When you read, you think someone else’s thoughts–which is why it’s interesting and good to read books by people whose experiences are different than yours. Sometimes, however, there’s an intermediary spirit in the mix. Pick up a heavily marked used book and you end up glimpsing another reader’s mental processes, too. Students experience this all the time, through used textbooks; in a boring class, you can even get a little obsessed by trying to extrapolate a personality from the highlighter marks and marginal jottings (as a certain Harry Potter episode demonstrates).
I’ve been contemplating this, in part through the lens of a poem I admire from the November 2015 issue of Poetry by Hai-Dang Phan. You should read it, but in short, the speaker traces to understand his father through the notations he made in a Norton anthology, for an English class he pursued after emigrating from Vietnam to the U.S. As I was writing a short discussion of it in my critical book’s introduction, I also happened to serve as anonymous reviewer for an article ms that concerns, in part, interleavings–the clippings etc. readers store in their books, and that booksellers often strip out before resale.
I’ve published a poem called “Bequest” that references the one book I own of my father’s, a Bible from Sunday School. On the reverse of the title page, my father, in a childish hand, penciled a reference to a passage from Job. It strikes me now as having some eerie resonances with the last years of my father’s life. Thinking about marginalia and interleavings, I suddenly remembered: wasn’t there a newspaper clipping, too?
Yes! My father was born in 1925, the Bible is inscribed to him in 1937, and the newspaper scrap references films from the 40s and 50s. They’re matinees, so this could even be from the 60s or later. How did it get in there, man? I guess I need to see Passage to Marseilles.
Sitting in my office Monday reading H.J. Jackson’s Marginalia, I started thinking about my own inscriptions. I make a lot of what Jackson calls reader’s indexes in the backs of books, especially when I plan to teach or review them. Here’s one from the back of Ann Fisher Wirth’s Carta Marina. This practice of making readers’ indexes goes back centuries.
And that’s not even to mention crumbs, food-stains, and other signs of the reading life! The grass-chain I left in a copy of Whitman makes the book awkward to handle–it’s a fragile remnant of a graduate school seminar held out on the lawn by Firestone library–but I feel too sentimental about that spring to discard it.
You will be relieved to know I don’t write, or store organic debris, in library books, but the remnants of other peoples’ readings don’t bother me. They clearly annoy others, because I was just wiping eraser dust yesterday out of a book of literary criticism–someone had underlined passages, and the same person, a librarian, or later reader effaced the markings. I find it more depressing, as Jackson says, when there’s no sign a book has been read before at all. Sadly, the library copy of his own book is pristine.
One thing I treasure about the older books in our university collection: some of them still have cards and signatures in the back. I often see traces there of professors long gone. For example, Barbara Hernnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure is on my shelf. The first library user, from 1970, was Sid Coulling, an eminent and much loved English professor who retired before I even arrived. I love seeing his elegant old hand. It increases my sense of participating in a community of readers. Sorry about the clementine, Sid, but as you know, scholarship is a hungry business.