Blind monks examining an elephant, ukiyo-e print by itcho hanabusa (1652-1724)

Scribbling in Books

To “deface”? Or to “annotate”?

I developed a possessiveness about my books — my books, goddammit— by the time I turned twelve. That year, I bought a paperback edition of The Thurber Carnival (which I still own, and no, you may not borrow it) for 75 cents. Thrilled to have a book of my own which I myself had paid for, I must have imagined myself the curator of a vast library-to-be. And like the real librarians I’d already dealt with, I presumed it my right to mark my book as my own, although I didn’t have a fancy ex libris “Property of” stamp or stickers: there’s my silly seventh-grade “signature” right there on the very first page. (My vanity tracked my acquisitiveness pretty closely already.)

Gotcha, book thief.

And just in case you didn’t get the point and determined to swipe the book for yourself, I planted a proto-steganographic booby-trap inside, at the foot of page 186: another signature. As long as you never read “The Greatest Man in the World,” you might never know I’d always have proof that you stole my book.

I continued this practice with new books for a few years. It must have worked; no one ever stole them. But then I got to college and observed other readers doing something which flat-out appalled me: they wrote in the textbooks and anthologies they were required to purchase. They highlighted key (or just favorite) passages. They ball-pointed asterisks in the margins to draw their eyes to facts they expected to encounter on quizzes. On the inside of the cover and other blank pages they penciled little doodles — caricatures of the faculty, crude porn images, random geometric shapes, and argumentative and other personal asides like IDIOT, SAYS WHO?, ♥♥♥DR. VENKMAN♥♥♥, and DR. VENKMAN NEEDS TO KEEP HIS HANDS TO HIMSELF.

All this had little or nothing to do with the sacredness of the book as book. The opposite of book-respect, it made of books mere incidentals, tools to be done with as their readers wanted. This may have been a university steeped in the courtly manners and historic grace of the antebellum US South, but these people were, were… they were jackals, utilitarian Visigoths.

That’s when I stopped claiming my books with my signature.

In fact, I never again wrote in a book at all, not until I was over thirty. The book then was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; I’d read it a couple of times, loaned it out a couple of times, bought a second copy when the first didn’t return from its most recent loan, and then bought a third sturdier edition when the second fell apart. But now I had a new problem: perhaps my books themselves weren’t being stolen, but specific memories of them were — by time and age, by inattention, by the sheer volume of stuff I’d read, by the conflicting pushmi-pullyu priorities of twentieth-century American adulthood:

I’d be telling a friend about Pirsig’s book, and I’d vaguely remember (say) his remark that the real motorcyle you’re working on is yourself. But that wasn’t quite it; Pirsig said it so much better, damn it. I’d really want to provide the exact words and surrounding context; they added so much to the point I meant to make… But I couldn’t remember them. I’d never written them down. I might or might not remember that the passage was (or wasn’t) a third of the way in, and/or that it appeared (or didn’t) on a right-hand page, but jeez — much as I loved the book, did I have to re-mine the whole damned thing just to extract one glistening pebble?

(To this day, by the way, I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with another obvious solution: simply dog-earing a page.)

The thrill of breaking one’s own rules; the satisfaction of clinging to the familiar.

So I set myself a task I’d previously have regarded as anarchic: when I next had a chance, I would re-read all of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance… but re-read it at altitude, so to speak, with my eyes open for just the familiar landmarks. When I found one, I’d take a yellow highlighter to the page. And I’d flip to the back of the book, which conveniently included a couple of blank pages (as though it knew I’d be coming): there I’d write down a keyword or two, and add the page reference.

Oh, the horror of graffiti. Oh, the frisson of reclaiming my memory…

I’m on my second Kindle now, so I don’t buy nearly as many physical books as I used to. A couple of weeks ago, we held a garage sale. It was not our first; but for the first time, I plowed through all the unopened cardboard boxes of books which have — on the off-chance I might want to quote from one — followed me around for decades. I’ve unloaded (so far) three or four cartons’ worth on buyers who seem respectful of the physical objects as well as their contents. So the weight of my own reading life, in short, seems to grow lighter and lighter with each passing week.

Do not be deceived: Electronic 1s and 0s may not tip any conventional scales, but I’ve taken eagerly to the pleasures of searching, highlighting, and annotating my e-books, which in this respect are heavier with the weight of cherished memory than any of their physical counterparts.

I may recall laughing at that passage when John McPhee, say, writes of Florida orange groves planted on a ridge of “soaring” elevation, but I may not recall how high exactly that elevation soared. Which diminishes the joke (right?), and hence the remembered pleasure. But by gods, I know exactly how to find out. I don’t have to find the carton or bookshelf containing that one damned (but damned fine) book, which I shall then have to obsessively re-read (highlighting or not) on a Saturday afternoon when I should be reading at least fifteen other things. And no, I don’t have to run to the computer and connect to the damned Web, either. I just open the e-book and search my notes to find out (again laughing to myself): the ridge soars “two hundred and forty feet into the sub-tropical sky.”