Monday, November 11, 2013

Rant #738, Appendix B: Notes in the Margins

I have always abhorred writing in books. Not the typesets or the fonts or anything, but the physical writing in books. I don’t deny that there can be completely justified reasons for writing in books, especially by teachers and students--why take the time to write notes on a post-it or whatever and put it in when you can just highlight and/or underline, put a word or phrase, a question mark, an exclamation, whatever, especially in text books which really aren’t books at all in a sense, but are really just instruction manuals on some aspect of life--be it History, Biology, etc.  In these instances it makes sense for future discussion, homework, tests, etc. 

But, for a moment, let us consider literature and fiction and figure out what writing in a book is actually doing and why I don’t do it. I don’t want to argue my opinion is correct--I think a lot of people who think about things way deeper than I DO write in books, and freely without ever even questioning it, but I want to say why I don’t, and why I can’t fucking stand it when people do it.

First off we’ll hit the subject the easiest and most “who cares?”--it’s ugly. I know that ugliness is a terrible reason to avoid doing something to anything--especially if you’re the only one who cares. If you’re doing it to your own book, why should anyone give two shits whether or not you tagged the margin with this comment about the meaning of the candlesticks in Les Miserables or Holden’s hat in Catch in the Rye or whatever? It’s your book, do what you want with it! I am a supporter of doing whatever you want to your own things--like George Carlin said about cars--flip switches, turn dials, etc etc. and if you must break out your pen to write “Clearly adversarial to other’s opinions” in the margins, well, I’m not telling you you can’t but do yourself a favor and look at it after you’ve done it. 

Besides a few Literature books from school (The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno spring to mind) I know of two notes I wrote in a book I was reading recreationally. One was in a Chuck Klosterman book where he was arguing about Superman and Batman being adversaries (Nemeses?) and one where I pointed out an annoying anachronism in The Body (made into a movie called Stand By Me) that I considered a plot hole because I was too self-assured that I’d found a flaw in my hero’s work that I had to shout it from the rooftops. Both of these notes are in blue ink and are written in the upper left corner of the page where there is significant space to write a note of semi-importance to absolutely no-one but myself. These notes are tragic for a couple of reasons I’ll get to later but first and foremost they are UGLY. The page is set in neat, squared paragraphs and here comes my notes in jumbled, teenager/twenty year-old handwriting sloping across the page like a slug-trail, loped and sliding, slick and rude, fucking up all the symmetry and neatness of the page. It’s like when you’re painting a wall and you slip of the ladder and grab the wall to slow your fall--a big ugly swath of original color down the middle of your new, improved color. I hate it.

Not to mention the comment itself.  It’s never anything really life-changing or surprising--and even it it is or was, then what was the point? Superman and Batman didn’t get along? No WAY! That changes their whole dynamic, doesn’t it? No, wait, it’s practically the only reason they ever work together! To promote drama! It's the thing that makes The Justice League interesting in the early days. Batman vs Superman is seriously the reason the end of The Dark Knight Returns is so good--Klosterman wasn’t trading new or even interesting ground here, and my note (which points this out in my neatest handwriting, as if to make sure anyone else who ever read this book after I died or gave it away or sold it at a yard sale in 2025 knew that I was, like, totally as smart or even smarter than a guy who wrote some very well-thought out and sometimes very blind pop-culture commentary about the 90’s in the 2000s) only points out that I know it. Even if it was a life-changing note (none of mine were)--then I’m pretty sure I’d remember it. If anything, the actual writing of the note makes me remember it that much more--and so now I know that, for instance in page one-hundred-whatever in The Body, the pistol is discussed, and then on page three hundred whatever, everyone acts surprised when it’s there, nothing has really changed. It’s not a story about who knows about the gun, it’s a story about growing up and losing your friends and feeling ashamed of who you are and having friends who want the best for you even when you can’t see it. The Body is a great book--and yet I had to--HAD TO write that little flaw in it to prove to no one but myself that I had read that book so deeply that I could point out fuck ups no one else had ever noticed. Little did I realize that someone probably saw the flaw--and said “fuck it. What’s it matter--this is a great book.” Who the hell did I think I was?

My point being that whatever is buzzing through your head when you grabbed your pen and started scribbling notes in the margins aren’t really that important, and if they were, you probably don’t need to write it down. I have had several teachers and professors tell me I should “read with a pen,” writing all kinds of things down in the margins--how this part relates to that part, underlining turns of phrase, writing grocery lists, I don’t know--but most of that stuff turns out to be useless anyway, especially if you re-read the book. If you re-read the book there you are, reveling in your private mode, perhaps seeing things differently this time since now you know the end and can see how well the thing was put together, how tightly wound the plot is (or vice-a-versa--it’s rare but I have definitely been underwhelmed on second reads of books that were great on the first run) and then all of a sudden, you-from-four-years-ago extrapolates a point that is either totally wrong, inherently meaningless against the greater scope of the work and/or distracts you back to whatever stupid shit you were doing four years prior when you wrote that ugly note in off-color pen in the margin. And to anyone who thinks re-reading a book is meaningless--to that I say simply that you’re wrong. Books are not rides on the subway--books are vacations into other peoples thoughts, feelings and emotions, they are escapes into places that are filled with the meaning that life sometimes lacks. Because of this, they should be experienced several times, to get the points and nuances, the rhythm and the cadence, to re-experience the experience and see it from a different view. All books should be read twice--even Dune.

And this, I think, is the crux of the biscuit--When you write a note you ignore the context of the book, you ignore the forest for the trees. The rhythm is tampered with when you have thirty words written sideways on the page and it will bring back the formerly important things that you thought of before and ignore the stuff you may have missed. It pulls out four notes of the guitar solo in your favorite song and brands them as Important when really the whole song needs to be experienced from the first clang to the last note that stretches into the end of the track. When this context is lost the whole meaning of the book can be thrown into the bushes. It’s like those jokes about professors needlessly pointing out that the “Curtains are blue because the character is sad.” Though I agree that many times the curtains are “just fucking blue” I can’t argue that they are ALWAYS just fucking blue--Holden’s hat DOES mean something--the Candles-sticks DO mean something--but when looked at alone they mean much less than when the book is looked at as a whole. Holden’s hat only means what it does in the context of the book, and to point it out somewhere in the middle of the book when your 16 year-old self finally figured it out there’s no need to mark it on the calendar. Who cares when you discovered it? It's the fact that you discovered it that's important. The discovery is less important than the doors it opened. Finding the dinosaurs was great, knowing that they existed is AMAZING. 

If I make one last note before putting this overly-long rant to bed I want to say that it’s not an advocacy for ignoring great moments in a novel, or a place you can go back to. It’s not even to say all defacing of books is wrong--I’ve always been a page-folder and always will be (except with other people’s books, of course). And so when I find a line I love, a paragraph, or simply a setting that speaks to me in a voice that I rarely hear and opens up the floodgates to something in myself I hadn’t seen in awhile, or ever, I fold the page. It’s ugly, sure, but not that bad, and for me it builds an anticipatory feeling that knows I’m about to get to something that’s really good. On re-reads I sometimes land on these rare moments and I revel in their beauty and others I wonder what the hell I thought I was doing folding that page, but either way I can come to that line in a new way, and the difference can take your breath away.

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