It was a landmark of sorts, I guess. Should’ve expected it, really: only a matter of time. Yesterday, I saw the first book donated to the Book Fair with a sticky note from the author. It says something about the author, really: she apparently didn’t think the friend she was giving the book to wanted her writing her name on an actual page. The fact that it was a cute little kitty note, and the author’s handwriting was full of curlicues told me something else. (Especially as the book was about managing employees and never letting them think their job was too secure.)
We have discussed before the things you tell us about yourself when you inscribe a book. (I hope she didn’t really dump you, Ernest, even though you do gush a little. Still, it was a book of love poetry.) And your comments in the margins tell us something else again. A person who can read a 300-page book, just to write “Lies! All lies!” every few pages is probably someone worth knowing.
It occurred to me, looking at some other books we had come in before Labor Day (which tells us something else, but never mind) that you also reveal certain things about yourself by the way you underline in a text. No, you’re not safe even if you don’t scribble in actual words: it must be all these pop psychology books I’ve had to price.
I can only applaud those of you who developed the habit in early life of underlining words in a text if they were new to you. It would be interesting to know how many you actually looked up, but at least you were working on the first part of the problem. Similarly, we had a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor in which every phrase in French was underlined. But was that what motivated the person who, in this popular comic novel of the 1940s, underlined every word of profanity in the text? Or were you showing future readers the words they ought to skip?
Similar, I think, are the mystery and suspense novels—this often happens with James Bond—in which a reader has underlined every reference to a gun. I’ve read articles by mystery writers which explain this. “If I put a city in the wrong part of a state,” they say, “I’ll get a dozen letters. If I make one technical mistake about a gun, I get five hundred.”
I have had a LOT of books from the easily-impressed. The whole point of underling or (shudder) highlighting is to single out something of great importance. What am I to make of people who underlined every single sentence for fifteen consecutive pages? I guess I know what to think about people who highlighted an entire chapter and then underlined whole paragraphs of the highlighted text. But thoughts like that irritate my ulcers. And you knew I was going to mention again the lady who not only dogeared her texts but double and even triple dogeared some pages, until the book was three times as thick at the top as at the bottom. (She would also highlight on the dogeared pages. How do you learn any of it if you’re so busy marking it?)
When whole paragraphs are crossed out, and lines drawn from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes with a word or two between, I know that means you were probably preparing a text for reading aloud. This is very common in plays we get in (though this may indicate you were part of a company presenting a condensed performance: same sort of thing.)
I never have figured out, for sure, this copy of Watership Down, in which every reference significant to the spiritual life of the rabbits in the book has been underlined. Was this for your own enlightenment, or were you writing a dissertation? I suppose that’s the point, too. Only you can be really sure WHY you underlined a text, as only you know what came after. Unless the act of underlining fixes the information in your brain, underlining makes sense only if you planned to go BACK to the text. Did you? The fact that no one but you knows the answer does make that book distinctly and exclusively yours.
(Which is why your Uncle Blogsy throws a lot of these away. People like a fresh copy, so they can do their own personalizing. Do YOU wear PJs with someone else’s monogram? Please don’t answer that question. I’m satisfied learning what I can from your books.)