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Some people are fussy about their books, insisting that the margins within remain pristine, treating each volume as a sacred object. Although I have a fair number of first editions, and like having them (I most like being able to find them for a song–Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov, hardcover first edition, $6–score; thank you, Bookfinder), I don’t treat my books tenderly. I don’t beat them up, but reading is involving, and I usually need to write in the book I’m reading.
Most of my marginalia is in a storage facility, out of reach and forgotten. This past weekend, though, I needed to find an old notebook, and so had to search through my fifty boxes to find it. It was in the forty-eighth box–but on the way I happened upon a great many other books that I couldn’t resist bringing home. Here at hand, for example, is my copy of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I bought it in May of 1993 (receipt used as bookmark) and read it later that year, in October, after I quit a job in Manhattan and went to live in a small town on the Adriatic coast of Italy. In my seaside bed, under an oil painting of Jesus with movie-star hair and a burning heart levitating in his chest, I read Gaddis’s first novel. Many of the margin notes I made in the book are referential: Gaddis packs in several libraries’ worth of references, and there are many terms (“homoousian”) and names (“Vainiger”) to chase down. Many of the notes are personal and, with time, somewhat cryptic: a moment in the narrative that reminded me of a moment in my life, and which I scribbled about in the white space. Roughly half of these seem to refer, at fifteen years’ remove, to another person.
But some notes are more useful. If “sentimentality” is mentioned on page 111, in reference to its absence (according to Wyatt Gwyon, the book’s central character) from flamenco music, it is nice to see, on page 127, that I’ve flagged another reference to “sentimentality” in depictions of the dead Christ being mourned by his mother. And there I have a range of other numbers that refer to later pages where the theme of sentimentality is reprised.
Of course, with Google Books, and even with Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature, one can do all of this without a pencil, much less a book. Even so, it’s a source of some pleasure to come upon one’s older books, and to see the work inside, both of its writer and of its reader, who, on some pages–such as during a notorious eighty-page party scene told almost entirely in dialogue–plum lost his mind:
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”