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Take Note

2010 June 22

This week The New Yorker had an interesting blurb about marginalia–specifically the marginalia in the New York Public Library’s rare books collection by famous writers such as Jack Kerouac and William Coleridge. Marginalia, a fancy term for the notes and underlinings scrawled in books, can take many forms. The column got me thinking about how the way we read is such a subjective and personal experience–everyone processes what they read in different ways. I know people who consider it a form of vandalism to make any mark at all in the books they own, while others underline with abandon.

I don’t tend to mark up my books too much, but I like to be able to underline memorable passages, preferably in pencil, but I rarely make notes or comments. It just makes the experience of reading more personalized. Joe writes page numbers on the last page of the book with a couple of words from the passage he wants to remember. I find the process a little cryptic, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of text as you’re reading.  I find it’s like a delightful game when I borrow a book from him and then flip to the last page to go back and see what he found the stand out phrases to be. They’re often different from the things I would choose,  and sometimes they’re the same. The picture, at left, is from the “Updike Marginalia” in Harper’s Magazine. From the page pictured, it looks like he has a similar method to Joe’s, but he also liked to make comments throughout the text, such as “too much throwing up” and “do we need this?” Apparently, many writers are better able to process the act of reading by writing.

How about you? Do you write as you read? Does it help you better understand or feel more connected to what it is you’re reading?

*cross-posted at Fringe

2 Responses Post a comment
  1. June 24, 2010

    Most of the time my bookmark is not a piece of paper, but is instead a pencil. At one point i had this awesome leather book mark with a tiny pencil attached to it with a string, but alas, it broke and i can’t seem to find a replacement anywhere.

    Now I find that if I’m reading a book and I don’t have a pencil in-hand, I get a little worried and nervous. “what if i come across the most beautiful passage I’ve ever read, and I have no way of marking it’s existence?!” “what if i need to yell at a character for doing something stupid!?!?”

    Ask anyone who’s borrowed a book from me — I underline and make all kinds of weird little comments to myself. Sometimes, at the end of a section I will even write a response. I think it stems from being an English major in college. I’m pretty forgetful, so when I would go back after reading to write a paper it helped that I had written my “in the moment” thoughts. A lot of those thoughts often generated really weird and interesting topics to explore for class.

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