Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

SOUTHERN LIGHTS: Books Are Sacred; Treat Them That Way

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

SOUTHERN LIGHTS: Books Are Sacred; Treat Them That Way

Article excerpt

"In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of penciling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general."

-- Edgar Allan Poe, 1844

People have been writing in margins almost from the days of the book's invention. Medieval marginalia, in particular, has been a scholarly delight. A recent issue of Smithsonian magazine has illustrations of faces with pointed noses that someone drew in the margins of a 13th-century manuscript.

In more recent times, the discovery of marginalia by Jack Kerouac (in a book by Henry David Thoreau), Samuel Beckett and David Foster Wallace, among others, has excited educators and fans.

And who wouldn't want to have a book written in by some literary giant?

It's even become easier to create marginalia in e-books, thanks to innovations in commercial reading devices.

Marginalia interests me. I always look for it in used books. However, its status as a college town does not make Tuscaloosa a hotbed for collectors of writings or doodles in the margins of books. Most of the time, what you see is some professor's words regurgitated or an emphatic "Yes!" or "How true!" A lot of secondhand books are heavily underlined with yellow markers.

I do not like to find books like this (unless they were owned by famous authors or are rare 13th-century manuscripts). To me, a book is sacred and should never be marked up, written in or doodled upon.

I know many people take issue with me. A book, they say, is the property of the owner, and marginalia is a private act -- an affair between the manuscript and the reader. Looking at it later in secondhand stores is like reading someone else's private diary or love letters.

I don't buy that. To me, a book is a sacred thing. Writing in it - - even one's name and address -- violates a book's quality.

I have loved books all my life. The first I can remember, that I could call my own, was a copy of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," with an appropriate aquamarine spine and a drawing of a diver, complete with hose and helmet, on the cover.

I treasured that book for years. I wish I had it now. It opened up great worlds for me.

In high school, I fell in love with Chaucer, Salinger, Hemingway and Faulkner; in college, with Joyce, Beckett, various Russian authors, Welty and Wolfe; and after graduation with Borges and many others. …

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