• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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When Your Dreamboat Turns Out To Be a Footnote

There was an article in today’s NYT (god forgive me for starting a post  with as lame an opening as that. I once had a boss whose entire social skill consisted of asking if you had read a particular article from either the WSJ or NYT. I always felt I had to read both papers when I worked for him and cram before I went in every morning, but I digress) about marginalia, where will it go in the digital age, who will care? I am big believer in the margins. The scrawls and doodles that make up a conversation between reader and writer. I once saw a project about Plath’s marginalia. I didn’t ultimately work on it, but it was pretty amazing stuff. A young woman went through Plath’s personal library and copied out her marginalia. It was as if Plath thought Dostoyevsky was personally writing for her. And the ways in which his ideas informed her poetry were also astounding to see. My marginalia is a touch more pedestrian. I once found an exclamation in my college copy of The Interpretation of Dreams in a passage about family destroying the self in which I remarked: that’s me! I also write words I don’t know in the backs of books and page numbers for passages I like when I don’t want to cock up the book.

Do you write in books?

74 Responses

  1. I started writing in books when I was 3. I drew pictures in the blank pages. Later I wrote in textbooks at school. I finally wrote comments in the margins as if the next person needed to know what I think while I’m reading. I don’t do this anymore. It annoys me when others do it. You also can’t resell a book filled with comments. Now I write my own books.

  2. Do bears shit in the woods?

  3. When it’s pertinent. My brother used to write in text books, things like, “In case of fire, throw this in!”

  4. I go through periods of writing in books versus not. Now I’m in a “not” phase because I’ve mostly been reading library books, and in my not so humble opinion, writing in a library book is a mortal sin.

    • Yes it is. And lord have mercy there seems to be a lot of people who don’t agree. I’m shocked to see how many library books are marked up. Shame.

      • If there’s one place where even a semblance of virginity is essential to an act of pleasure, it’s in a library book. The only thing worse than marginalia and underlining are stains and smears of unknown provenance. if a book has stains other than coffee or tomato sauce, back it goes, with a complaint to the librarian. Books that smell like cigarettes are the worst.

        I’ve only started marking books in the last five years. As I age, I realize I no longer have the long summer days and nights to read the same book a dozen or more times. I’m like a sponge, saturated with sentences. Better to squeeze some out before soaking up new ones.

  5. yes, so much so that i have to watch who i lend books to in case i’ve written deep dark secrets on any open spaces. i stick folded letters that i’ll never send between pages of my favorite stories–another reason i have to flip through the pages before letting someone else read it.

    • I bought A Hundred Years of Solitude at a library book sale because it had a letter stuck inside. I already had a copy of the book, but I couldn’t resist buying that letter.

      • I bought Sharon Olds’ The Father and found a gift note inside when I got home: To Kathy, best wishes for a spectacular future. Happy 50th. Love, Tom.

        I figured Kathy either had father issues or was about to dump poor Tom or both.

      • That’s great. You got another copy of a great book and another little story as well.

      • i read rosemary’s baby when i was in high school one night while babysitting my siblings. my parents were out most of the night and i had every light in the house on and woke the kids back up to play because my copy had several passages underlined and margin notes with scripture written beside it as if it were some sort of text book for a crazy person. it was the scariest thing i ever read.

    • Been known to do the same. And have some dealing with depression and eating disorder books with very personal scrawlings. Have loaned these to numerous people who say the books have helped and that they appreciated my drawing attention to certain points and passages–felt reassured, were entertained, etc. My family was and still is steeped in shame about various health problems including depression and anxiety. I am trying hard to be unashamed and to lift stigmas in my own small ways. We all have problems, this is not news. Why not be generous and merciful? Why not share openly?

      • I think the first step in dealing with a problem is recognizing and admitting to yourself that there is a problem. That can be one of the most liberating feelings in the world. A lot of people never get there. Realizing you’re not alone is pretty powerful medicine.

      • All our secrets are the same.

  6. Yes. Page numbers in the frontispiece and beloved excerpts on the end pages. Marginal punctuation marks, sketches and my own indexing. footnotes piss me off- a dominating one way street leaving me no way in. Need that blank invitation.

  7. It depends on the book, but yes. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the library frowns upon my marginalia.

  8. Always and forever.

    I run our town’s library book sale and contribute often to the our inventory, but worry about what our patrons eventually will find in my former tomes…criticisms about the validity of evidence, the urgent need to vary syntax, the objectivity of statistics, the weight of the words.

    I’m a tough owner. I should assign a discount to my books based on ink dispersal.

  9. I write, often illegibly and/or unintelligibly, all over the blank spaces in my books….usually suffering under the delusion I’ve discovered something essential or earth-shattering about my own work…more often than not, disappointed when I go back and attempt to decipher my ramblings. Though the marginalia do take me back in time to where I was when I was reading what I was reading…

  10. I don’t write in novels, but I write all over my research books. I highlight them too. Alright, basically I treat them like crud, but it is all done with love…

  11. Take my college edition of Wuthering Heights:

    Nelly thinks herself an omniscient character. Paradox!
    A lot going on beneath the text, as well as in the text!

    How painful, the marginalia. Shhh, rocket scientist at work.

  12. “Do you write in books?”

    When I write one, I do. More often, I write in short stories.

  13. I always read with a red or purple pen in hand. I’m like Amyg, I have to watch which ones I lend out. My books are as close to a diary as I have. I can tell how good the book’s going to be by how the amount of underlining and notes there is in the first few pages. My favorite thing is a big W I put for some awesome crafting that I want to learn.

  14. Need a confab re: your discombobulating ambiguation of cryptographic marginalia.
    And no highlighting library books.

  15. Marginalia…is this literary genitalia?

  16. Marginalia is the good stuff. And underlines, asterisks (typographical assholes), question marks, exclamation points, post-its, postcards, torn-out pages from notebooks, drugstore receipts, leaves, candy wrappers, ticket stubs, bus transfers.

  17. Yes. I’d have to say that the amount that one writes within the pages of other writers’ books is directly proportional to the probability of hanging oneself.

    • Once you’ve bought or been given a book it’s yours–that is, unless the artist would like his or her work to sit illuminated, gilt-edged and untouched in a hermetically sealed room somewhere. Maybe that’s what some writers do want–I don’t know any. But maybe that’s because I haven’t gotten close enough to kiss the ring. Just as well. Rings are not good kissers.

      • I agree. All I’m saying is that I wrote tons of shit in other writers’ books. It was one of the many manifestations of my mental illness. And that’s why I’m dead, communicating to you from the grave.

    • There is a difference between writing *some* notes in books and writing *tons.* Never said I wrote tons–I don’t. I have nothing against mentally ill people, though you seem to. Mental illness is painful, kind of like your jokes.

  18. No, I simply can’t do it. Not even in my research books. I’ll use post-it tags when I want to come back to a spot, but I cannot write in a book. No pencil, no ballpoint, no highlighter, not even an antique fountain pen. But then, I have no tattoos either. Ink averse, I guess.

  19. No way! But I wish I did.

  20. To expand on marginalia and include found objects … When I was a growing up my parents loved going to used bookstores, mostly during vacations out of state, as there were no used bookstores in my hometown. In fact, the sole bookstore there was a Waldenbooks. It was in a mall. We had two malls in my home city. Also a racetrack, an air force base, a bunch of fast food restaurants and Amish people. Don’t ask me what Amish people read because I don’t know. In any case, i adored used bookstores because that meant big solid books with odd titles and exotic (because old) prose. Some of these books also harbored small treasures, like a Valentine’s card from the ’30s, a letter, a grocery list.

  21. I do write in books. And I’m often horrified when I revisit the results–the infantile scrawl, the inability to anticipate how much room I really need for what I’m thinking. Sometimes I usurp the actual text area, trespassing on the sacred space of the author. And then there are those cryptic half-thoughts and nonsequiturs that seem rooted in reading-while-swilling-gin.

    Other people’s marginalia is so much more interesting, intelligent and far less messy.

    • Agreed, PS. Other people’s scribbles are far more intriguing. Like eavesdropping.

      That said, I recently got so distracted by the pencilled-in side story about the actual story that I want to smack ’em.

  22. Chronically. In fact, I made my first digital margin note today in the Kindle for PC edition of Pessoa’s A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe — something about Pessoa’s reference to Tarot cards reminding me of Eliot’s “wicked pack.”

    Well… it just wasn’t the same. I like the way pen ink or pencil looks on a page margin — the way it contrasts with the uniform, clean printed text. We are steadily losing so much — by the time we realize how much, it will be gone.

  23. Not since college. I eventually found it distracting, distancing – like waiting for your turn to talk when someone is telling you a story.

    If I want to take notes, I do it on the side in a notebook or on a sheet of paper I tuck in the back. It compartmentalizes the text and notes more comfortably for me, but I am a neurotic.

    Also, when I’d re-read those books years later, I would notice different things, accent different things, think my younger self was an idiot, or just sad, and that’s distracting too.

    I do dog-ear pages. If I can’t figure out why I did it later on, I undo them.

  24. My natural inclination is to scribble, doodle, underline and deface but that urge was squashed long ago. I’m a good girl now.

  25. I was always against writing in books. The nuns and all. Also somehow seemed disrespectful to the author. But then I was invited to a book club discussing my novel, and one of the women asked me several questions. When she opened the book to a passage, I could see that she had written extensively in the margins.

    I was thrilled.

  26. I’ll jot down page numbers in the front of a book, reminding me of passages that meant something to me when I first read them. On the page itself I’ll make small marks to the side, as unobtrusive as possible, denoting the section that caught my attention.

    I’m curious when I see highlighted or underlined sentences/paragraphs in a used book, wondering what someone else found so intriguing. I don’t like reading books when they’re all marked up though, especially when I don’t agree with what someone else found so compelling.

    • That’s a good point and an argument for writing in pencil or appending post-its with your notes. Then when you’re ready to sell books the comments can easily be erased.

  27. No. I’m always afraid that my insights and connections will be boring, inscrutable, or embarrassing. I also never took notes in college, because they were always inscrutable, if not boring. I love other people’s marginalia though.

  28. Not a big fan of marginalia, which if you don’t mind me saying sounds like some new kind of std. The closest I came to it (marginalia, not std’s) was in university. I did my undergrad in biochemistry, used to study in the stacks at the library and fall into deep, dreamless sleeps every single time, highlighter tip perched eagerly on the page, and wake up to find it had soaked through twenty pages or so. Doubt that future students will be doing any projects on that. “Wow, look at how he highlighted the Kreb’s Cycle, it’s like it was talking to him”.

  29. Nope.

  30. I rarely do, because my comments seem so stupid when I see them again.

  31. But isn’t part of the point that your comments might seem stupid when you see them again? They were just notes along the way, right? And you’ve learned since then or at least developed your vocabulary–or, less happily, reinforced your image armor.

  32. That said, there are certain books I won’t write in–art and architecture books, some poetry, Borges (the experience of whose work is complete, nearly perfect; no reason to submit near-perfection to gaudy questions).

  33. What’s interesting to me about this thread:

    Seems a lot of people curb marginialiac tendencies out of respect for the writer of the book. Curious as to why this is–as most writers will never see your copies of their book.

    Others (or maybe a subset of the above readers) refrain from making notations in books because they’re mindful of passing the books along to others–whether by giving them as gifts or selling them. They don’t want future readers to be forced to contend with their thought doodles. This reasoning I get. However many of the same people who say they don’t write marginalia seem to enjoy reading other people’s.

    • Good point about voyeuristic tendencies as related to marginalia. Part of it for me is that I find the notes and especially the highlighted passages distracting. It’s like when music videos were popular, back when MTV was young — I didn’t want to be told what I should think the songs were saying, but they were still interesting.

      Although I won’t desecrate a published work, I scrawl all over print outs of my work. There’s something about seeing my words on paper versus on the screen that causes my mind to think: REWRITE!

      • Right. It would be interesting to see the spectrum of what we each consider to be acceptable notations.

        Maybe the first category encompasses a tidy underline or checkmark here or there or one or two words writ small that will serve to remind us of an association forged or question considered when reading the passage initially. Some dogeared pages. Probably most people would be okay with this, I’m guessing.

        Second category involves colored ink (besides blue), a few wordy notes, large loopy punctuation, the occasional doodle of a frog with an exploding head. Not so respectful to the reader who inherits–or to frogs.

        Third, I think we can imagine. Purple-Sharpied Lacanian treatises that bleed through pages, overinked spidery asterisks everywhere, entire pages blaring yellow or orange highlighter. “SO meta!” printed everywhere with page-tearing ferocity.

        Will stop there, as I am scaring myself.

  34. I love writing in the margins of my books–I agree with the conversation aspect with the author. 😉 So personal… I encourage my students to practice annotation as much as possible, though I know several of them read from kindles. I hope marginalia (whether digital or not) never goes away.

  35. Rather a footnote than a tugboat, I always say!

    Same with notations: there is marginalia that allows anyone to have a reading group without having to clean the house, but the sad books that are hi-lited, underlined and additionally illustrated really need to stay with that owner (or remain stolen from the library).

    • I pay good money for my books and I can tell you they’re not at all sad to be marked up. Quite the contrary.

      • But they are YOUR books: those notes are the enhancements of your creative mind! They are now an extension of you – and that is wonderful. I was whining about the “sad books” that are so marked up and highlighted I can hardly focus on the original author’s text: like attempting to listen to two very different conversations at the same time.

  36. Absolutely. It’s a conversation with the author, the world, my brain, my mother, my conscience. Some are like diaries and yes, I’ve made a couple of very embarrassing loans. I am also a big page bender — more than writer these days as I’m too lazy to write, and also a highlighter.

    As to the NYT article, the headline made me so depressed I couldn’t even bear to read the article. Still can’t. I’m in denial. Marginalia and the rest are part of the reading experience. (Except of course library books. Why bother, besides the obvious moral contravention?)

  37. I have my mother’s Shakespeare anthology from college that I also used when I was in college. We both have notes written in the margins. It’s my favorite way to read Shakespeare.

  38. I don’t write in my books because I’m…too busy reading them.

  39. Mostly no, because I tend to give my books away and figure nobody wants to see my incoherent rantings. But I’m a crazy note taker, so there are always receipts and stickies and index cards and envelopes stuck in between the pages that are covered with scrawl and page numbers. Not exactly marginalia… more like ephemeralia.

  40. I wrote so much in the back of that dave eggers ‘heartbreaking work’ that I actually went back and edited it. It is so great I am thinking of posting it on McSweeneys Letters you know no one will answer thing. When I make notes in library books, I am very respectful and write very lightly in pencil. Sometimes I just say stuff like ‘This book is a turkey”, but sometimes I will even leave reference sources. I love leafing thru old college texts and seeing my cute little rounded handwriting.

  41. From what I have seen of the personal lives of The Famous (and, trust me, designers see ALOT) these people really walk a difficult path. They quickly learn not to trust anyone because so many sycophants are well-dressed, well-connected People; hiring maids and the gardeners is a nightmare because many leak info to the press; they schedule doctors’ appointments in other cities (or countries) under other names and their children can’t play at the parks without guards. Ugh.

    Never-the-less, I’d be willing to give it a try.

    • apologies to who ever may be reading this — due to my lack of computer sense, an 11 April reply got routed here – nothing like having a Monday on a Monday!

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