I’m three quarters the way through the first draft of my first book. When the world first went into lockdown last spring I figured it was as good a time as any to start since I was getting paid indefinitely to stay at home, but sometime in the summer I stalled and I haven’t picked the book up since.
When I still had momentum, writing two pages a day on the advice of David McCullough, I remember how receptive I was to anything that might relate to the book as though the days and weeks of consistent work turned me into a charged magnet. Because writing a book takes a long time and demands you venture into the unknown of the next blank page, despite whatever thorough research and outlines you may have, you can’t help but discover things.
A couple of years ago I bought a used copy of Masaoka Shiki’s selected poems from Amazon and found a dedication on the front page in pen to a previous owner. In pen. At first I was annoyed because, according to Amazon’s standards, the book was in ‘very good’ condition but I think what really irked me was that the book didn’t feel like my own any more even though I bought it used. As long as there are no traces of their passage I can ignore that other people have owned the book, but once I spot something I can’t erase (like an asterisk in pen) I feel it spoils the book, though not necessarily the knowledge within.
I can’t bring myself to scribble or doodle in a book (even lightly with a pencil) and I guess that’s because the perfection of the book is somehow more important to me than my potential learning. I remember I once owned a hardback copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations by Loeb Classical Library. It was a beautiful book. One day I got a smudge on one of the pages and, to this day, it still bothers me. Yet I also own What Do You Say After You Say Hello? by the late psychiatrist Eric Berne and that copy is dog-eared, underlined and falling apart. But I’m not bothered, and I think that’s because it’s a mass market paperback. Ew.
My argument for not writing in books is that I could change my mind and, if I do, then I’ve got to rub it all out. But do I have to rub them out? In Brain Pickings Maria Popova quotes Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book and he says, “Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it -which comes to the same thing- is to write in it.” I also love Sam Anderson’s quote that marginalia was a way to “fully enter a text, to collaborate with it, to mingle with the author on some primary textual plane.”
In ‘The Marginal Obsession with Marginalia’ Robert McCrum asks “What happens to marginalia in the age of the Kindle?” There are trade-offs for sure. My problem vanishes but for some the essence of marginalia is lost. McCrum says it “feels all wrong: something about having to call up a menu and type a note on the keypad, with its stud-like plastic buttons, makes the whole process seems forced and contrived. Marginalia are supposed to be spontaneous and fluent.” Me, I’m not so fussy.