realm of things he’d be interested in. Mom I know loved the books and movies well enough that she had a favorite line.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
She’d hand written it, copying out of the book, and kept it on her desk from having fallen in love with it until she died. And I think she’d have been very interested in this installment. Plus, I could have talked to them about the mechanics of reading the different formats and how that feels in your own head, which would have been really good. Most of the time, when I miss my parents, it has less to do with wanting them to fix a thing, or know about an event, and more to do with wanting to talk with them about small daily things and things that made me think of them, and of course, to get hugs and just see them with my eyes again.
I think Rowling understands those feelings so much. And in the end, she explores it quite well in this book. I’ve already lent my copy out to a co-worker, who expressed an interest after she discovered I’d read it the night before. I really hope she enjoys it.
When reading, I have a pretty consistent fallacy, especially the first time with a new author or a new series. I tend to assume the narrator is trustworthy.
Sometimes, if I’m reading critically (as opposed to lazily), I’ll catch on to my mistake pretty quickly if it’s indeed a mistake. Not all writers use unreliable narrators. Some narrators don’t even know they are unreliable, and figuring out they are is part of the story.*
Sometimes, I am too literal. I think this is how I enjoyed many allegorical fantasy for umpteen re-reads, but now I occasionally feel that the author was using a large cricket bat lined with very specific translations of various religious texts to get their point across.
Right now (well, this month) I’m trying to write a story. A snippet of the story has been in my head for a couple years now. Last year, the character’s name popped in my head. Sometime in the last year or so, another character in the same world (for lack of a more concrete term) wanted to be drawn. Just a simple portrait. When trying to write a quick 100 word drabble for a completely different part, a scene that is probably much later in time (but probably within a book’s distance) popped out involving the original character. So I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo and have been randomly poking at it.
I haven’t been poking at it as hard as I should be, in my head. I mean, theoretically the rules are you write on that project daily. You set a goal and try to attain it. Just like NaNoWriMo in November. But, it’s a lot more flexible in that you set your own goal. And you can work on existing projects. I’ve really only sat down to write twice. Both times, I spun out over one thousand words. The first time, I think the words were better. The second time, well… I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that only one paragraph in that mess is really good. There are other bits that are useful. They set a scene. You get a bit of a better feel for how the characters react to an odd moment just before. But it’s pretty crappy writing. I could feel it when I wrote it.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I haven’t decided if my protagonist is a reliable narrator or not. Or if she’s an informed narrator. I do know she’s keeping secrets from at least one of the other characters we’ve met. And I suspect she’s keeping secrets with a character who just literally stepped out from behind a trashcan.
But at this point, I’m trying to stay out of my way and just write one word and then another and then another.
Because the advantage is, I’m finding I can write other snippets here and there of other things. A slip of erotica there, a personal blog or essay here, a commentary about something going on in the world or even sketch a scribble of a puppy or other thing in the paper world. Even if I don’t know where the story is going, and I’m almost certain chunks of it are horrible, it’s helping me be creative.
I just need to keep out of my own way.
*I feel this way about the Mockingjay books. I don’t think Katniss realizes she’s unlike many others in her life/broken/reacting in unusual ways until somewhere around the third book. And even then, I don’t think she completely understands why everyone else saw it in her and used it to their advantage, not really. It made it very hard to get through the first book for me, because I pretty much wanted to shake her hard every 5 pages or less. It doesn’t make her less strong in her own way, but it does mean she’s got enormous blind spots, and sometimes the reader might not catch things either unless they are reading closely.
Mom used to like to tell this story of when I was about 7 years old (I know, because she always emphasized I was in 2nd grade) having a critical discussion and breakdown of Huckleberry Finn with one of dad’s colleagues. I think she was overstating it, and called her on it once, so she went into more detail.
We kept a bookshelf of what would now be called “young adult” and children’s literature in the hallway that lead to all of the bedrooms in the house I grew up in. We were allowed to pick up and leaf through pretty much anything (although mom tended to remind us to be careful with reference books and religious books, which I mostly leafed through because of the way they smelled), but that shelf was ours, and we could pull and replace without checking to make sure mom and dad didn’t want to read the thing we wanted. (General practice for other shelves in the house.)
I had apparently been working through a section that I thought of as classics. I probably had heard mom call them that. They included Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hans Brinker, the entire Narnia series, and several others (I want to say the Peppers were in there, but I can’t recall just now). Some of them had matching bindings, and had been given to us by a nice lady across the street who had actual tea in tea cups in the afternoons. Some of them were library resells (that mom probably got for a few cents) and some of them were older and probably mom had owned them or bought them when we were babies because she remembered liking them.
Dad’s colleague was over because either he was visiting, or had been supposed to meet dad for lunch and he was late. It’s hard to tell, and mom never explained, but he noticed I was curled up in an armchair reading Huck Finn and asked mom if she was sure it was appropriate for my age. She remembered laughing and waving him off, noting that I probably wasn’t really grasping it all. So he asked if he could talk to me about it over lunch, when she called me in.
I don’t remember the specific discussion. I remember talking to him. I remember he was Dr Wilson at daddy’s work, but we were allowed to call him Mr Wilson at home, and they called him Nathan. We talked to lots of dad’s fellow professors and students and didn’t really think much about it on a day to day basis. Some were nice and could be coaxed into playing with us, and some were less nice and just interested in cards, or talking about work, or other boring grown-up things. Nathan was sort of a balance between the two.
Apparently, he asked some basic questions – how far was I into the book (about halfway), what did I think of Huck (he gets into trouble a lot) and Jim (he worries a lot, but that makes sense) and so on. According to my mother, it started getting much more specific and detailed and I carried on an intelligent discussion of the book. And she realized that not only was I aware of the racism, but that I was straddling the line between Huck and Jim in that I realized it was “life” as they saw it and thus “normal” to them, but I also thought it was stupid, and what the heck was that about? According to her, by the end of lunch, she felt she’d witnessed a college level (she often said graduate, at which point I’d glare at her, and she’d point out “Nathan taught master’s level classes!”) dissection of the book. …And perhaps she ought to pay more attention to what I was reading.
I still think she exaggerated. On the other hand, my reading comprehension was good enough that I rarely read the book again completely except for fun. I’d have it in high school and college level classes and rarely bother reading it for the class, just write papers by memory with occasional flipping of pages until I found the bit I wanted to quote so that I could accurately. I still own my college copy, actually, and have read it since although not in a long time.
I think that the freedom to read whatever I wanted is a large part of why I absorb the written word more easily than the heard word, and probably why I can read relatively quickly. I have had a lot of practice. We read everything from Mother Goose to Seuss to the above listed books and occasionally would pull out dad’s reference books on theater, or art, or read through the inserts in the large LP records. We weren’t terribly consistent perhaps, but having that access at an early age (and a mother who was very willing to drag us to the library over the summer breaks) was wonderful.