Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Praise of Book-Scribbling

In his English class, The Boy is reading Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon." Not the easiest book to understand, but he has a little bit of help. He's reading from his eldest sister's copy of the book. Her marks are all over the pages. Like signposts along the highway, her highlights and penciled-in commentary mark the way through Morrison's challenging text:

This got me to thinking about marking up books.

Most of us were raised to think that marking in books was bad, very bad. I remember in elementary school, on the last day before every summer vacation, we swapped textbooks around and laboriously went over every page, erasing any and all marks made by the last reader. (Thus publicly humiliating any child whose heavily marked-up book landed in his neighbor's hands.)

But past elementary school, the anti-marking tide shifted. Some teachers even began to grade down for not marking important passages in books!

If you've saved some books from your middle- or high-school years, you have a wonderful time capsule. The things you chose to underscore, even the very handwriting you used, capture who you were back then. And if you have marked-up books from loved ones who have passed away, you know how precious those books can be.

Here's a book from my first year of high school. (Look how little it cost!) I adored it and have kept it all these years:

Here's my 14-year-old hand, making sure this puppy wasn't going to get lost:

And if all that get-this-back-to-me info weren't enough, I slapped a fancy bookplate in there, too! I remember being ridiculously fond of those bookplates.

Glancing through the book, I came on this:

Clearly I was learning about metric feet in poetry. (This is trochaic, I think?) Does it bother me that "The Raven" is hatched up with blue ink marks now? Naw, I think it's cute; now I know when I first learned about iambs and spondees and such. (Engineering majors, don't worry about this paragraph. Feel free to blip over it.)

At the moment, I'm re-reading Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." I'm reading the copy I used in college, with my college-girl markings all over the book. So I come across things like this:

I must've really been impressed by this passage. I underlined it AND highlighted it! Also in the book, I found this little note at the bottom of a page:

That blue-ink note at the bottom of the page means, "like Mr. Ramsay in 'To the Lighthouse,'" which is another Woolf book. I betcha I was proud of myself when I found a passage in Woolf's nonfiction that harkened back to her fiction.

English majors get a buzz from stuff like that.

Of course, not all my youthful markings-up are quite so adorable. Here's a book of piano music that my older siblings used and passed down, from one to the other, for years:

Yeahhhh, that's my little artistic endeavor at the bottom of the page. Old enough to produce a credible-looking horse, I was old enough to know better than to do this.

Oh, good grief. A portrait of a lady in a hat, smack in the middle of the page!

This is outta control. I'm practicing my cursive handwriting in a music book? That means I was, what? 3rd grade? I wonder what in tarnation I was thinking, marking up my siblings' piano books like a two-year-old. Sorry, sibs!

Here's a far more charming example of a marked-up book. This is the endpaper of a very old copy of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." It once belonged to my mother, and before that, her mother, and before that, somebody by the name of "Marie Burham":

My mom even helpfully included her phone number, in case the book was mislaid and somebody wanted to get it back to her. (Reminds me of the way I marked up my English One Honors poetry book, above.)

Like mother, like daughter.

Here's another sample of my mom's marked-up books. She got this very snazzy, two-volume set of recipes published by "Gourmet" magazine in the late 1950s:

They came in a slip case, and Volume II even has her name emblazoned on the front in gold:

Inside, Mom wrote notes to herself next to recipes she tried. Some got the thumbs up:

Some she liked but gave herself cautionary notes:

And some she clearly did not like:

But my hands-down, favorite-ever marking in a book is this one:

Hee hee! So precious to have that, now.

If you don't mark up books, give it a try. It's fun to see your thoughts, and what captured your fancy, when you re-read the book years later. And it's an absolutely precious legacy to your loved ones who may delight in the book long after you and I are gone.

You have my permission to begin scribbling in your books, starting today.

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