Certainly I am not the first person to pose the question “Do you write in books?” on a book blog, but ever since I saw the photos of some of the books the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas acquired from David Foster Wallace’s library, it has been on my mind. More specifically, I have wondered, why don’t I write in books?
After reading Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last year, and agreeing wholeheartedly that as readers, we need to slow down, become more conscious of the actual words on the page, I wondered about how best to put that into practice. For that’s another thing: to read in such a manner does take practice. It is not something one simply decides to do and overnight puts it into practice. Why? Because reading in that way involves nuance. It involves being aware of what the writer is trying to do with words, with story, but also what we as readers–or writers, even–might find that’s significant to us. It seems to me suddenly obvious that the best way to do this kind of close reading is to write in books.
The notes in Wallace’s collection are all truly his: he’s written lists of words to look up (in Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermeister Papers, words like “telluric” and “fructuous”); he’s written phrases or dialogue from the text in the cover (in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run); he’s written notes to himself about the narrative’s progress (in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, where he writes “Set up is slow–does not set stage”). What an interesting picture we get, of writer and reader, almost in a sort of dialogue with one another.
In school I wrote in books, but it was not a practice I carried over into my “personal” reading. I have copies of novels I read for classes that are full of pencil marks, notes in the margins, and sticky notes. But I have books from that same time I read for pleasure that have not a mark anywhere. At some point I must have drawn a line between reading for study and reading for recreation. But this past month, while I was reading The Magus, how many times I wished to have a pencil in my hand to mark some word, some phrase, some passage in the text I thought might hold a clue. Of course, even if I had the pencil in my hand, I could not have made a mark, because it was a library book.
It would be stupid of me to go back to buying books simply because I might want to write in them. The library is a terrific place to “test drive” a book that one might want to buy. Let’s face it: not all books are worthy of our marks. But the ones that are–I am beginning to believe not only that they deserve a place on the shelf, but they deserve to have some evidence of my communing with them, something more than little flags. Yes, this means reading a book twice, three times, or four times, to capture everything, an activity that seems next to impossible not only when one is trying to climb Mount TBR, but also when one is trying to keep up with reviewing books for an audience, however small.
Some people use notebooks to great effect (see Matt, of A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook). I’ve tried that and find it disconnects me too much from the act of reading. Fumbling with book and notebook, trying to keep my place or hold the book open while I copy words into a notebook, I find that I become too self-conscious about the whole thing. What if I am copying down a passage I won’t even want to use later? What if there is another one that would be a better example of the prose style here, or would better display that metaphor, or show how that character has changed? I find myself writing something down every other page, afraid I will miss something, or have to return the book to the library before I get a chance to get everything down.
No, it is more organic for me to think about simply marking with a pencil, although I admit, the last time I tried it (Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, which I wrote in but never about), I felt a little guilty. I still wasn’t sure. But looking at Wallace’s books, it seems to me worth the risk and the practice, at least for those books we recognize immediately as saying something to us, individually, as readers.