Writing in the margins

I’ve never been able to write in the margins of printed books. I can’t even bear to underline sentences, and the few times I have done so I have felt slightly sick and not quite right in myself.

This morning I realised why as I sat reading, debating again whether I should do it or not. The book was Writings on Writing by May Sarton, which I recently bought at the fabulous Westwood Books in Sedbergh, England’s lesser-known ‘booktown’ in the Yorkshire Dales.

I usually write out quotes I want to remember longhand because I feel it helps me to internalise the idea or the image, even if I subsequently forget it as a conscious memory. I write them on a piece of A4 which is folded into quarters, which I keep tucked into the book as I read. Afterwards I keep the paper in a folder along with those from other books I have read, in date order.

This sounds more organised than it is – sometimes a folded piece of A4 gets left in a book for years before it makes it to the folder – at others they make it halfway there and then get lost in the piles of writing notes in my study for months on end.

The notes and quotations provide me with a ‘personalised’ abridged version of the book for when I wish to return to it, or when I want to locate a quote that has floated into my mind again. The entire folder gives an interesting (to me) ‘map’ of what I have been reading over the years.

Sometimes I use recycled paper, so I might also find hints about what else I was doing that month, that year, as on the reverse side there may be a print-out of a train booking, or an old version of my CV, or a page of a fellow-writer’s story that I read for them long ago.

But in this particular book there were at least three things on each of the first four pages that I wanted to note, absorb and come back to. Was it unrealistic to think of writing them all out if this frequency was to continue? Maybe it would be a good use of time to give in, just this once, and use my pencil directly on the pages of the book.


WP_20150514_001I’d rationalised it to the point where I had even picked up a retractable pencil (Ha! Retractable! Maybe I was still hoping for a reprieve for the book) when out of nowhere came the thought of how much that automatic feature on my Kindle annoys me – do you know it? The way the dratted machine automatically underlines the most popular quotations, based on the numbers of people who have underlined them across the world, presumably. It feels intrusive, breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief, but it is also like the act of ‘cropping’ a photograph – it leads the reader’s mind to one place on the page over another. It makes you look at just one daisy, rather than retaining the sense of a whole field of them in which you are free to wander.
WP_20150513_009But all books are ‘cropped’, in a way, by the author, and by the editors. Crafted. Parts of them permanently highlighted over others. And this sort of ‘cropping’ is an essential part of their journey towards being ready to be read, in my view. The manner in which an author crafts their work is a creative act, just as much as writing a first draft is one – and this crafting has a lot to do with how they create a distinctive, authentic and moving voice in their work. That voice is the connection, the bridge, that allows concepts and ideas and feelings to reach out to the reader, like that ‘hand’ which was immortalised by Alan Bennett in his play, The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

So I suppose that as a reader we do not have access to the entire ‘field of daisies’ that the writer has selected from in their first draft. Maybe we would make different decisions than they do about which daisies to ignore and which to focus upon if we did – but that is how it is – the author and the editor are in charge until the time when a book is ready to go out into the world and be read.

But once we, as readers, have it in our hands, we need to be able to absorb it in our own way; and this is where I do still feel that the automatic underlining that Kindle foists upon us (unless we can find the button that turns the feature OFF!) is an assault on that most intimate of intellectual freedoms. It is as intrusive and unsettling as someone who has already read the book saying to you ‘Have you got to the bit when the cat dies yet?’ when you have actually only got to the page just before the cat dies, when the blessed cat is on its way to the vet and still has every hope of salvation.

Am I being too limited, though? Should I look instead at what benefits there may be to adding my scribbles to the margins? After all, it could be interesting, in a good few years, to re-read this book of Sarton’s and discover which of her phrases ignited burning issues for my younger self, what words held a message for me then (now). It may offer a point from which I could perhaps measure my progress as a writer, how I had changed, and how I had not changed.

Or maybe the clashing perspectives of ‘me now’ and ‘me in the future’ would bring forth fire, a spark! On the fourth page of May Sarton’s book she says:

“… one of the springs of poetry is our strained relations with our own immediate past, the warring nations within the self; then the poem itself becomes a device by means of which this electric charge discharges itself.”

But if both these outcomes are valuable and interesting, then are they not worth the patient, gentle act of rewriting that I currently invest my time in? My over-riding instinct is that it would be a great pity if notes in the margins and underlinings on the page, made by my own hand and seen again in the future, in some way prevented me from fully experiencing this text again in that different, freshened, present moment.

I would rather allow ‘me in the future’ the chance to discover things not noticed this time round – I might see kingcups the next time, not daisies, or maybe flecks of hay, or waist-high meadow flowers, or even slicks of stinking slurry coating the pale winter grass with a super-dose of enriching plant nutrients; these alternative perspectives may be possible when looking at the pages again from a later season in my life.

The arguments are there for either side, and you may hold the opposite view; you are free to think that I am making a fuss about nothing and wasting my precious time with all this copying-out of Sarton’s words. But my mind is mind up, and I will take my notes in this delightful, spring green notebook.WP_20150514_004

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I bought it at the Turner Gallery in Margate in March, and every note I make in it will be ghosted by a remembrance of that stark, heart-stopping building looming out over the English Channel; the view from the windows was of uninterrupted, uncropped, blue-grey waves.

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(The photo of the sea from the Turner Gallery shows a detail of a very beautiful exhibit called atmosphere by Edmund de Waal)

All photos taken by myself, and permission was sought and given to take the photo in the Turner Gallery.

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6 thoughts on “Writing in the margins

  1. Agreed. I’ve never written on a book and can’t stand it when I find that someone else has…turning page corners down is also a criminal offence.
    PS I think I’ve managed to turn off the annotation feature on Kindle but I can’t recall how!

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  2. I use little post it slips to mark spots that I want to go back to. I think it depends on the book. I don’t mark up a novel but something I’m studying will get highlighters as no one else will ever have my book. I keep them, Forever. 🙂 I often write down in a notebook thoughts that the book has evoked. That’s why I am never without something to write on. I haven’t noticed that about kindle. Maybe I’m too absorbed to notice. Good food for thought though. Thanks.

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    1. Hello again! Thanks for your thoughts on this and for reading my post. I like highlighters as well – especially on work-orientated paperwork and reports. Any sort of colour-coding is very helpful, I find – and I love having different coloured post-it notes around. And, yes, I too keep (almost) all my books forever!

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  3. Yes, I’ve always hated writing in books, too, even in pencil. How to remember and digest ideas and thoughts generated by books…I’m thinking about having a small number of themes which will change over time, so that I can just focus on those and pull in ideas around them from whatever I might be reading at the time. Some of this I will digest further with a blog post or in a discussion with others – to give me an opportunity to use the ideas and develop them further as I ‘work’ with them. Thanks for the article, Louise!

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    1. What a lovely idea – I like themes. I find mindmaps on a particular theme are good – I have used them when trying to summarise a large amount of info at one go, but you have just made me wonder if they would work for when reading a single book, especially non-fiction, when one might be able to predict what the themes might be in advance (harder, maybe, with fiction – or maybe not!?). I may well try it on the next one I read. Thanks!

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