In college, I loved writing in my books. I took notes all along the sides, the bottoms, the title page. Sometimes I wrote diary-like entries detailing what was going on in my life; during those years, books took the place of the journals I kept before and since. Lat,er, I began highlighting passages I liked (or didn’t) and jotting down brief reactions to the text or story.
Then I stopped. I don’t know why, maybe because I started lending my books and became self-conscious about others reading my reactions; I might have suddenly decided that my books were sacred and scribbling in them was defacing them. Lately, I’ve tried to start again, but it’s difficult. Now it feels more like a forced act than a natural one.
In the Millions brilliant A Year in Reading series, critic Sam Anderson shows images of his marginalia. Some of it is constructive (“I like this glacial thought-drama; handling pace well” about Don Delillo’s Point Omega), much exasperated (“I’m going to punch this bk in the face if he makes this point again” in the margins of David Shields’ Reality Hunger). Mostly, it strikes me as natural.
Graham Greene’s library of more than 3000 books apparently contained 25,000-30,000 instances of marginalia. He used to jot down everything from shopping lists to story ideas in his margins. More than 300 highly-annotated books from David Foster Wallace’s library can be seen online at The Henry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.
Maybe I’ll start slowly, with underlining and dog-earing and work my way back into the act of pure and immediate reaction. Or maybe I’ll continue copying my favorite passages and reactions into my journal, which has become a combination datebook/sketchbook/photo album and commonplace book.