Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Book Writing

All summer long, I've had this bit of proverbial wisdom swirling around in my head: "It's better to break the spine of a man than of a book." Thanks to Google, I'm guessing that I heard Dan Simmons say it at some point when I went to one of his many readings in Colorado, as Google, surprisingly, does not turn it up as a proverb at all.

But anyway, as I've been toiling away at writing my own book this summer (progress report: two chapters of four written; one tough one and one easy one still to go, with a December deadline--uh oh), I've found myself quoting Simmons in my head as I've been writing in books as well as writing on them.

I was always raised not to write in books, and it's taken a long time to get to the point where I feel comfortable writing in books that I own: but the copy of the Norton anthology that I teach from now has writing in several colors of ink as well as pencil, and the notes I make are very useful indeed for finding my way through the dense pages of Norton prose, especially. So I thought I'd blog a little about books that are written in.

First, I want to note that the practice of writing in books is as old as books themselves, and medievalists often treasure the writing in old books as one of the clearest kinds of signs left by early readers. The image at the top of this post, from a 1559 printed book, shows how delightful early readers' comments can sometimes be: the small picture shows a manicule (a 'little hand') pointing out a key passage alongside a highly traditional "Nota bene" cipher: both forms of notation have their roots firmly in the middle ages. The second page from the same book (at the right) shows that this annotator is also interested in adding purley decorative touches his book: I especially like the little face inside the capital "O" half-way down the page (you'll probably need to click on the image to see it).

In recent years, I've marked up some of my own books almost to the same degree as this fellow: below is a page showing part of one of the Chronicle poems from my edition of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: these notes surely have significance only for me, and I despair of any future scholar being able to make heads or tails of my notes. So far, I can still follow them though, at least for the time being.
To my own surprise, this summer, I've even found myself on occasion writing in a library book (a line I once thought I would never, ever cross), and even more shockingly in a book owned by a friend. I try to keep marks in these kinds of books as minimal as possible: a tiny star in the margin, a single vertical line alongside a key passage. But I couldn't keep myself from writing "Hah!" in the margin of this passage from Derrida's Dissemination:

Finally, as a last example, I bought the following book when we were on vacation in Virginia last month: we stopped overnight in Charlottesville, and made out way to a couple of used bookstores. Another Colorado author, John Dunning, has a bookseller character say, at one point, "No one should ever write in a book except the author." But in this book, the author has written in it and the booksellers did as well, and I'm glad they did: I'd have no idea at all who the "Donald" of the inscription is, though I would have guessed that the "John" was indeed John C. Pope, author of The Rhythm of Beowulf.

I couldn't read the bookseller's note, though, but I asked at the desk when I bought the book. The old guy behind the desk pulled out a magnifying glass and took a look at the pencilled note. "E. D. Hirsch" he said. I'll never erase that bookseller's note: it's as important, in its own way, as Pope's notes to Hirsch.

Pope's Rhythm of Beowulf is a book I've wanted to have a copy of for a long time: it's a key book in my field that I might need to refer to once in a while. But Pope's note to Hirsch (and the bookseller's note that identifies it) makes this book interesting in a different kind of way: a record of the reading of one of the most controversial advocates of reading and education in our time. I don't have many illusions that the marks I put into my books (or others' books) will ever be equally significant: but neither do I feel like I need to feel guilty about them.

Write away, I say.


Susan said...

Feel guilty, feel very guilty about writing in library books :-)

I wish our library still put pockets & cards in the books for readers' comments. One of my favorites was in The Shipping News. Someone wrote, Ms. Proulx should look into getting a prescription for Prozac. I sure needed one after reading this book.

Tom said...

Oh, I do feel guilty, Susan! Merely trying to persuade myself I'm not as bad a criminal as I think I am in my heart.

Rosemary said...

I can't believe that you wrote a whole post about scribbling in books and didn't mention the Tremulous Hand!

This continues to be shocking to me, since I remember you lecturing me long ago about the fact that *I* wrote in books. Guess I'm a bad influence, eh?

Kyle Banker said...

Encountering a book with margin notes or underlining is often a treat, at least for me. Here's a photo from a book I recently purchased at a used book store:

Scribbling on Russell

The entire book was like this, carrying the marks and prejudices and summaries of two other readers. I was thrilled! The store owner had discounted the book because of the writing inside, and he wanted to make sure that I was okay with the "damage." Little did he know...

It's rare to discover the markings of a serial book scribbler, but such a person who apparently had had a lot of the same interests as I had one haunted the Michener stacks. I frequently found myself checking out books with this meticulous, ruler-assisted underlining covering perhaps 40% of the text. It was bizarre, sometimes helpful, but always reminded me of some ghost that had already tread my way.

This may be obvious, Tom, but if there are people who enjoying book markings, then there's no reason to feel guilty about writing in library books at all. Write for that reader ;)