Friday, February 5, 2010

The white perimeter

From "Marginalia" by Billy Collins:

"We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge."

I'm going to avoid the term "neat freak". Also "OCD" and "anal retentive". But I like things neat. My files at work, both print and electronic, are organized into sub-sub-categories, and my apartment is always uncluttered. My mom got me in the habit at a young age of making my bed every morning, and that fastidiousness grew to translate into every other corner of my life.

I've gotten better. These days a little jumble adds welcome color. My bedroom desk is besprinkled with Post-its, an odd paper clip and stray flyers or tickets, and well-thumbed magazines are drunkenly accordioned on my coffee table. Gone are the days of the rainbow-coordinated sock drawer and the oh-so-ginger transportation of books to avoid creases or crumpling. I remember when a classmate doodled on my empty notebook page in middle school before the teacher started class, I flipped to a fresh sheet when the time came to take notes.

But when it comes to annotation- or marginalia, as coined in 1832 by the keen margin scribbler Samuel Taylor Coleridge- I've always been a subscriber. In an eloquent post on the Guardian's Books Blog, Toby Lichtig expresses his fondness for "defacing" books with the smears and scrawls that herald ownership of that book. He writes:

"I'm not just talking about highbrow jottings: notes and queries, references and witticisms, the literary art of "marginalia". No, in my library anything goes: doodles, numbers, addresses, lists, recipes and the ensuing food stains."

I wholeheartedly endorse Lichtig's contention: your imprint on a book connects its flesh to yours. Your jottings, relevant or not, and your "mutilation"- Lichtig talks about torn covers, bathtub-submersions- will be forever bound to your experience of the book. In the manner of the if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods commonplace: if you don't leave your thumbprint on a book, what does it matter if you've read it?

My annotative habits include underlining resonant quotes, dog-earing pages with provoking passages, occasionally scribbling a phone number if the open book on my lap is the only available writing surface. I, too, can claim responsibility for a coffee stain or two, a dirt smudge from a book riding around in my purse. Needless to say, neat freak or not, leaving traces in a book I own is an inextricable part of the reading process. Not all readers and writers agree:

But I'm with Lichtig, and Coleridge, and the herds of twitching-pen-armed readers eager to eat the books they read. I know eReaders like the Kindle have annotative capabilities- I made my friend show me how she organizes notes on the psychology journals she reads for her grad school program- but what does a computerized list of remarks have to tell me about who, or where, I was when I read something? Or my mood? Or what was going on in my life? The organic nature of reading a real book owes much to this practice of annotation, in my mind, and I'm not giving it up without a fight. Or, at the very least, a considerable price reduction.

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