Fat Books & Thin Women


Writing While Reading
September 10, 2010, 3:04 pm
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Certain things about working in a school, watching students study with English textbooks designed for writing, drawing and coloring in, in which they are not allowed to write, draw or color, get you thinking about the physical aspects of reading and, more broadly, books.

Students, of course, write in their English books. They take the stickers from the back of the book and put them in their proper places. Now that we are at the start of a new school year, students are supposed to erase all the answers penciled in by last year’s fourth graders; I suspect that more than a few of them won’t do this.

When I was growing up, I treated books like sacred objects. I was careful not to crack their spines; I never wrote in them; I would sooner use a five-dollar bill or a piece of toilet paper as a bookmark than dog-ear a page.

Vladimir Nabokov, who lived and completed his ...

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Now, though, writing in books is one of the most pleasurable aspects of reading for me. Last year my mother mailed my copy of my favorite book, Ada by Vladimir Nabokov, to me, along with a few of his other books. Ada in particular has been so overtaken by notes, stickers, underlines, circlings of favorite or auspicious-seeming words, that I’ll never be able to loan it out; nor will I leave it behind in the Peace Corps library, for other volunteers, when I go home in a year. My history of reading Ada is contained in that book’s pages, and while I may buy a new copy one day so I can “start fresh,” I don’t want to lose the memory of my first, second, third times reading the book.

There’s something valuable in being able to track your own progress through a book. To see a giant question mark scrawled next to something I didn’t understand on first reading marks the necessity of rereading certain books. Nabokov, for example… I can’t begin to understand one of his books until I’ve read it twice, owing to the nature of his style and construction, the ways in which he plays with the time of the reader and the time of the book through his construction of the narrative.

Having until only four or five years ago been someone who wouldn’t dream of writing in a book, I find this shift kind of interesting. I mean, one of the things I don’t like about my kindle is that although you can take notes and underline passages, you can’t pick up a favorite book, flip through it until you hit an underlined sentence or a dog-eared page. Isn’t there something valuable in the visible memory of our reading histories? And even in glimpsing someone else’s history – buying a used book and trying to work out someone else’s notes, favorite sentences? Sometimes frustrating to discover you’ve inadvertently bought a marked-up copy, but sometimes you get something like my copy of Of Mice and Men, with every curse word scribbled out (a few times so hard the pencil went through the page) and with a suggested replacement written in the margins.

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