*Today’s blog post comes via Andrew Mangan. Andrew is an intern at The Missouri Review and will graduate in May 2013 from the University of Missouri Creative Writing Program with an emphasis in fiction. He only buys paperbacks anymore.*
This is an interactive article.
Think of your home library. Its volumes. Their contents. But more so, their pages. Have you written in them? Annotated? Underlined?
Yes? You aren’t likely going to learn much from this article. Go do something else.
No? Why not? Think of a reason. I’ll wait. I’m only text. You can stop and start reading this autonomously. Think of a reason? Good, hold on to it.
I would be willing to bet that the majority of people that don’t mark up their books don’t because it feels quote-unquote “wrong” or “inappropriate” or something similar. But why is that? Are they rare books? First editions/first printings? Okay, that makes sense. It would be ridiculous to deface a first edition of Gravity’s Rainbow or of To Kill a Mockingbird. Those books hold aesthetic value beyond their ideas and words. But what about your non-rare trade paperbacks? Why aren’t those marked up? Do they, too, feel inappropriate to scribble in? What unnerves you about coloring-in the margins? underlining the text? The author clearly had no problem spraying words onto the page, why should you?1
Infinite Jest was the first book I ever had the heart to scribble in. I internally debated for nearly three months over whether or not to, until I realized that, hey, other copies of the book exist, and if I absolutely needed a pristine one, I could buy another.2 If the book would truly hold such sentimental and aesthetic value, so much so that if I couldn’t bare a few on-page markings, then I shouldn’t have much of a problem buying a second copy. Thus: I caved, and subsequently underlined and annotated all over its thousand-plus pages. And, well, doing so helped that veritable landscape of a novel make sense. More so than I believe it would have if I hadn’t marked it up: for I was able to jot down conclusions I had drawn or connections I felt existed; it forced me to read in an even closer manner than I already did, because I did not want to miss a single thing to underline or annotate; I could underline some really beautiful passages that I might want to read later; I could tell my future self, upon re-reading the book, what my past self thought the first time through the book, which would aid my future self in further comprehension of it, maybe drawing more parallels or what-have-you. As such, my scribbling functioned not only as a means of deeper interaction with the work in the immediate sense—i.e. as I read—but also as a means of pseudo-diaristic correspondence; I can quite literally see what I once thought, what passages elicited certain emotions, what parts and sections, at the time, mattered to me most.
Annotation and underlining allows for a persistent experience with a book—to be able to re-read the book later and confront your bygone thoughts, the person you were and what you thought. It’s all quite introspective. Not to, of course, get all painfully saccharine and everything.3
What I am asking the person who does not mark in their paperbacks is this: what internal barrier have you created surrounding a book that has fostered such unease at the thought of jotting down a thought or note or underlining a really striking passage? Why are you choosing to create barriers between you and something you are attempting to connect with?
Fundamentally, what you must realize is that your books are not holy. They are not something you should starve of your interaction. They are something that begs you to interact with them, and the best way I have found is to do so is to scribble all over them. Not indiscriminately, of course, but with intention and purpose, as an act of textual communication and interface. Because once you have written off writing in books, you have made the choice to limit your interaction with that book—emotional or otherwise. You have internally determined that there is something about that book that should not be interacted with, that there exists a barrier inside the book that you have decided you mustn’t cross, and that is where the problem transpires: books necessitate your communication with them.
See, there exists an idiosyncrasy within literature that does not and cannot exist in other mediums. Films, more or less, happen to you. You can take notes and think critically and do other things, sure, but a film does not need you. It exists as a file or on a reel already 100% conceptualized. It can play on a loop with no one watching and it does not change. The same is true, in other ways, for music and paintings and photographs and artistic installations: a song does not require ears for it to exist and be played, and a photograph is still a photograph. They are all trees falling in woods and making sounds. The thing about literature, what makes it so absolutely special and wonderful, is that it requires—nothing less than requires—an effort from you to imagine the characters, the setting, the conflicts, the everything. Books require you for them to mean anything. Without readers, they are not but ambiguous markings on paper. Without readers, they don’t happen.
So, what I am intending to say here, what I suppose is the inherent value and moral purpose of this article is, is nothing more than to convince you—the non-annotator, non-under liner of books—that you should not do anything that might inhibit your ability to interact with a novel, but instead, you should do your human best to actively interface with it. Do something that really forces you to close read, something that changes every time you read the books, something that makes reading an exponentially enjoyable experience. My something, and the only something I can guarantee will improve your relationship with literature is to take a pen it, doing to your books the same thing they are doing to you: connecting.