A beautiful feature of books is that they, unlike their fashionable electronic counterparts, are not only written, they can also be written in. Annotation is an act of intelligent vandalism that I -- unable to participate in such defacing myself, having spent too much time in book conservation -- can appreciate. When you read with a pen in hand, it's less monologue and more dialogue, and that's exactly the sort of thing that can make reading so enjoyable. That is, unless you're an OCD freak like myself, in which case your pen is firmly capped, your pint of Smithwick's placed at a safe distance, and you check all your rearview mirrors before turning to the next page.
Fortunately, technology is on my side. Thanks to the invention of the mighty Post-it, and because I'm always hunting for excuses to crack open a freshly minted 3-pack of Moleskines, I tend to keep track of the stuff I read in places well outside of the book's sacred margins. I'm calling to mind an essay I read in the New York Times Book Review some time ago on this very topic. I flip back in my own small notebook, dated December 2008, a cream-colored Fabriano journal with red spirals on the cover, and sure enough, there are my notes on the article by Henry Alford: You never know what you'll find in a book.
There is nothing quite like walking into a used book store, taking down a book from the shelf, and unwittingly stumbling onto clues of the lives of others, revealed to you by what they have left behind in the margins -- or sometimes in the leaves of the book itself.
You open a book in a university library and out falls a yellowed letter with this curious first line: "Do not write to me as Gail Edwards. They know me as Andrea Smith here." Torn-out drink menus. Grocery lists. Business cards. Who were these people? Why is there a full-page Rimmel ad in the leaves of Faust? Forget CSI -- I want to join the ranks of UBI: used book investigator.
Because of my previously mentioned, er, tendencies (did I mention I go into tremors at the sight of a dog-eared page?), an inspection of my own bookshelves would yield little in the way of my own marginalia except for a three-month binge where I read everything by Nabokov I could get my hands on and was so blindsided by my enthusiasm for the stuff I just had to underline. I've left behind some loose-leaf evidence: crosswords from the Irish Times (I don't do them -- I just enjoy reading the out-of-context cryptic clues). BookCourt bookmarks. A few wayward Post-its. But more interesting are the strange confetti that fall from the pages of a used book unexpectedly. These offer far more cryptic clues, and they act as reminders that the book's journey started before me and will continue after I pass it on to another.
Which brings us to inscriptions. I tend to be, frankly, a little creeped out when I find these in the front cover of a book, most of all because I can see only two reasons for giving away a book with a personalized inscription: 1) the sentiment, heartfelt when it was written, has since been discarded, scorned, or forgotten or 2) someone died. Owning one of these marked books can be even worse. That heartfelt inscription is a constant reminder that the book will never be truly mine. It was intended for Marjorie, Merry Christmas 1962, and always will be. If it says on the ornate sticker Ex Libris Bradford J. Sebsad, then Bradford, as far as I'm concerned, that book is yours and always will be.
The Book Inscriptions Project is a great online collection of these mysterious hand-written dedications. But I find these a little easier to look at, maybe because they have already creeped somebody else out, and I'm just getting the morbid fascination secondhand.
I have to half-retract my scorn of reading things on a screen, though, because first of all, I write a blog, and secondly, I've spent enough time scrolling through the scanned marginalia of writers I love to understand the pleasure of seeing things written in a writer's own hand. If you want to know how to get me to waste a good half hour of precious time when I could be reading my Twitter feed, you'll give me the link that answers the question, "What words did David Foster Wallace circle in the dictionary?" Simply put, I love seeing the notes writers make in their books and manuscripts. Think of it as a literary version of the breathless Us Weekly feature about how stars are just like us. Famous Writers: They Scribble Notes, Too! I'm still waiting for the windfall that will allow me the extra pocket change to get Nabokov's The Original of Laura, which has been published, quite awesomely, and among much hullaballoo, as a series of scanned index cards with Nabokov's carefully pencilled script. Not quite the real thing, but deliciously close.
In the meantime, if you've come across a curiosity in a book -- whether it be a note scribbled in the margins, an odd underlined passage, or a sliver of ephemera that slid out when you first opened it -- I'd love to hear what you've found.