As a work-study kid in college, my required reading lists relegated me to shelf upon shelf of used books. I recall finally finding a way to appreciate Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway only to have my hard work shattered by a series of margin notes by the previous reader highlighting the many ways the story had gone on too long and offering to put Mrs. Dalloway out of her misery. This had been my experience with margin notes. Contrary comments, shallow insights, and expletives interspersed with food stains. To me, margin notes are the written equivalent of an audio dub – sometimes helpful, sometimes annoying, and unbelievably impossible to ignore.
So, an interesting thing happened a while back when a good friend lent me a book I had been waiting to read. The characters sounded fascinating. Some were fragile and afflicted. Others were downright conniving. And since I could identify with both types, I was excited at the prospect of having new imaginary friends – even if only for the next 400 or so pages. But the book came with a caveat. You may have guessed it – margin notes. Still it had been more than 15 years since college and maybe things had changed. I said that I didn’t mind, but I didn’t count on actually enjoying the notes Dawn made while reading Her Fearful Symmetry for review.
The margin notes this time around were different. They were smart and led me to pages I had read hours before to follow parallels my friend had drawn that I had not. They left me wondering why she was moved to horror when I was barely nudged to dislike and feeling relief to find she smiled at moments that made me smile as well. Her notes were also candid. And while, I initially felt like a reluctant voyeur, her honest examination of her own reactions to the book encouraged me to pursue a closer examination of my own. What typically would have been a rather solitary act became a selective and extremely personal book club – a portable one that fit my schedule perfectly. What’s more, I made a friend connection that has lasted well beyond the 400 pages of a book.
I have read one other book with margin notes since – a stranger’s notes in a book I checked out from the public library – but the experience took me back to my college days. And while I no longer groan at the thought of margin notes, a personal connection with the previous reader seems to be essential for me. So, after this experience, I’ll continue scouring friends’ bookshelves. Only this time, I’ll consider those occasional scribbles in the white space to be lucky finds.
Guest contributor Tammy Colandrea has constant access to reviewer Dawn’s bookshelves. When she’s not reading for her own interest, she’s sharing her love for books with her two adorable preschool-aged children.
Tammy–so glad you could contribute. What a great essay!
When I was in college, I tried to avoid heavily marked texts as well.
I do think that reading a friend’s notes would be kind of interesting (and especially Dawn’s notes).
Tammy, I loved reading your thoughts on this, since I remember loaning you that book and giving you the warning that you might get annoyed by the incessant notes in the margins! 🙂
Thanks so much for your contribution!!
I have a friend who makes lots and lots of notes as she reads…deep and insightful ones. Sometimes I wish I could be more like her so that I could remember things better. Instead, I get so caught up in the reading that I barely make time to underline.