There is a certain logic in the movement to eliminate the printed word in favor of the electronic one. People spend good money to buy a printed, bound, and glued collection of pulp which, in the vast majority of cases, loses its value as soon as one starts to use it. And we are all very much aware of the fact that previously read books are one of those categories of household effects which people tend to get rid of when they move.
When I moved back to the U.S. from London over a decade ago, I was confronted with the fact that I had bought so many books during the couple of years I lived in the UK, and that there was no conceivable way in which I could possibly take all of these volumes with me on the plane. I ended up leaving quite a number of them behind temporarily, and it took some dear friends with a spacious attic in Swiss Cottage, and two subsequent trips back with an empty suitcase, to bring them all home. I know, in retrospect I probably should have shipped them, but then again I would have been more anxious about their safety crossing the Atlantic, but whenever I visit any city I find myself coming home heavily laden with more books to read, so this is not something new.
Last evening I was going through “No Man Is An Island”, a book by Thomas Merton which I had bought many years ago at the Notre Dame bookstore, and which had gone with me to London and back. As with many of the books I purchased during that time in my life, it has quite a bit of underlining. For those of you who have not been to law school, you cannot appreciate how much you must underline and make notes in the margins of your books as a first-year law student just to keep up with your nightly reading assignments of 200-300 pages, any of which you might be called upon to explain in class the next day. You overcome the sense of wanton destruction rather quickly under such circumstances, even if you are, like I was, the sort of person who was always loath to write in a clean, printed book.
What I found particularly interesting, not having cracked open this particular volume of Merton in quite a number of years, was seeing what I had underlined when I was younger. The lined sections were either key elements of Merton’s arguments, or passages which spoke to me in a particularly personal way at the time I originally read them. Looking back and seeing myself in what I had chosen to underline taught me just as much as re-visiting the content of the book itself did. In fact, had I not underlined it in blurry, smudgy ballpoint many years ago, reopening that volume would probably have made less of an impact. I was able to see who I was as a younger man, pushing my way through graduate school, rather overly-educated, naive, and not having much of a clue, and compared him to the older man, now long-since finished with formal education and considerably less naive, but oftentimes still not having much of a clue.
While there are a number of books which one ought not to write in – first editions, folios, exhibition catalogues, and so on – it does fall to me then to endorse the habit of making handwritten notations on books at least in some cases, particularly where you do in fact stand a decent chance of going back to revisit a particular volume later in life. That does not mean every work of fiction or non-fiction which comes through your hands needs to have your own personal gloss put on the margins. Moreover if you are still in Catholic school when you read this, do not show Sister Mary Library my blog post and tell her that I told you it was okay to write in your textbooks – you have to return those books at the end of the school year, remember, and the last thing I need right now are angry phone calls from vicars of diocesan education .
Yet I would ask you to consider that even with the technology to make notes on your Kindle or other reader device, typing is still is not the same as drawing those lines yourself around words that strike you as meaningful, in much the same way that receiving an email, however heartening the details, is never quite the same as receiving a handwritten card or letter, however brief. Even in our supposedly technologically enlightened age, that piece of paper is still just a tiny bit more special than something which arrives electronically. Indeed, perhaps its comparative rarity nowadays makes it even more special, just like finding some old lines in an old book.
“Portrait of a Man Reading” by Parmigianino (c. 1530)
York Art Gallery, England